United Nations Emergency Force I (UNEF I)

International Information

International Operation Name: United Nations Emergency Force I

International Mission Name: United Nations Emergency Force I (UNEF I)

Mandating Organization: United Nations

Region Name: Middle East

Location: Sinai

Mission Date: 5 November 1956 - 17 June 1967

Mission Mandate: UNEF I was established to secure and supervise the cessation of hostilities, including the withdrawal of the armed forces of France, Israel and the United Kingdom from Egyptian territory and, after the withdrawal, to serve as a buffer between the Egyptian and Israeli forces.

Canadians in International Mission Command Position: Major-General E.L.M. Burns

Mission/Operation Notes: The State of Israel was created on 14 May 1948 following United Nations acceptance of the Palestine Partition plan embodied in Resolution 181 adopted on 29 November 1947. Despite having broad international support Israel was attacked by its neighbours on 15 May 1948. The fighting continued into 1949 until the United Nations managed to broker ceasefire or armistice agreements with most of the belligerents. These agreements brought neither peace nor stability to the Middle East, however, because they did not resolve a fundamental problem: how to provide permanent, secure, and viable homelands for the Palestinians and Israelis in a way acceptable to all within the limited territories available for that purpose. Tensions remained high; there were calls on the parts of some governments for Israel’s destruction; and when, in October 1956, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria announced the creation of a joint unified military command for their armed forces, the Israeli government was understandably alarmed.

At the same time, relations between Egypt and the United States, United Kingdom, and France were deteriorating over the issue of access to the Suez Canal. Britain had given up its right to defend the Canal Zone and withdrawn from the area in June 1956. Shortly thereafter, the United States and the UK declined to help Egypt finance the Aswan dam project. On 26 July, therefore, Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal, announcing that transit fees would be used to finance the Aswan project.

Britain and France both regarded Egypt’s seizure of the canal as a threat to their national security interests and as an attack on the rights of shareholders in the canal. By August they began planning an attack on Egypt to regain control of the Suez and, as part of a complex political manoeuvre, brought Israel into the plan as a co-belligerent.

Israel attacked Egypt on 29 October. Britain and France then intervened on 31 October, ostensibly to separate the Egyptian and Israeli forces and ensure free passage for shipping through the Canal until a peace could be brokered; but some suspected that the British and French invasion forces would not soon leave. At the United Nations, the United States and the Soviet Union began immediate efforts to force a cease-fire and an Israeli withdrawal. An Extraordinary Meeting of the General Assembly was convened on 1 November, approving a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire. Fearing that any such cease-fire would be temporary, Lester Pearson, Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs, promoted the idea of a UN force to separate the two combatants and to allow (and encourage) the British and French forces to withdraw. This idea gradually took form in General Assembly Resolutions 998 to 1000 on 4-5 November, which established an international emergency force under United Nations Command - what would soon become the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) - and appointed Major-General E.L.M. Burns of Canada as the force commander.

UNEF’s mandate was to secure a cease-fire, supervise the withdrawal of foreign troops, and observe and patrol the armistice line. Militarily, UNEF was to prevent clashes between Egyptian and Israeli forces by interposing itself between the two sides. Despite the overwhelming support for Resolution 1000 in the UN General Assembly, Israel refused to allow UNEF forces onto its territory. Egypt agreed to their presence on Egyptian soil on condition that it was free to revoke its agreement at any time. It also insisted that UNEF troops stationed on Egyptian soil would have no authority over Egyptian territory or citizens.

Because UNEF would have to leave when asked to do so by Egypt - and Israel had not accepted its presence on Israeli territory -- it was not the fully consensual effort usually upheld as the ideal of typical ‘blue beret’ peacekeeping; but in other ways it set the standard for all future such missions. It was UNEF, for example, which initially adopted the light blue headdress now viewed as the universal symbol of UN operations. More important, the idea of an armed force interposing itself between two combatants to keep the peace was born here, at least in the post-Second World War context.

The first UN forces to arrive were from the United Nations Truce Supervisory Organization (UNTSO), which set up a temporary headquarters in Cairo from which to prepare for the UNEF forces. They arrived on 12 November and were followed on the 15th and 16th by Colombian, Danish and Norwegian forces who arrived in Egypt by air. By February 1957, UNEF comprised 6,073 personnel, from ten nations. This number decreased to 3,378 at the time of UNEF’s withdrawal in May 1967. Indonesia and Finland had agreed to short-term commitments and withdrew their forces in September and December 1957. The Colombians withdrew in December 1958.

UNEF achieved its first objective relatively quickly. Once sufficient personnel were in place, and after some prompting by General Burns, the British and French started withdrawing from the Canal Zone in mid-December and were gone completely by 22 December. The withdrawal of Israeli forces took a little longer, but they too were gone by 22 January except for areas along Sharm el-Sheikh and the Gaza Strip, their place being taken by UNEF troops. In the case of the former, Israel wished to ensure that Egypt would not re-impose a blockade on Israeli access once it reoccupied the territory along the Gulf of Aqaba, but following negotiations and discussions at the UN, Israel withdrew from Sharm el-Sheik between 8 and 12 March. Israel’s concerns about the Gaza Strip were related to its previous use as a staging point for guerrilla incursions into Israel. Again, after discussions, Israel withdrew from this area and UNEF forces entered the Gaza Strip on the night of 6/7 March.

By then, UNEF was already heavily engaged in clearing minefields, repairing roads damaged during the fighting, overseeing prisoner of war exchanges and providing security for the British and French warships that cleared the Suez Canal itself of mines. But the major task was to ensure that fighting did not break out again, and to that end UNEF manned some eighty observations posts, conducted mobile patrols, and carried out air surveillance of the frontier region.

For ten years UNEF had great success in keeping the Israeli-Egyptian frontier secure, and the number of incidents there paled in comparison with those occurring on Israel’s borders with Jordan and Syria. But by 1967 the level of tension throughout the region was rising (control of water in the headwaters of the Jordan River and increased terrorist activity directed against Israel from bases in Syria and Jordan were particular problems) and on 16 May 1967, as was his right, the Egyptian President ordered UNEF to leave his country. The Six-Day war began three weeks later, on 5 June, and fifteen UNEF personnel (fourteen Indian and one Brazilian) still in the Gaza Strip awaiting repatriation were killed as fighting occurred around them. When the war was over, Israel was left in possession of the entire Sinai peninsula, Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, and UNTSO returned to the new Egyptian-Israeli frontier to resume its monitoring mission.


Mail means morale for Canada's UNEF soldiers in Gaza Strip. Mail from Canada remains unchallenged as the best morale booster when it comes to serving with UNEF in the Gaza Strip. Tallying the postage on a parcel received at the orderly room of 56 Canadian Signals Squadron at Camp Rafah, Egypt, is left to right: L/Cpl. Ron Bowser who has served here 9 months as Supervisor of the HQ UNEF, Gaza, Message Centre and Sgt. Owen Whitehead Chief Clerk at Squadron HQ who has more than 9 months of his year with UNEF to serve.

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