The question of how the war in Gaza is conducted and should end is driving a wedge between the US and Israel, and so it should. As former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton said last week, any peaceful resolution is going to require new leadership for both Israelis and Palestinians. Hamas would not be allowed to continue ruling Gaza, meaning someone else would. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Saturday ruled out the Palestinian Authority, headed for now by the 87-year-old Mahmoud Abbas, or any international administration. Yet enough Israelis are enraged by Netanyahu’s failure to prevent Hamas’ Oct. 7 killing spree that it could be just a matter of time before he, too, has to step aside.
Yet planning for what follows needs to begin, even without his cooperation. The US is trying to prepare, seeking agreements in principle from Abbas and Israel’s Arab neighbors to a post-war reset that assumes a future Israeli recommitment to the two-state solution. Once that is in place, it is also clear that some kind of transitional order would be needed in Gaza, but it is even harder to imagine how that might work. Netanyahu has said that Israeli troops would remain indefinitely, but a political transition cannot succeed under those circumstances. A force provided by Arab nations would make sense, but why would they take political responsibility for cleaning up Israel’s mess? Any peacekeepers associated with the US or its allies would become an instant target. While Hamas might accept military personnel from Turkey or Russia — both of whom are eager to assume bigger roles in the Middle East — Israel might not trust them. That leaves the UN, widely dismissed due to its dismal record in keeping the peace where it did not already exist. The list of horror stories — from Bosnia to Rwanda — is long. Yet there is one success story that offers useful lessons to any transition force, or even a model: the 1996-1998 mission known as UN Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium (UNTAES), to a 2,600km2 area of eastern Croatia.
Some parts of the region’s story are eerily familiar. Vukovar, a town with a mixed prewar population of 44,000, had been Croatia’s Stalingrad — or perhaps soon its Gaza City. After holding out for three months in 1991, it was turned to rubble, strewn with bodies left to rot during the siege. Rebel Serbs ended up in charge for more than four years, with Croats either driven out or killed. Then the balance of forces shifted and a transition was needed to restore Croatian control. Passions were still high, unemployment stood at 70 percent and virtually every household was armed. After previous UN peacekeeping disasters across Yugoslavia — when lightly armed blue helmets proved inadequate to protect “safe areas” such as Srebrenica, and thousands were massacred — there was a determination to get UNTAES right. The mission was unusual in a number of ways that could be instructive for any potential transition force in Gaza.
The first is that UNTAES was heavily armed and had a Chapter VII UN mandate to use force. About 1,600 Russian and Belgian troops already in the area were joined by another 3,400, including Jordanian and Pakistani mechanized battalions and a Ukrainian helicopter unit. The considerable number of tanks, armored personnel carriers and gunships was thought necessary as there were still between 8,000 and 12,000 Serbian fighters in the area, themselves armed with tanks and APCs.
Second, whereas previous UN missions had been sent into Croatia and Bosnia with vague mandates to prepare for a potential political settlement, UNTAES was sent to implement an agreed-upon transition of one to two years, during which it would ensure security, the right of safe return and elections. The Serbs understood they had no prospect of victory if they chose to fight and, as a result, the transition — including their demilitarization — went smoothly.
Third, the mission was one of a handful in UN peacekeeping history to be given full authority to administer the territory, rather than having to act at the discretion of a host state. The task was to hand over control to Croatian authorities at the end of the transition period, but how to get there was up to the UN personnel on the ground. In the meantime, the mission ran local services by retaining — rather than purging — the rebel Serbian authority’s functionaries. A mass grave was uncovered, indicted war criminals were pursued and, in one case, arrested.
Fourth, the mission had its own police force and had been proven politically adept. It used the Croatian government’s impatience to retake control of the region to force its hand on such thorny questions as issuing passports and papers to ethnic Serbs. UNTAES ran a local-language radio station and town hall sessions to explain its role and hear from residents. The territory was much larger than Gaza’s 140km2, but had a smaller prewar population of 550,000, which by 1996 had been reduced to 194,000. It was awash with weapons. Soldiers were disarmed and demobilized, but rather than try to disarm frightened civilians by force, the mission instituted a buyback program, collecting about 10,000 rifles, 7,000 anti-tank rockets, 15,000 grenades and 2 million bullets.
Last, force composition was vital. Serbs trusted the Russian peacekeepers; the large non-Russian contingents reassured returning Croats; a US diplomat placed in overall charge of the transitional administration gave comfort to the Croatian government that the mission would stick to its goals.
Even many local Serbs came to see UNTAES as improving their personal security. There had been little rule of law while the territory was under rebel control, and a constant fear that returning Croatian police would force their way in to exact retribution. That is a situation not dissimilar to Gaza, where the rule of Hamas has been brutally repressive.
Still, UNTAES is not a perfect model for Gaza, which would be a far more difficult and explosive proposition, occurring at a more geopolitically complex time than the US-dominated 1990s. Whereas Serbian fighters had accepted defeat by the time UNTAES took over and the question of Eastern Slavonia’s political status was all but resolved, Hamas is less likely to lay down arms and the question of Palestinian statehood remains very much in dispute.
Yet the lessons for Gaza are there to be applied, remembering that whether a UN force is weak or strong is not up to the institution’s bureaucrats, but the member states of the UN Security Council. Any transition force should, first and foremost, be heavily armed and have a clear mandate to use those weapons as needed. It should have full administrative powers for the territory, with a clear transition plan to implement and a timeline in which to do so. Absent a territorial settlement, there must be at least a credible, public commitment to negotiations that could lead to one. The force should be substantial, include trained police, and its composition should be chosen carefully to ensure that locals trust the peacekeepers they meet, while Israel could trust the peacekeeping force’s overall commanders. This is difficult but it could be done, and by the UN, because it has been done before.
Marc Champion is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe, Russia and the Middle East. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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