JERUSALEM – After a particularly bloody week in the Middle East, a growing chorus of voices, led by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search), is calling for the deployment of armed force to keep the warring parties apart so they can begin implementing a new peace plan.
Palestinians have long proposed that an international peacekeeping force wedge itself between both sides, hoping it could reduce tensions and end curfews, roadblocks and travel restrictions that have paralyzed life in the West Bank (search) and Gaza Strip (search) over the last 32 months of violence.
Israel has vehemently opposed such a force, saying it will not relinquish control over its security to a third party, particularly one backed by the United Nations or the European Union, which Israel believes have strong anti-Israel biases.
Annan floated the idea of sending peacekeepers to the region in April 2002, and though the U.N. Security Council discussed it, Israeli objections eventually scuttled the plan.
But continued violence -- 36 Palestinians and 24 Israelis were killed in just the last week -- suggests the two sides can't be left to their own devices in trying to implement the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan. That brings the idea of peacekeepers back into the mix, proponents say.
"I would like to see an armed peacekeeping force act as a buffer between the Israelis and the Palestinians," Annan told the Israeli daily Haaretz in an interview published Friday.
In theory, peacekeepers could solve many of the major problems in the conflict.
They would protect Israel from Palestinian violence and terror attacks, shield Palestinians from the might of the Israeli army and a future Palestinian state build governmental institutions.
For their part, Palestinians want an immediate force to end the violence. Peacekeepers are "the only realistic solution to get out of this cycle of violence and counter-violence," Palestinian Cabinet Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said.
However, many supporters of the idea say a solid peace plan must be in place before such a force could be raised. It would then ensure the agreement is carried out.
After meeting Annan on Friday, Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham said his country would do its part if such a force were fielded, but that the peace process must be further along.
Former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, another supporter of the plan, said an armed force should be deployed once a peace agreement has been negotiated. It would take responsibility for cracking down on Palestinian militants, something Palestinian officials are loathe to do for fear of a civil war, and it would "take away the need for Israel to act as an occupier," Ben-Ami said.
Behind the scenes, discussions on a peacekeeping force have been going on for about a year, led by a working group at Washington's Brookings Institution think tank, and two others with ties to the Canadian Foreign Ministry and Sweden's Social Democratic Party, said Gilead Sher, a former Israeli peace negotiator.
The discussions mainly focus on a trusteeship much like the one in Kosovo, where 25,000 United Nations and NATO-led peacekeepers have been in charge since 1999, Sher said. The proposed mission here would deal with civil and security matters, until Palestinians are ready to do so themselves, he said.
Such a force would have to be controlled by the United States to be acceptable to all sides, he said. It would last from three to six years, starting with a few hundred peacekeepers and eventually increasing to a few thousand, as a peace deal is implemented, he said.
Israel would still maintain responsibility for its security and would have the right of "hot pursuit" to enter Palestinian controlled areas to chase militants, Sher said.
Israel fears that bringing such a force into the West Bank and Gaza might define borders for a future Palestinian state. Israeli officials say only the road map, which envisions a Palestinian state in 2005 and an end to violence, should be the guide for future peace efforts.
"In the road map, there is a place for American monitors, nothing else. That is Israel's position," said Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The first contingent of 10 to 15 U.S. monitors was to arrive in the region Saturday.
Israel has had long experience with international troops and monitors, some more successful than others.
An international force in the Sinai peninsula has effectively kept tensions low between Israel and Egypt, and U.N. observers on Israel's border with Syria have also been helpful. Since Israel withdrew from Lebanon in May 2000, U.N. peacekeepers have been an important buffer between the two countries.
But in those cases, foreign troops were patrolling cease-fire lines under armistice or peace agreements.
Some critics say peacekeepers monitoring the chaotic situation between Israelis and Palestinians would be as ineffectual as those in Lebanon before Israel's withdrawal.
At that time, the militant group Hezbollah often launched rockets over the peacekeepers' heads into Israel, and Israel responded by pushing the peacekeepers out of the way -- sometimes using bulldozers to move U.N. vehicles -- so they could retaliate.
If Israelis and Palestinians do manage to reach an agreement, the international force could be crucial to ensure it is implemented, Sher said.
"In the end, one way or another, there will be a disengagement between the people, it is inevitable. And once there is a disengagement, there needs to be someone to fill the vacuum and this is an international force," he said.