A Roaring Absence of Failure

Today’s slide show: Images from the Golan

Peacekeepers get a bad rap, and it’s not hard to see why. Time after time, warring parties have slaughtered one another in their presence, sometimes on a massive scale. U.N. troops were present when Rwandans butchered Rwandans in 1994 and when Bosnian-Serb forces overwhelmed Srebrenica in 1995. When peacekeeping troops are present and peace prevails, we still don’t give them much credit, assuming instead that the warring parties don’t really want to kill each other anyway. Peacekeeping is one of those jobs in which success is hard to measure because it’s mainly visible in the absence of failure.

I recently visited the front line between Syria and Israel, two countries technically at war, although calm has mostly prevailed on their border since 1974. If either country chose to launch an all-out invasion, the U.N. forces in the middle couldn’t do much to stop it. Nevertheless, I see UNDOF, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force stationed here, as a success.

The Golan certainly didn’t look like a war zone as I traveled south from Damascus. The villages were busy with people and traffic and surrounded by lush, green fields. Here and there, though, sprouting like poisonous mushrooms in the grass, I saw metal signs marked with crudely drawn skulls, denoting the presence of mines.

UNDOF’s Camp Faouar looked like summer camp for grown-ups. The cabins were set among pine and cypress trees and decorated with national flags—Canadian, Polish, Japanese. There were tennis players on the court and men jogging along gravel paths that cut through patches of wood. The sky was blue and the snow-covered peak of Mount Hermon glinted in the sunlight above.

This was headquarters for the 1,185 soldiers tasked with enforcing the Syrian-Israeli cease-fire that followed the October (or Yom Kippur) War of 1973. Inside the command center, Maj. Siegfried Perr, who is Austrian and wore a blue beret, gave me a slide show briefing. He showed me lines upon lines upon lines: borders at various dates, lines of advance in various wars, lines of withdrawal. Two of the lines marked the so-called Area of Separation, a narrow, 45-mile-long strip of land that runs from the heights of Mount Hermon in the north to Wadi al-Raqid, which is below sea level, in the south. Neither country may have military equipment or personnel in this area. On its side, Israel has built a six-and-a-half-foot-high “technical fence,” Maj. Perr said, which sets off an alarm if it is touched. From the Syrian side, though, other than a checkpoint on the road, there is no obvious sign that you have entered the zone. The area is home to more than 50,000 Syrian civilians, up from 5,000 in 1974, and benefits from new roadways and government-funded construction.

Other than patrolling the Area of Separation, the things UNDOF does may seem small. They are the sorts of things development experts call “confidence-building measures,” which would be easy to dismiss as so much U.N. jargon. But they make daily life more palatable for ordinary people, which is not something that should be dismissed.

UNDOF provides medical assistance to local civilians who come asking for it. It also does demining work, ridding the landscape of the bitter crop sown by both sides in 1967 and 1973. Mines still sometimes kill local villagers and their livestock and have been responsible for some of the 49 UNDOF deaths since 1974.

UNDOF also helps people cross the border. When Israel captured the Golan in 1967, Syrian villagers came with the territory. They number some 20,000 today and are mostly of the Druse sect. Young men from these communities sometimes travel to study in Damascus. Brides may also cross to join their new husbands, a choice that usually means they will never see their own families again. And, as of the last few months, apple trucks have been allowed to cross, bringing produce from the Golan to market in Syria. In a rare show of cooperation between the two countries, Syria is importing about 7,000 tons of apples grown by Golan Druses.

So, what is UNDOF up against? I’ll give two examples. One is the town of Quneitra. Unlike the rest of the Area of Separation, Syria has preserved Quneitra as a ghost town. It had suffered damage in 1967, when Israel first seized it along with the rest of the Golan Heights. Syrian forces shelled it in subsequent years, and it was the site of fierce fighting during the October War, changing hands several times. The subsequent cease-fire required Israel to hand Quneitra back to Syria. What happened next remains the subject of a propaganda war. Syria says that all the houses in the town were systematically destroyed by Israel, while Israel says the destruction was the result of the preceding battles. In his briefing, Maj. Perr said that “as a provocative act it was flattened and destroyed by the IDF before it was returned to Syria,” but asked about this later, his force commander told me merely that there were competing claims: that Quneitra was destroyed during the wars, that the Israelis did it just before their withdrawal, and even that the Syrians did it after the withdrawal to burnish their monument to Israeli perfidy.

I couldn’t read any tales from Quneitra itself. Aside from a church, a mosque, and a heavily damaged hospital, the town is a field of rubble heaps. Hundreds of homes rest in eerily similar piles. A large slab, once a flat roof, juts up from almost every one.

Whatever the source of the destruction, Quneitra has been frozen in this state for clearly political aims. Lest there be any doubt, the sign in broken English on the hospital makes it clear: “Destructed by Zionists and changed it to firing target!” This preservation of defeat represents feelings about history and loss that I find difficult to understand. Isn’t the enshrining of destroyed Quneitra a case of cutting off the nose to spite the face? What kind of society shows off its failures this way? Can anyone imagine Americans preserving the destroyed World Trade Towers as ruins? The citizens of an industrious, optimistic, successful civilization would find the very idea ridiculous. Whatever else it is, this preserving of wounds is a weapon of the weak, a last resort of the defeated. But it also suggests a profound unwillingness to move on from war to peace.

My second example occurred last week, following the first violent border incident in two years. (The last took place in early 2003, when Israeli soldiers killed a Syrian civilian down in Wadi al-Raqid, where the Area of Separation is only 220 yards wide.) This time, a Palestinian from a refugee camp inside Syria managed to cross the border and fire on Israeli soldiers, who captured him. Afterward, according to a wire service report, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman blamed Syria for “allowing” the infiltration, although Israel’s alarmed fence and vastly superior defense forces apparently didn’t detect him either. The spokesman called the incident a “grave violation” of the security arrangements in place and said, “The Syrians should not be allowing armed terrorists to cross the border.”

This verbal transformation of lone gunman into proto-invasion shows another leadership with a taste for escalation. We may give U.N. peacekeepers a hard time, but their daily work on this border goes a long way toward keeping the war in the realm of words.