A Briefing at UNTSO Headquarters, Jerusalem

18 September 2013

Deputy Head of Mission Julian Clare and I travelled to Jerusalem on 16th September at the invitation of Major General Michael Finn, the new Head of Mission and Chief of staff of the United Nations Treaty Supervision Organization.  Michael hails from Mayo and, aside from his extensive command and staff experience back home, has a lot of overseas experience under his belt: completed three tours in Lebanon with UNIFIL, including a stint as Staff Officer at UNIFIL HQ; commanded the Irish contingent with Kosovo Force, Ireland’s first service with a NATO-led mission; served as Director in the EU Military Staff, Brussels where he headed up the planning and supervision of EU forces to Chad and the Central African Republic.  We met also with Captain Pat O’Connor, Personal Staff Officer for the Chief of Staff.  He has served a year with UNTSO and will likely complete a second (and a bit of a whizz on the internet having won awards for the best Irish Government website!)

Under Major General Finn’s command are UNTSO’s 153 Military Observers plus almost 100 international and over 160 local support staff, drawn from some twenty-five countries.  UNTSO Observers are attached to the UN Disengagement Observer Force on the Golan Heights and to UNIFIL, as well as maintaining a presence in Sinai.  No UNTSO Observers carry weapons of any kind.  They are generally senior officers who can handle tense situations as well as the more quotidian though ever-complex diplomacy required of their liaison roles with the military services of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Israel.

Commander Erik Romby from the Netherlands gave an in-depth briefing on the mandate and regular operations of UNTSO.  It was his last day of duty with UNTSO so we are very grateful for him taking the time to do this.  Like all professional soldiers fully in control of their brief, Erik dissected the task, resources and operation of UNTSO with precision and clarity.  He, Major General Finn and Captain O’Connor fleshed this out with insights and impressions from the varied locations in which UNTSO serves throughout the region.  We were particularly interested in the current situation on the Golan Heights and the immediate vicinity in which Irish troops will deploy with UNDOF at the end of September.

UNTSO is the original UN peacekeeping entity, formed in 1948 to supervise the various armistices that brought an end to the Arab-Israeli War of that year.  It is funded directly by the General Assembly in a biannual vote, reflecting the fact that it was established a mere three years after the UN’s inaugural meeting in San Francisco and one year after the historic General Assembly vote on the partition of Palestine which preceded the Arab-Israeli war.

Given its original mandate and its evolution since then, UNTSO has Liaison Offices in Jerusalem (its HQ), Damascus, Beirut and Ismailia, Egypt.  It has a unique regional role, experience and perspective.  UNTSO’s core task has remained essentially the same since its foundation though how and where it does it has changed in response to the wars and turmoil in the region over the decades.  This has given a tremendous depth of experience to UNTSO as an organization and informed its strong esprit de corps.  That they carry no weapons in this most volatile and armed areas is remarkable.  But combined with their experience it has also helped ensure safe passage through difficult situations including when taken captive on occasion.  Its longevity of service in the region means that it is a known and respected entity by locals and military alike.  The turmoil in so many areas of UNTSO’s operations in recent years has seen again an evolution in UNTSO’s thinking and approach, though its core function remains unchanged.

UNTSO headquarters is the former Government House from British Mandate times.  Built of Jerusalem limestone, its oaty hues turn pale gold in the evening sun.  It has an elegant solidity, its barrack-like construction softened by the arched gateway, sunken gardens and tower which combined with its elevated location gives a 360 degree view of Jerusalem and environs. The function hall has a tall and gorgeously designed Armenian fireplace, a thing of real beauty and a product of the long association between Jerusalem and Armenia: indeed the family of its artisans still lives in the Old City.  Photo portraits of former UNTSO Chiefs of Staff grace one wall of the hall, with two of Lieutenant General William Callaghan, one of our great Irish soldiers and peacekeepers, awarded the Legion d’Honour for his leadership of UNIFIL in the 1980s.

Julian and I were escorted to the top of the building, above the water tank and upwards to the roof of the tower for what is recognized as the best view of Jerusalem.  Major Mark Weiner (USAF), clearly an aficionado of the area and its history, pointed out highlights in a guided finger pointing arc – the King David Hotel, the Dome of the Rock, Gethsemane, Mount Scopus, the Mount of Olives, the clustered housing of East Jerusalem, the grey concrete Lego of the Barrier and behind it the West Bank, beyond a thin glimpse of the Dead Sea and beyond again that of the craggy dusty orange shores of Jordan, then the impressive man-made stump of the Herodion (ruined palace of Herod the Great) and finally toward the noticeably more modern West Jerusalem.

From our vantage point, it was easy to marvel that before us lay the intersection of the world’s three great monotheistic religions, that on this ground walked, talked, thought and socialized the Patriarchs, prophets and holy men that shaped the religious beliefs and imaginations of the Judean, Christian and Islamic worlds.  For believers, depending on their faith, this is the hallowed ground of God’s prophets, his son and minions.  We gazed at the slopes, crowded by history and now by habitation, guided by a company of men trained and uniformed as soldiers yet who are disarmed and tasked with the delicate diplomacy of peace keeping along the fault lines of regional conflict.  In this paradox lies the very heart and ethic of the United Nations and its peacekeeping duties.

We concluded in Major General Finn’s office, sunny in the late afternoon but cooled by the thick limestone walls of the Government Mansion.  General Finn gave a final overview of the strategic landscape in which UNTSO operates and the role of UNDOF on the Golan Heights where Irish soldiers would soon deploy.  We discussed the longevity and range of peacekeeping tasks carried out by the Irish Defence Forces in the region, notably with UNIFIL but also in many other UN operations such as UNTSO and UNDOF.

Irish success in peacekeeping roles is a product of the quality and ethos of our officers and enlisted men.  Without the backup of heavy air or naval support, our troops are conditioned to operate lightly but with state of the art personal equipment, to improvise, to get to know the landscape, people and local culture intimately, to use emotional intelligence and avoid if at all possible recourse to or escalation in the use of force.  There is in our Irish military DNA something of the guerrilla force that fought for Ireland’s independence and then formed the core of the new State’s Defence Forces.  Nor can one discount our colonial heritage and the empathy that engenders in understanding conflict and its wellsprings. (For more information on the Irish Defence Forces overseas missions please see their website http://www.military.ie/overseas/)

Reflecting on UNTSO, Major General Finn wondered rhetorically; how to measure the cost of conflict avoided? Impossible of course but it is certain that UNTSO has played a key role in keeping the peace and easing tensions through liaison and observation.  Particularly in these tense times UNTSO brings an assurance to all the militaries of the region that armistices and treaties are faithfully honoured.

Certainly there is a price to be paid with some 33 fatalities among serving UNTSO members, amongst them two Irish officers, including fatalities in combat, accident and natural causes.  As we left the Government Mansion, we paused at the Memorial where General Finn spoke about some of the stories behind the names inscribed there, such as the four UNTSO members killed by an Israeli airstrike in the 2006 Lebanon War.  He recalled too the dreadful murder of Commandant Tommy Wickham by a Syrian soldier in Golan in 1967 (see related tweet).  There too is inscribed the name of Count Bernadotte of Sweden, the UN Mediator in the Arab-Israeli War who brokered an early truce and thereby helped create the conditions leading to the establishment of UNTSO.  Coincidentally, Major General Finn was due to speak the following evening (17th September) at a Swedish Commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the Count’s assassination in 1948.

On behalf of Julian and myself, I would like to warmly thank Major General Finn and his team for such a valuable and fascinating visit and to wish them every success in their tours of duty.

UNDOF are hosting Ambassadors to a briefing and site visit shortly which will be a very useful occasion bearing in the mind the upcoming deployment of our Irish contingent.  I’ll let you know how that goes.



1 Comment

Filed under International, Ireland

One response to “A Briefing at UNTSO Headquarters, Jerusalem

  1. Alan L. Gallagher

    Thanks. I enjoy your writings/comments, as always, and look forward to your explorations of Israel, and of the relations between the two countries. It is a delightful irony that the “hero” of one of Ireland’s greatest novels, Ulysses, was Leopold Bloom. Is there a BLOOMSDAY in Israel? Gallagheralan2000@yahoo.com

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