Press Kit
Fact Sheet 9

Today’s Peacekeepers


The Herald Tribune reported on 10 June 1948, “Count Folk Bernadette, United Nations Mediator in Palestine, announced tonight that Jews and Arabs have agreed unconditionally to a four-week armistice.  The announcement was made in a message from the UN Mediator to Trygve Lie, United Nations Secretary-General.  Mr. Lie said that plans were being rushed to ensure strict observance of the cease-fire.  The arrangements called for Belgium, France and the United States to supply both vessels and military observers.  He said each country had been asked to send twenty-one military men.”

 This report described the beginning of the first peacekeeping operation in the history of the United Nations, officially named the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO). The first group of UN military observers arrived between 11 and 14 June and were deployed in Palestine and some areas of the neighbouring Arab countries. However, 29 May 1948 is considered the start of the operation, since on that day the Security Council, in Resolution 50, decided to deploy military observers with the mandate to assist the UN Mediator in the supervision of the truce between Israel and Arab forces.          

 After a four-week truce expired, and large-scale fighting erupted again between Israel and Arab forces, the Security Council, in resolution 54 of 15 July 1948, ordered a cease-fire of indefinite duration.  The second group of military observers was deployed to each Arab army and each Israeli armed group, as well as in Jerusalem, the coast, ports and airports of the truce area. They also accompanied convoys between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

 With the conclusion of four General Armistice Agreements between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, in 1949, UNTSO’s function was extended to assist the parties in supervising the application and observance of those Agreements. UNTSO also became an autonomous operation, officially a subsidiary organ of the UN Security Council, with the Chief of Staff assuming command.

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Fifty-five years later, UNTSO’s 153 military observers, supported by UN international and local civilian staff, are still deployed throughout the region and their mandate has not been changed since.  They continue to observe and maintain the unconditional cease-fire ordered by the Security Council, pending the final peace settlement, and to assist the parties, as necessary, in supervising and observing the terms of the Armistice Agreements.

Presently, UNTSO maintains its Headquarters in Jerusalem, with offices in Beirut and Damascus, and operates in the areas of Southern Lebanon, the Golan Heights and Sinai.

 Military observers assigned to the Israel-Syria sector are attached to UNDOF (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force) and carry out their tasks under the operational control of the UNDOF commander, but remain under command of the Chief of Staff of UNTSO.  Operating out of Tiberias (Israel), Damascus and Camp Faouar (Syria), they continue to man eleven observation posts located near the area of separation on the Golan Heights and in the vicinity of the lines on both sides, and they conduct fortnightly inspections of the areas of limitation in armaments and forces provided for under the 1974 disengagement agreement. 

The observers in the Lebanon-Israel sector, assigned to assist UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) in fulfilling its tasks, are placed under the operational control of the commander of UNIFIL, but also remain under command of the Chief of Staff of UNTSO. The Security Council stipulated, however, that the military observers of UNTSO would continue to function on the Armistice Demarcation Line after the termination of the mandate of UNIFIL.  At present, they operate from Naqoura (South Lebanon), maintain four patrol bases along the Lebanese side of the Blue Line, conduct patrols and investigations and carry out liaison duties with parties active in and around the area of operation.

 UNTSO observers in the Egypt-Israel sector are based in Ismailia (Egypt), and conduct patrols along the Suez Canal and throughout the Sinai peninsula except for an area under the Multinational Force and Observer (MFO).

 In addition, UNTSO has been maintaining the machinery for the supervision of the Armistice Agreements in those sectors where no peaceful settlement has been achieved.  The Chief of the UNTSO office in Beirut and Damascus is the nominal Chairman of the Israel-Lebanon and Israel-Syria Mixed Armistice Commissions, respectively.  Although Israel denounced the Armistice Agreements with Lebanon and Syria after the war of 1967, the United Nations position has been that there is no provision in the Agreements for unilateral termination of their application.

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What can be said about UNTSO’s achievements?  Could a peacekeeping operation be considered successful if its mandate is still the same and the main goal unfulfilled after 50 years?  Consider UNTSO’s accomplishments during this time.

The region has experienced a number of wars since 1949, which changed the territorial cease-fire lines, and therefore affected the way UNTSO has functioned and deployed its military observers.  Following the wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973, UNTSO has moved with the cease-fire lines and has also adapted to developments in bilateral relations and agreements.

 Between 1949 and 1967 observers continued to conduct patrols along the Armistice Demarcation Lines, supervised a neutral zone of the Holy City and two demilitarized zones in the El Auja area (Israel-Egypt sector) and near Lake Tiberias - the Ein Gev and Dardara areas (Israel-Syria sector).  In the 1950s a number of observation posts were established along Israel-Syria demarcation line.  UNTSO observers also cooperated closely with the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF I), which was deployed in the Sinai.

Following the 1967 war, UNTSO observers demarcated the cease-fire lines and established two cease-fire observation operations, in the Israel-Syria sector and in the Suez Canal zone.  In 1972, a similar operation was set up in southern Lebanon, but without the specific agreement of Israel.

The 1973 war, through which UNTSO continued to function, resulted in a further arrangement which included the establishment of a new armed UN force (UNEF II) tasked to man a buffer zone in the Sinai Desert.

 The functions of UNTSO changed in the light of changing circumstances, but its military observers remained in the area, acting as go-between for the hostile parties and as means by which isolated incidents could be contained and prevented from escalating into major conflicts. The military observers operated with the consent of the parties, and were dependent on the cooperation of the parties for their effectiveness.  There is no element of enforcement in their functioning.

UNTSO’s main responsibilities were also related to the work of the Mixed Armistice Commissions (MACs), set up by the Armistice Agreements between Israel and four Arab countries.  The Commissions were composed of an equal number of members from each side, and chaired by the UNTSO Chief of Staff, or a senior officer designated by him. The main task of the Commission was the investigation and examination of the claims or complaints presented by the parties relating to the application and observance of the Armistice Agreements.  UNTSO observers assigned to each Commission carried out the investigations of complaints submitted to the Commission.

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UNTSO has played, and continues to play an important and positive role in the turbulent Middle East developments.  UNTSO has been fulfilling its mandate with the highest professionalism, devotion and sometimes the ultimate sacrifice. Twenty-seven of UNTSO’s staff members lost their lives in the line of duty, including Count Bernadotte, who was assassinated in Jerusalem on 17 September 1948. UNTSO’s assistance in establishing and maintaining the cease-fire has been crucial to the region. UNTSO also contributed to the confidence building between the parties, and the creation of a conducive atmosphere for the peace talks.

 However, UNTSO’s mandate is linked to the accomplishment of the final peaceful settlement, which is still an unfulfilled aim.  Peace agreements have been concluded between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Jordan, and peace talks on all other tracks were launched in the beginning of 1990s with high hopes and expectations.  Unfortunately, the process initiated at the 1991 Madrid conference, the first-ever direct talks between Israel and its immediate Arab neighbours, is stalled at present.  Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have been deadlocked for the last 33 months, talks between Israel and Syria have been frozen since 2000, and between Israel and Lebanon since 1996. 

 Against this background, UNTSO’s role and ongoing activities are even more important in preserving the cease-fire between the parties.  However, UNTSO cannot fully accomplish its mandate purely on the resolve and efforts of the peacekeepers, but only in concurrence with the commitment and the support of the parties to the dispute.  While UNTSO will continue to execute its functions and responsibilities, it is, as in all conflicts, up to the parties to overcome current difficulties, and to pursue the path of peace based on the principle “land for peace”, decisions of the Madrid conference, and the relevant United Nations resolutions.

DPI/2311 (9) May 2003