In the 1980s, Australians served in peacekeeping missions to Egypt to oversee the country's peace agreement with Israel. Israel had agreed to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt after a decade of occupation. The Multinational Force & Observers (MFO) was established in 1982 and overseen by the United States. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) contributed a joint detachment from the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Australia withdrew in 1986. The ADF returned to the Sinai in 1993. Some 1,300 Australians served as peacekeepers in Egypt.
War and occupation
Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt for more than 10 years following the 1967 Six-Day War (also known as the Third Arab–Israeli War). There had been conflict between the countries since the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. In the Camp David Accords of 1978 and the 1979 Treaty of Peace Between Egypt and Israel, the nations agreed that control of the Sinai would go back to Egypt. In return, Egypt would end hostilities and normalise relations with Israel.
Multinational Force & Observers (MFO)
Israel and Egypt agreed in the 1979 peace treaty that the United Nations (UN) would provide a force and observers to supervise the treaty's implementation. Two UN operations were already operating in the Sinai:
- the Second United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF II)
- the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO).
It was proposed that UNEF's mandate in the region could be extended. However, the Soviet Union opposed UN involvement, meaning the UN Security Council could not authorise a force.
With the UN unable to provide a peacekeeping force, the US committed to establishing an independent, non-UN force, overseen by the US and headquartered in Rome. It was jointly funded by the US, Israel, and Egypt, with smaller financial contributions from other countries. Egypt and Israel agreed and established the Multinational Force & Observers (MFO) with the US. The US secured agreements with several other nations to join the operation. Australia, Colombia, Fiji, France, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the United Kingdom and Uruguay joined the MFO.
On 25 April 1982, the Sinai returned to Egyptian sovereignty, and the mission of the MFO officially began. Once the Israeli withdrawal was complete, the Sinai was divided into 3 security zones, with a fourth zone on the Israeli side of the border. These zones are still in place today. There are limitations on military forces and equipment for each zone. The MFO chiefly operates in zone C, the buffer zone between the 2 nations.
Australia's participation, codenamed Operation Mazurka, came after much public debate and political opposition.
Egypt's unilateral decision to make peace with Israel angered many Arab nations. Critics did not want Australia participating in a non-UN force, as the operation was potentially dangerous and could strain relationships with Arab nations. The assassination of Egypt's president, Anwar Sadat, in October 1981 changed opinions.
Australia joined the MFO soon afterwards and was part of the force's Rotary Wing Aviation Unit from March 1982 to April 1986. Australia initially provided 8 Iroquois UH-1 H helicopters and 110 personnel to the combined Australian–New Zealand air force helicopter squadron.
Australia's primary role was to support the Fijian and Colombian battalions in zone C. They flew personnel, supplies and equipment to isolated observation and control posts. The unit also flew civilian observers across all 4 zones. In emergencies, it could also provide medical help, including evacuation, to Egyptian civilians.
Early problems included fuel shortages and recurring power failures. There were also concerns about the quality of local maintenance and supply of spare parts. This made maintaining the aircraft in the dusty conditions an ongoing problem, and affected the availability of aircraft. Maintenance and supply problems eventually improved. By 30 November 1984, all 10 helicopters were serviceable.
Friday, 1st April saw our first sandstorm and the total cessation of flying. Visibility would have been down to about 20 yards. Midday seemed like about 6pm. The wind blew the fine dust like sand everywhere. That evening after returning from my shower I got so much sand in my wet hair that I felt it had been a pointless exercise in showering at all. We spend a lot of the day covering all the spares with plastic, especially anything with greased bearings, even those located under benches within the hangar. Trying to stop the dust and sand penetration was almost futile. The dust still managed to find small holes and filter into some of the packaging. On the following Monday morning we had to get a bobcat in to clear the 6-inch deep layer of sand from in front of the hangar doors.
Sand erosion of the main and tail rotor blades and engine components was our biggest problem and at one time eventually saw the grounding of the majority of our fleet due to lack of replacement spares.
[Corporal Peter Kelly, Rotary Wing Aviation Unit, the Sinai, 1983]
Withdrawal from the Sinai
Australia's original commitment to the MFO was only 2 years. Following the March 1983 federal election, the new Labor government reviewed Australia's participation in the Sinai. While in opposition, Labor had opposed Australia's involvement. Under the new government, the operation was extended for 2 more years. Many in the Australian contingent saw Australia's withdrawal in early 1986 as a political decision that overlooked the operation's success.
During their 4-year deployment, Australians flew 16,414 hours. They carried more than 93,000 passengers and well over 1,000 tonnes of freight. The rugged Sinai terrain was challenging, but there wasn't a single major incident. It was the last time RAAF aircraft were Australia's primary contribution to an operation.
Return to the Sinai
A decade after withdrawing from the Sinai, Australia was asked to recommit to the MFO. Egypt and Israel were successfully maintaining peace. However, Australia's position on the MFO changed.
The ADF returned to the Sinai on 8 January 1993. Australia's contribution to the MFO this time included a contingent of 26 headquarters staff and military police on 12-month tours. Australia monitored the border, prepared daily operational briefings, and supported the MFO Headquarters. Australians were also involved in training.
Regional tensions and terrorist incidents were a threat. There was civilian violence in the nearby Gaza Strip and Islamist terrorist attacks against tourists in Egypt. Camp security and restrictions on travel tightened. But work for the Australians in their base at North Camp was largely mundane and repetitive. Although the monotony of daily life was a sign of the MFO's successful peacekeeping, boredom and isolation affected morale. The length of most tours was later reduced to 6 months.
In January 1994, Major General David Ferguson of the Australian Army was appointed Force Commander. He served in the role until April 1997.
Political tensions in the Middle East rose. Security deteriorated in the region. In 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli right-wing extremist opposed to the Israel–Palestine peace process. For the MFO, camp security and restrictions on travel were again tightened. Quarterly rotations were introduced in 1998.
In 1999, several violent incidents in Gaza strained the Israel–Egypt relationship. Egypt withdrew its ambassador to Israel. The MFO's role in maintaining peace was more important than ever. For the Australians at North Camp, there was no immediate threat. Life remained largely business as usual, but the Australians were more vigilant. Further tensions arose following the terrorist attacks on the US on 11 September 2001. The US reduced its contribution to the MFO as it committed to wars in Afghanistan (from 2001) and Iraq (from 2003).
The Sinai became a terrorist target in 2004. Multiple car-bomb attacks killed dozens of people. The MFO was attacked for the first time on 15 August 2005. An improvised explosive device went off under a passing MFO vehicle. Australians were among the first to respond to the incident. With ongoing regional violence, the operational threat level was raised to 'medium' in July 2006. By the end of the year, Australia had officially recognised the Sinai as a terrorist base.
Today, Australians continue to be a part of the MFO. Up to 27 personnel from the RAN, Army and RAAF deploy to Operation Mazurka for 6 to 9 months in security, logistics, administration, and key staff roles.
Australian Major General Simon Stuart served as MFO Force Commander from 1 March 2017 to 1 December 2019.
Experiences of Australians
Peter Edward Kelly was an airframe fitter with the Rotary Wing Aviation Unit in the Sinai from March to September 1983.
Work became more intense. Sand erosion problems to the main rotor and tail blades as well as compressor blades in the engines created lots more work. Long days doing R3 servicings, main rotor changes, tail rotor changes and engine changes, balancing heads, building up swash plates and stabs, washing aircraft and flying with rest flight aircraft, saw the time slip by. A lot of our days were 6am to 6pm.
[Corporal Peter Kelly, Rotary Wing Aviation Unit, the Sinai, 1983]
Kelly's personal diary of his deployment is held in the Australian War Memorial collection.
A duty officer
Sergeant David Hartshorn served in the Force Duty Centre monitoring the peace accord between Egypt and Israel from 1994 to 1995. As the duty officer, he kept the Force Duty Centre log of the day Yasser Arafat made his first visit to the Sinai since his expulsion from the area in the 1960s. Hartshorn recalls that:
[Arafat was] quiet, quick witted and confident, but wary of anything that might go wrong.
Read the article Arafat visit a highlight of peacekeeping role in Sinai.
There is a relaxed professionalism here... The feeling you are doing something you have been trained for and are making a contribution to world politics.
A couple of days ago the force commander was driving back to camp and his driver saw an Israeli vehicle on fire. They stopped and rendered assistance by using the fire extinguisher in the commander's car as the Israelis don't have fire equipment in their vehicles.
Later on people were concerned about the commander stopping as it could have been a set up. It fortunately wasn't but even though we are sanctioned by both Egypt and Israel, there are people on both sides who don't want us here.
[Sergeant David Hartshorn, the Sinai, 1994]
A collection of Hartshorn's letters, documents and articles is held by the Australian War Memorial. Learn more about Hartshorn's experiences in the Sinai in this private record.
National Peacekeepers' Day
On 14 September each year, we observe National Peacekeepers' Day. It's the anniversary of the day Australia became the world's first peacekeepers to deploy into the field, in the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) in 1947. It's a day to recognise the important work of those who have served, and continue to serve, in the name of global peace.
Learn more about Australia's peacekeeping missions since 1947.
International Day of UN Peacekeepers
29 May is a day of commemoration and acknowledgement of all military, police and civilian personnel who have served as peacekeepers with the UN. Since UN peacekeeping began, more than 4,000 peacekeepers from many countries have lost their lives while performing their duties under the UN flag.
Australian War Memorial (undated), Egypt [Sinai] (MFO), 1982-1986, 1993 -, accessed 25 July 2022, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/CN500096
Australian War Memorial (undated), 'Hartshorn, David Alan (Staff Sergeant, b.1957)', accessed 25 July 2022, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C287547
Australian War Memorial (undated), 'Operation Mazurka', accessed 25 July 2022, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/E84808
Australian War Memorial, Wallet 1 of 1 - Typed and bound memoir titled 'The Sinai' of Corporal Peter Edward Kelly, Rotary Wing Aviation Unit, Sinai, 1983, accessed 25 July 2022, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C2793913?image=3
Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal (undated), Inquiry Into Recognition for Defence Force Personnel Who Served As Peacekeepers from 1947 Onwards, accessed August 4 2022, from https://defence-honours-tribunal.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Peacekeeping-Inquiry-Report.pdf
Department of Defence (2019). 'ADF celebrates 40 years of peace between Egypt and Israel', 17 May, accessed 25 July 2022, https://news.defence.gov.au/international/adf-celebrates-40-years-peace-between-egypt-and-israel
Department of Defence (undated), 'Operation Mazurka - Egypt', accessed 25 July 2022, https://www.defence.gov.au/operations/mazurka
Department of Veterans' Affairs (2021), Arafat visit a highlight of peacekeeping role in Sinai, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 25 July 2022, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/arafat-visit-highlight-peacekeeping-role-sinai
Londey, Peter; Crawley, Rhys; Horner, David. The Long Search for Peace: Volume 1, The Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations. Vol 1 Part 2 - 23 Fumbling the political football (MFO, Egypt, Israel 1981-86) and Vol 1 Part 3 - 31 Service in the Sinai (MFO, Egypt, Israel1993-2006). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
Multinational Force & Observers (undated), 'Welcome', accessed 25 July 2022, https://mfo.org