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Updated on 12 June 2017


Section 5(b):   Subsidiary bodies concerned with peacekeeping


On 50-year anniversary of Six-Day War, revisiting U Thant’s decision to withdraw UNEF


In 2017, many articles have appeared to mark the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, waged principally by the States of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon against Israel.  Among these articles was one published by the New York Times on 2 June 2017, written by Op-Ed Columnist Bret Stephens and entitled “Six Days and 50 Years of War”


In his article, Stephens states that the day before the outbreak of the June 1967 hostilities, “Israel faced the fact that United Nations peacekeepers in Sinai, intended as a buffer with Egypt, had been withdrawn at Cairo’s insistence”, implying that this was a precipitating factor.  This interpretation, which has appeared in other writings as well, stems from several misunderstandings relating to the situation of the UN peacekeepers in Sinai at the start of the Six-Day War.


While there is no doubt that the withdrawal of the UN peacekeepers had a psychological impact, the situation was more complex than Stephens’s remarks would suggest.  The force he refers to, the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF I), like all UN peacekeeping missions, was deployed with the consent of the protagonists.  However, when UNEF was established in 1957, Israel refused to accept the presence of peacekeepers on its territory, and therefore the UN troops were stationed only on the Egyptian side of the border.  Accordingly, in 1967, when Egypt revoked what is referred to as “host country consent”, Secretary-General U Thant felt that legally the UN had no choice but to acquiesce.  In any event, both governments were aware that UNEF troops, as was the case with most of the earlier peacekeeping missions, were armed merely with personal weapons, which they were mandated to use only in self-defense.


A further misunderstanding has developed over the actual positioning of the Egyptian troops and the UN peacekeepers at the time Egypt requested UNEF’s withdrawal.  As Brian Urquhart explained in his book, Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey, at the time of the peacekeepers’ deployment, “the UN and the Egyptian authorities had agreed that Egyptian forces would stay five hundred meters away from the border in some places and two thousand meters in others, and it was in this space that UNEF operated”.  Consequently, Urquhart writes, “No one had ever suggested that UNEF could prevent Egyptian forces from moving up to the line on their own territory, which they had now done, making it impossible for UNEF to continue to perform its function as a buffer between Egypt and Israel.”


In addition to Urquhart’s recounting of the circumstances surrounding the withdrawal of UNEF (pages 400-416), readers may also wish to consult Andrew Boyd’s Fifteen Men on a Powder Keg (pages 186-210).


(This update supplements page 499 of the book.)

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