For almost three decades, the Multinational Force and Observers has played an integral role in stabilizing Israel’s historic peace treaty with Egypt. “We’re a confidence builder,” said Michael Sternberg, a senior MFO official in Tel Aviv. “A model peacekeeping force.”
Consisting of 1,700 soldiers, sailors, aviators, technicians and engineers from 11 countries, including Canada, the MFO supervises the security provisions of the treaty to ensure that military violations do not occur. Serving at the pleasure of Israel and Egypt, the force was formed in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when the two main combatants, Israel and Egypt, turned to the United Nations and the United States to bring about a ceasefire.
As a result, the UN dispatched peacekeepers to the Sinai Peninsula to physically separate the Israeli and Egyptian armies and monitor Israel’s first disengagement agreement with Egypt. That accord, hammered out by the then U.S. secretary of state, Henry Kissinger and known as Sinai I, was signed in January 1974. In September 1975, with the signing of Sinai II, the United States agreed to establish the Sinai Field Mission, the forerunner of the MFO, which began its mission in February 1976.
More than a year later, the then president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, visited Jerusalem in a spectacular gesture, setting into motion a series of talks that culminated with the 1978 Camp David Accords, which created a framework for peace between Israel and Egypt. On March 26, 1979, Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty formally ending their 31-year-old state of war and paving the way for Israel’s phased withdrawal from Sinai, captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.
In the meantime, efforts were made to form a permanent UN peacekeeping force in the Sinai. Due to objections by the Soviet Union, which was at odds with the United States over a number of global issues, such a force did not materialize. With the UN out of the picture, Israel, Egypt and the United States launched negotiations to set up an alternative peacekeeping force.
On Aug. 3, 1981, the MFO came into being. The MFO – which is funded in equal parts by Israel, Egypt and the United States – verifies compliance with the peace treaty by ensuring that neither side violates limitations on military forces and equipment in three security zones in the Sinai – A, B and C – and in one security enclave in Israel, known as Zone D.
In Zone A, closest to the Egyptian mainland, Egypt is permitted to station a mechanized infantry division of up to 22,000 troops and early warning systems. Egypt is also allowed to maintain up to 4,000 soldiers in Zone B. The MFO is based in Zone C, but Egypt is permitted to position lightly armed police there as well.
In Zone D, which falls within sovereign Israeli territory, Israel may deploy four infantry battalions comprising no more than 4,000 troops and early warning systems.
The MFO operates checkpoints and observation posts and carries out reconnaissance patrols in Zone C and along the adjacent international boundary. It also guarantees freedom of international marine navigation in the Strait of Tiran and access to the Gulf of Aqaba.
The MFO is composed of personnel from the United States, Canada, France, Italy, Hungary, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Uruguay, Colombia and Fiji.
The United States contributes the biggest contingent, 685 troops. Canada’s contribution consists of 28 soldiers, representing all three branches of the armed forces and ranging in rank from corporal to colonel.
Commanded by a major-general from Norway, the force is locally headquartered at North Camp in El Gorah, 37 kilometres southeast of the town of El Arish. All the Canadian peacekeepers are based there. The smaller South Camp, located near Sharm el Sheikh, is on the southeast tip of the Sinai peninsula on a bluff overlooking the Red Sea.
In addition, the MFO maintains 30 smaller observatory sites within Zone C. One of them, on Tiran Island, off Sharm El Sheikh, technically lies in Saudi Arabian territory.
The MFO has at its disposal three infantry battalions, a support battalion, a coastal patrol unit, rotary wing and fixed aviation elements, a transport and engineering unit, an air traffic control unit and military police.
The force is headed by a director-general based in Rome. The current office holder, James LaRocco, is a retired American diplomat. He and his staff audit operations and are in charge of management, recruitment and procurement.
The MFO has regional offices in Tel Aviv and Cairo. Sternberg, a 71 year-old former U.S. State Department employee, has been the director-general’s representative in Israel for the past 17 years.
“Representatives must be American citizens and have diplomatic and military backgrounds,” Sternberg explained in a recent interview in his spacious office, which offers a panoramic view of Hayarkon Park.
Sternberg and his colleague in Cairo see to it that the MFO is always well supplied. As he put it, “The Sinai is an inhospitable desert, and the MFO requires a lot of logistical support, from food and water to medical and technical equipment.”
Born in New York City, Sternberg served in the U.S. Navy for nine years before joining the American foreign service. From 1973 to 1979, he was deputy director of Israeli and Palestinian affairs in the State Department, working with the then secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. From 1975 until 1981, he was chief of staff of the Camp David autonomy talks, which fizzled out. As well, Sternberg was consul general in Thessaloniki, Greece.
The MFO performs its duties quietly, he said. “We keep a low profile. Our job is to serve the parties through our discretion. We don’t seek out publicity.”
Everyone agrees that the MFO has been remarkably successful in carrying out its mandate, ostensibly because Israel and Egypt fully support its deployment. “There is almost universal backing for the MFO in both countries,” he noted. “As long as the parties feel we add value and stability to their respective security, the MFO will continue to function.”
Sternberg, however, would not be drawn into a discussion as to whether Israel or Egypt have ever violated military clauses of the peace treaty.
Four nations – Israel, Egypt, the United States and Germany – provide the majority of the funds for its $65 million (US) annual budget. An additional four countries – Switzerland, Japan, Holland and Norway – are also funders. “We’re a cost effective organization,” said Sternberg. “Our budget is equivalent to the cost of two aircraft.”
Describing the MFO as one of the most efficient peacekeeping forces in the world, he observed, “We’re a model for peacekeeping operations. We’re an important institution for preserving peace in this area.”
Nonetheless, the MFO has been targeted by Arab terrorists. In 1984, the director-general, Leamon Hunt, was assassinated outside his private residence in Rome. And in 2005 and 2006, MFO armored vehicles were ambushed.
Accidents have also plagued the MFO. In 1985, a chartered airplane carrying 248 peacekeepers from the United States crashed in Gander, Nfld., killing all aboard. Almost two years ago, an MFO aircraft went down in the Sinai, causing the deaths of nine French and Canadian passengers.
Despite these tragedies, the MFO – perhaps the harbinger of an international peacekeeping force to patrol the Gaza Strip after the current fighting between Israel and Hamas dies down – is still going strong and contributing to peace in at least one strategic corner of the Middle East.