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On the Sinai Border a Norwegian General Now Calls the Shots

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It was noon in the Sinai. A sandstorm whirled through the desert. At Eitam, an Israeli-built military airfield, a few officers sat around a plain wood table in a prefab barrack. It was a historical moment: Israel’s representative, Brig. Gen. Dov Sion, was completing the return of the Sinai, conquered twice (in 1956 and 1967) under the leadership of his father-in-law, the late Moshe Dayan. Facing Sion was Egypt’s Rear Adm. Mohsein Hamdy.

In compliance with the 1979 Camp David accords, the Star of David came down last week over the starkly majestic biblical land to be replaced by the red-white-and-black banner of Egypt. As the Israeli officers departed in a small Cessna, Egyptian troops moved into the vast peninsula. Meanwhile the forces of Lt. Gen. Fredrik Bull-Hansen, a 54-year-old Norwegian officer whose mission it is to insure the peace, began patrolling the border between the old enemies.

The Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), which Bull-Hansen commands, is not a U.N. body but a creature of the accords Jimmy Carter hammered out between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, the first peace treaty ever struck between the Jewish nation and an Arab state. “We have been invited here by both Israel and Egypt,” the general notes. “We’re not imposing ourselves on anyone.” Americans, including paratroopers from the elite 82nd Airborne Division, make up nearly half of the 2,600 military and civilian observers. Washington is picking up 60 percent of the first year’s $225 million budget, with Israel and Egypt splitting the rest. To underscore Washington’s commitment to the peace, an American diplomat, Leamon Ray Hunt, has been given civilian direction of the operation.

It is the Norwegian general, though, who provides the military leadership—and the impartiality that will be crucial to its success. A farmer’s son who grew up whistling Bach and writing poetry, Bull-Hansen joined the anti-Nazi resistance as a teenager in World War II. Educated first at military schools, he later took a philosophy degree at Oslo University. He served as an artillery expert in his country, then moved into a wide variety of military and diplomatic missions. In his present job, he refuses to wear a sidearm, and the only “weapons” he keeps on his desk are two knives for sharpening pencils.

At his austere headquarters on the Eitam airbase, Bull-Hansen commands troops from 11 nations: pilots from Australia and New Zealand, Fijian infantrymen, Italian sailors, Dutch signalmen and MPs, and a British HQ staff, among others. Worried that his people might succumb to “desert apathy” from too much bleak landscape, he has provided such diversions as a Colombian coffee shop, a discotheque and sports facilities. “It might turn out to be more difficult to keep peace between the French and British contingents than between the Israelis and Egyptians,” one senior Israeli officer jokes about the general’s task.

MFO personnel normally will be rotated home every six months, but the general has signed on for three years. His wife, Turid, will join him in the Mideast, though their two grown sons will not. For the duration of his stay, Bull-Hansen prefers not to think of the possibility of violence. He would rather contemplate the promise of peace. “I am fascinated by the question mark,” he explains quietly. “Never by the exclamation point.”