Few countries have a more conflicted relationship with the United Nations than Israel. On one hand, Israelis often perceive the UN as perennially biased against the Jewish state via myriad resolutions and admonishments. Yet Israel also depends on UN peace-keeping forces to help maintain security along its tension-prone northern and southern borders.
Now Israel is entering a new era of UN engagement as 14 Israeli police officers serve in the nation’s first-ever UN peace-keeping mission currently taking place in Haiti. Selected from conventional police departments across the country, the Israeli officers are helping restore and maintain order in the wake of Haiti’s massive January earthquake. As Monocle reported in March this year (issue 31), Israel’s disaster relief team emerged as the unexpected bright stars of the earthquake rescue operation. Buoyed by that effort’s goodwill, Israeli forces are back on the island for a three-month deployment – today wearing those iconic UN “blue hats” for the first time in the nation’s history (apart from a lone Israeli officer who served under the UN during the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia).
“We’re working with fellow officers from 48 nations – Europeans, Jordanians even some members of the NYPD,” says delegation deputy director Ron Krig, who commands the anti-crime SWAT unit back in Tel Aviv. “We feel we have a lot to offer this operation, and we have a lot to learn.”
Owing to both its small size and relative newness, the Israeli contingent is serving as part of the official Italian delegation, which is providing logistical and technical support such as shelter and transport. Nonetheless, the mere presence of Israeli forces sends a clear message that despite unpopular domestic security policies, Israel intends to take a higher-profile role in security operations abroad.
“We want to be part of the global agenda, to work with the UN in identifying worthy projects and participating in capacity building efforts around the world,” says Meirav Eilon-Shahar, director of the UN political affairs division at the Israeli Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. “There are so many peace keepers around us, so Israel clearly understands the value of these missions.”
As its first UN peace-keeping operation begins winding down next month, Eilon-Shahar’s office is already preparing for the next. In early 2011, a second team of officers is scheduled to arrive in Haiti, this time working with the UN to train Haitian police to effectively patrol themselves. Once again, the cops will volunteer from Israel’s civilian police force – meaning fewer officers in a country where the police play an essential role in maintaining national security.
Nonetheless, Eilon-Shahar feels it’s precisely these kinds of outsized duties that make Israeli forces so qualified for peace keeping schemes like the operation underway in Haiti. “Israeli police deal with far more than just crime, so they can offer (UN missions) unique expertise,” Eilon-Shahar says. “This is where we can contribute the most,” she adds, “finding ways for our expertise to benefit others.”