Watching the War and Keeping the Peace: the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) in the Middle East, 1949-1956
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By virtue of their presence, observers alter what they are observing. Yet, the international soldiers of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) did much more than observe events. From August 1949 until the establishment of the United Nations Emergency Force in November 1956, the Western military officers assigned to UNTSO were compelled to take seriously the task of supervising the Arab-Israeli armistice, despite the unwillingness of all parties to accept an actual peace settlement. To the extent that a particular peacekeeping mission was successful – i.e., that peace was “kept” – what actually happened on the ground is usually considered far less important than broader politics. However, as efforts to forge a peace settlement failed one after another, UNTSO operations themselves became the most important mechanism for regional stability, particularly by providing a means by which otherwise implacable enemies could communicate with each other, thus helping to moderate the conflict. This communication played out against the backdrop of the dangerous early days of the Cold War, the crumbling of Western empires, and the emergence of the non-aligned movement. Analyses of the activities of the Mixed Armistice Commissions (MACs), the committees created to oversee the separate General Armistice Agreements signed between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, particularly those during the 1954 to 1956 tenure as UNTSO chief of staff of Canadian Major-General E.L.M. Burns, best evaluate both UNTSO effectiveness and Arab-Israeli interaction.