A Mission Impossible on Israel's Frontiers

Letter from the Golan Heights

A member of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) looks through binoculars at Mount Bental, an observation post in the Golan Heights that overlooks the Syrian side of the Qunietra crossing, August 31, 2014. Baz Ratner / Reuters

On a recent trip to Mount Bental, an extinct volcano on the eastern edge of the Israel-occupied Golan Heights, I noticed a UN peacekeeper waiting in uniform at a café called Coffee Annan—a pun on Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general. The soldier, wearing his fatigues and a light blue UN baseball cap, seemed awkwardly out of place among the chipper tourists drinking cappuccino and buying baubles at the gift shop.

Although the café is at the summit, it is not exactly in the clouds—annan is also “cloud” in Hebrew. The mountain is only 3,842 feet high, but it provides a stunning view of the valley below, which was a battleground during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. One can also look eastward, far into Syria where the civil war has forced peacekeepers, like the one I met at the café, to evacuate to the Israeli side of the border. For months now, the soldiers have been reduced to patrolling, or attempting to patrol, a swath of Syrian borderland. But from such a great distance, it is practically impossible to monitor anything. Instead of being stationed on the ground, they are up with the tourists, gazing upon the vista alongside them.

The peacekeeper I encountered is hardly unique in his inability to meaningfully carry out his job. He is among the 14,000 peacekeepers assigned to one of four different operations in a region where there is little peace to keep. The missions cost almost $700 million a year to maintain. But because of the security situation of Israel’s neighbors, they are currently unable to accomplish much of anything.


These four peacekeeping missions were set up over the years to deal with the aftermath of the wars that Israel fought with its neighbors. All of them involve monitoring the borders to ensure that the areas are free of illegitimate guns and fighters, but their mandates do not call for imposing peace when a government loses control of its territory. As a result, because of

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