Welcome Men of Peace

by Ilana Feldman

The first Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip ended on March 8th 1957, with the departure of Israeli soldiers and the arrival of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF). This four-month occupation was part of an attack on Egypt coordinated with Britain and France after Egypt’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal. UNEF was the first UN peacekeeping mission, an experiment in sending an international contingent of soldiers, with the consent of warring parties, to keep fighting from erupting. Israel did not agree to UNEF presence in terri- tory under its control. With consent from Egypt, soldiers from Canada, Brazil, India, Colombia, and Norway thus took up positions in the Sinai and Gaza Strip. Notably, but not surpris- ingly, the UN did not seek consent from the Palestinians who lived in Gaza. They nonetheless expressed their opinions. As depicted in this photograph, when UNEF soldiers entered Gaza, they were met with large demonstrations. This particular image shows mostly men on the street, though women can be glimpsed watching from balconies; other photos from the same period confirm that women also came out to demonstrate.

The banners in this image welcome the soldiers as “men of peace,” exhort them to “act as peacemakers but not as rulers” (English), and state “we want you as guests not as men of occupation” (Arabic). The demonstrators’ specific policy objective is also made clear: the entrance of UNEF was to be the first step towards the return of Egyptian rule in Gaza. Egypt had administered Gaza since the end of 1948 war, which resulted in the division of historic Palestine into three territories: Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Although Palestinian independence was the long-term desire of Gaza’s inhabitants, two thirds of whom were refugees from elsewhere in Palestine, Egyptian rule in the meantime was preferable to either Israeli occupation or international governance.

The quick return of Egypt was not part of the original mission plan, which did envision that UNEF would take on administration for some period of time, but that quickly changed. In the course of another demonstration, this one in front of the new UNEF headquarters, a ricocheting bullet shot by a UNEF soldier hit and mortally wounded a protesting Gazan. UN officials described this unfortunate incident as an anomaly amidst a generally smooth entrance into the Strip. Its effects were significant. Almost immediately thereafter, Egyptian administrators returned to Gaza to take up their governing functions, even as Egyptian soldiers did not. UNEF continued its peacekeeping mission for ten years, until Egypt withdrew its consent for their presence in the lead-up to the June 1967 war.

The tenor of the demonstrations and the course of events reveal Palestinian suspicion about international intentions. Already armed with decades of evidence that international bodies might not honor Palestinian aspirations, people worried about what kind of future the UN soldiers would bring with them. Even as there was widespread suspicion, the welcome was also real and reflected other persisting sentiments about international presence. Palestinians hoped (and still hope) that international attention would offer protection from Israeli aggression. They aspired (and still aspire) to be recognized as full members of the international community that was represented by this UN force—and thus to be seen as deserving of protection as a matter of shared commitment, not as an act of charity. They insisted (and still insist) that their voices be heard and their opinions matter.