Swiss Military Observers Keep Watch Over The Middle East

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Switzerland is playing an important role in peacekeeping in the region by helping to assess the security situation. To mark International Day of UN Peacekeepers (May 29), SWI travelled to Israel to take a closer look at the work of Swiss military observers.

Peace promotion at the international level is a priority task of the Swiss army and is anchored in military law. Switzerland has been sending unarmed military observers and liaison officers to UN peacekeeping operations around the world since 1990. This map shows where they are posted.

Fourteen Swiss officers, ranked captain or above, form part of the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), the UN's oldest peace mission, now in its 75th year. Its 153 military observers are stationed in Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Jordan, operating under a so-called Chapter 6 UN mandate with the agreement of the hostile parties. SWI met the four Swiss UNTSO peacekeepers, including the head of mission, at their headquarters in Jerusalem and on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

UNTSO was set up after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, when four ceasefires were defined together with the conflict parties. Military observers were sent to oversee the Armistice Agreements between Israel and its neighbours. A new ceasefire agreement was signed between Israel and Syria in 1974, after the Yom Kippur War. It delineated a demilitarised zone on the Golan Heights to separate the parties' forces and limited the number of forces each side can deploy within 25 kilometres of the zone. There are restrictions on what kinds of weapons can be deployed here.

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UNTSO military observers are stationed on the Golan Heights to monitor violations of the disengagement agreement. Major Livio Räber, a Swiss and the team leader of the Observer Group Golan-Tiberias, says these happen nearly every day. The Israeli Defence Force, IDF, frequently carries out training exercises in the area, as well as Syrian troops stationed on the other side.

Dangerous job

Military observers risk being caught in the crossfire between the conflict parties in the region. In April, rockets were fired towards Israel from Syria and Lebanon. One landed in a field on the Golan Heights. There were no casualties, but it was too close for comfort for military observers monitoring the area.

Other dangers they face are land mines (the terrain is littered with unexploded ordnance), bad driving by the locals and being stung by scorpions. Eighteen military observers working for UNTSO have lost their lives in the line of duty.

Swiss takes charge

UNTSO maintains that its assistance in establishing and maintaining the ceasefire has been crucial to the region. UNTSO says it has also contributed to confidence building between the parties and the creation of a conducive atmosphere for peace talks. In December 2021, Swiss Major General Patrick Gauchat assumed his role at the head of the mission. It was the first time a Swiss officer had been given command of a UN peacekeeping mission.

Before heading up UNTSO, Gauchat was chief of the Swiss delegation observing the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. He has spent more than two decades working in peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East and Asia. He was also stationed at UN headquarters in New York.

Swiss neutrality helps

Switzerland joined the UN in 2002 after nearly 55% of Swiss voters backed the move in a national referendum – the only country to do so based on a popular vote. Switzerland did not join earlier for fear of compromising its neutrality.

Patrick Gauchat says participation has opened up new opportunities for Switzerland,“It has created a better way to defend our ideas in the UN, especially now that we are on the Security Council. In the Middle East, Swiss neutrality is intact", he added. "When I started my job here, the Israeli and Syrian authorities insisted on the neutrality of the UNTSO mission. I was able to say,“I'm neutral by birth”. I used that to convince them that as head of mission, I would keep that neutrality in the reporting (by military observers)".

Good offices

As a neutral country with a longstanding federalist tradition, Switzerland regularly offers its good offices to parties in conflict. This is something Gauchat has been able to provide in the Middle East during his time as head of mission.

Israel and Lebanon communicate through tripartite talks with the UN interim force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). Israel and Syria have no such platform, so Gauchat passes messages between the respective parties' foreign ministers and the two generals in charge of maintaining the disengagement agreement signed by both sides at the end of the last war. In this way, Gauchat is helping to ease tensions in an unstable region, as he told SWI at his headquarters in Jerusalem.

SWI visited the headquarters of the Observer Group Golan in Tiberias, where military observers prepare for their deployment in the demilitarised zone. Major Roman Gagua, who is Swiss, explains to the observers what sorts of tanks, warplanes and artillery they should look out for in Golan.

Gagua previously served as a military observer on the Golan Heights and as a staff officer in EUFOR (European Union Force) in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and then UNMISS (UN Mission in South Sudan). He did his regular service in Switzerland's conscript army as platoon leader in the infantry and is now a language specialist.

Swiss officer Roman Gagua teaches military observers what kinds of weapons to look out for.

After meeting Gagua in Tiberias near the Sea of Galilee, we drove up to the Golan Heights, where one of the team leaders, Major Livio Räber, was on duty. The Golan Heights is an elevated strip of land along Israel's northern border with Syria. Israel conquered it during the 1967 war with Syria and later annexed it. Räber explained to SWI what it's like working and living in this lonely, lofty, hostile environment.

Peace hopes

SWI was accompanied on this visit by Swiss Lieutenant Colonel Alex Neukomm, UNTSO's chief liaison officer to Amman, the capital of Jordan, and Tel Aviv. His job is to meet up the Jordanian and Israeli authorities, diplomats and defence attachés, think tanks and academics to find out about the situation in those two countries and prepare for the head of UNTSO's regional liaison visits to Amman and Tel Aviv. The liaison officer also keeps across what's being reported in the media.

Lt.Col Alex Neukomm, UNTSO's chief liaison officer to Amman and Tel Aviv.

Despite the recent increase in violence in the region, Neukomm is optimistic that peace can be achieved. "When the mission was established, there were four armistice lines. Jordan and Egypt have since signed peace agreements with Israel (1974external link and 1994external link ), and Israel and Lebanon signed a maritime demarcation agreement in 2022external link ", he says. "It's the first time that Israel and Lebanon have signed an agreement. I hope it's the first step in the improvement of the relationship between them".

This year, Switzerland is celebrating 70 years of peacekeeping. In 1953, the Swiss government agreed to send soldiers to monitor the armistice agreement between North and South Korea following the 1950-53 Korean War. It marked the beginning of the military promotion of peace by Switzerland and gave the green light to the country's longest, ongoing military engagement abroad outside of the Swiss guards at the Vatican.

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This article has been amended since first publication, including adding the years when Israel signed peace agreements.

Background information:

international day of un peacekeepers (may 29)external link

breakdown of un peacekeepers deployed external link

1974 disengagement agreement (syria&israel)external link

syrian rocket lands in the golan heightsexternal link

fatality statistics: untso military observersexternal link

when switzerland joined the unexternal link

peace treaty between jordan and israel external link

disengagement agreement (egypt/israel)external link

maritime disengagement agreement (lebanon/israel)external link

background on untso peacekeepingexternal link

swiss good offices explainedexternal link


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