An examination of 30 years of UNIFIL’s presence in Lebanon reveals that UNIFIL, like its parent the UN Security Council, has been exploited by power politics conducted by the Untied States on behalf of Israel and unfortunately, frequently acquiesced in by the international community.
Too often UNIFIL’s guiding principles and mandate has been replaced with the power and authority which were detrimental to the people of Lebanon. UNIFIL has often acted in favor of the interests of Israel and Washington over the international community including the people of Lebanon.
As Boston University’s Professor Augustus Norton instructs us, actions taken by UNIFIL have sometimes reflected the US dictate that UN resolutions are to operate in one of two dimensions. Either manifesting a unified binding character which the entire world is expected to accept or taking the form of an inconclusive mandate "which leaves sufficient room for Israel to buy time, alter the enforcement of the resolution and sometimes even replace the intended policy or action with its own objectives."
A very recent example of the Bush administration manhandling the Security Council to the detriment of democracy in Lebanon is the December 12, 2007 US move to coerce the UN into a self destructive endorsement of the preferred US/Israel faction in Lebanon, the Siniora government. The Welch Club idea is to push the Army to try to link with UNIFIL against the opposition. During this attempt the US will provide the necessary noise at Turtle Bay about the need for UNIFIL ’to do its duty under UNSCR 1701’.
The assignation of Brig. Gen. Francois Hajj on 12/12/13 could be a signal not to use the Lebanese army for Bush Administration projects.
The 12/12/07 US move, employing the new French pro-Israel Skorsky government as pitchman, takes the form of an unusual draft of UN Presidential Statement in support of the Siniora government. The Draft stresses the need to implement United Nations Security Council resolutions which is US Bush Administration code language for disarming Hezbollah.
If the the Bush administration succeeds in pushing UNIFIL to attempt to disarm the Lebanese Resistance UNIFIL, according to one UN official at its HQ in Naquora, " will be forced out of Lebanon within fewer hours than Israel needed to saturate South Lebanon with US cluster bombs".
The first UNIFIL troops arrived in Lebanon on March 23, 1978 although a unit was sent in 1974 to observe the Golan Heights and Israel frontier.
UNIFIL is currently primarily deployed along the Blue Line dividing Israel and Syria’s Golan Heights and southern Lebanon. Its activities have centered on monitoring military activity between Hezbollah and Israeli Forces with the aim of reducing tensions and allaying continuing low-level armed conflict. UNIFIL has also played an important role in clearing landmines, assisting displaced persons, and providing humanitarian assistance in this underdeveloped region.
The UNIFIL contingent was reinforced last year and is up to more than 13,000 personnel and a tougher UN mandate under UNSC resolution 1701.
The new resolution states that UNIFIL can "take all the necessary action in areas of deployment of its forces, and as it deems within its capabilities, to ensure that its area of operations is not utilized for hostile activities of any kind."
After the 2006 July War, a UNIFIL Maritime Task Force (MTF) was established to end the Israeli sea blockade of Lebanese ports which for months had kept Lebanon’s 3,000 year old fishing fleet in dock and without income. This MTF was initially led by the Italian Navy. In October 2006 the German Navy assumed the lead and is contributing the major part of the force with five frigates and ten smaller patrol vessels.
Like most of Lebanon, UNIFIL is under intense political pressure and a pall of mistrust with its immediate future the subject of casino wagers from Macau, off China’s Guangdong province in the South China Sea, to Monte Carlo, a half a world away.
Debate over UNIFIL’s Neutrality
UNIFIL has fallen out of favor with both Israel and many in Lebanon. Israel has criticized the force for, among other things, maintaining a dialogue with Hezbollah, which it views as a terrorist organization, for treating Israeli and Hezbollah ceasefire breaches equally, and of complicity in the capture of three Israeli soldiers in 2000.
The imaginative and truly gifted temptress, Lori Lowenthal Marcus of the Zionist Organization of America has accused UNIFIL, in a September 2006 Weekly Standard (!) article, of providing Hezbollah with ’real time intelligence’ concerning Israeli troop movements via its website during the July 2006 War.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: "We didn’t like very much UNIFIL which was very useless and very helpless. Look what happened. Did you hear of any particular efforts of the United Nations UNIFIL force in the south of Lebanon to prevent the attacks against Israel in the first place? So they were not useful and that is why we were unhappy with them."
Former Israeli ambassador Itamar Rabinovich on the 20 July 2006:"UNIFIL, I’m afraid, is a joke. They’ve been there for 29 years and since then, there have been so many skirmishes [along the border]."
Former UNIFIL spokesman, Timur Goksel disagrees:
"UNIFIL came here in 1978. We were, because at that time there was no Hezbollah here, accused of being sympathetic to Palestinians. A peacekeeping force does not come here with pre-set enemies. There is no enemy in a peacekeeping force and UNIFIL is a peacekeeping force. It’s not an Israeli combat force or an anti-terror force, as they would like it to be. As long as we don’t serve their direct interests, they are going to denigrate it as much as they can." (Sept 26 2006)
One example of UNIFIL’s image problem can be found in Sibqin, a small remote village overlooking Tyre and the Mediterranean, a few miles from the Lebanon border.
During the July 2006 War, which destroyed 60% of Sibqin’s homes, the local hospital and its grounds were not just targeted but saturated with US-made cluster bombs. This carpet bombing was done in the last 72 hours of the conflict after the long delayed UN sponsored cessation of hostiles agreement was finally allowed to be signed by the Bush administration. UNIFIL reckons that nearly one million unexploded US bomblets still constitute a deadly infestation of the surrounding countryside of South Lebanon.
Recently a young Shia mother from Sibqin brought her son who had a serious cut on his hand for emergency treatment to the gate of the newly arrived Italian regiment, called the ’Savoia Cavalleria’ which is part of a six month rotation with responsibility for this village.
According to villagers, the boy and his mother were coldly turned away without treatment, further endangering the lad: "We learned during the long Israeli occupation to expect such inhumanity from the Zionists, but it hurt our community for the Europeans to behave in this way towards us. We did not invite them to become the new occupiers. And anyhow is it not true that Bush and Rice sent UNIFIL to protect the thieves of Palestine, not to protect us Lebanese".
Soon, other complaints against UNIFIL surfaced. "We liked the Nepalese but they left in 2000", one woman said. Another added, "Italian UNIFIL doesn’t even talk to us anyone, they just stare at us from behind their dark glasses inside their armored vehicles. My children are afraid of them."
Sensitive to their image, the Italians apologized for not helping the boy and have set up a Friday morning free clinic for Sibqin, and as has been their annual custom, are currently busy arranging for Santa Claus to deliver Christmas gifts to the precious, and war-traumatized children in their area. The Italians also plan to do foot patrols with an interpreter and ’try to connect more with the people’.
But doubts persist on both sides in Zibqin as in the more than 200 villages of South Lebanon. The other 28 country contingents around the South have had similar experiences to the Italians.
But increasingly UNIFIL respects the Lebanese villagers they are assigned to protect.
A Spanish soldier explained recently near Fatima Gate, while studying a new Israeli bunker across the blue line cyclone fence and with Israeli binoculars focused on him reflecting the bright sunlight from the hills in the distance:
"When I am on patrol in a village and I see an old woman walking along the road I become emotional sometimes. I don’t see a Muslim woman, a supporter of Hezbollah, a ’terrorist’. I see my deceased sainted mother or my aunt who lives in a village near Barcelona. These Arab people are exactly the same as us. Why can’t people understand that?"
Near the village of Al-Sultaneh, a French paratrooper volunteered:
"Sometimes I arrive to a young man on his motorcycle. I assume for sure he is Hezbollah. We are friendly and correct in our conversation. Do I want to arrest him or question him? Non, Pas de tout! I have no right to do that. C’est interdit. Truly I would like to play football with him because all UNIFIL troops know that Hezbollah are also very good on the sporting battlefield. But if we invited them for a match Israel would maybe react completely fou [crazy] and cause an international crisis. So our commander tells us to keep our distance. Malheursement also from the Shia mademoiselles qui bien sur sont plus belle et chamrment que lesquelles nous avons en toute de France!
"Don’t tell my girlfriend in Lyon that I said that!" he adds to shrieks of laughter from his friends.
The June 24, 2007 attack on UNIFIL which killed six peacekeepers from the Spanish contingent near Khiam shook UNIFIL resulting in even less direct contact with the local population as UNIFIL hunkered behind protective barriers and in armored vehicles.
Some Hezbollah supporters, but not the organization itself, has accused UNIFIL of siding with Israel, especially since the passage of Resolution 1701 which they view as one-sided.
On October 16, 2006 the much respected senior Shia cleric Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah declared that "the UN force has come to protect Israel, not Lebanon." Many agree with the Sayyed, whose social service projects are second only to those of Hezbollah in areas where the Government of Lebanon has never functioned for average citizens and which today does less for Lebanese in need than the Bush administration has done for post Katrina New Orleans’s lower ninth ward and St. Bernard Parish.
The anti-Hezbollah salafist organization, Al Qaeda in Lebanon, has declared UNIFIL its target and is widely believed to be behind the June attack. Hezbollah is watching UNIFIL’s back and has foiled more than half a dozen operations against it.
Slowly and discretely, a growing bond is forming among the Lebanese Resistance (led by Hezbollah), the Lebanese Army and UNIFIL. This quasi-entente cordial does not please the Welch Club whose first question to each of Lebanon’s Presidential aspirants over the past months is reported to be "how are you going to disarm Hezbollah?"
To date, UNIFIL has suffered 258 fatalities: 249 military personnel, 2 military observers, 3 international civilian staff, and 4 local staff.
More than two thirds were killed by Israel in what has been three decades of accidents, wrong firing logs, out dated maps, terrorists operating near UNIFIL, mistakes, faulty equipment etc.
Citing Israel’s frequent ’errors’, deep concern from contributing countries has pressured UNIFIL to largely withdraw to bunkers in times of ’blue line’ tension. This is what Israel wants to happen to those who would presume to monitor their actions.
Military Pressure on UNIFIL
During the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Israel ordered UN positions overrun, primarily by its de facto forces under Phalangist Saad Haddad and later Antoine Lahad who reportedly still plots against the Lebanese Resistance from his current Israeli-commission based in his Tel Aviv Restaurant.
The aftermath of the 1982 invasion saw the establishment of what was to become Israel’s 22 year occupation. And it forced UNIFIL to quit its military mandate, only sporadically allowing it to provide humanitarian aid to needy Lebanese in their area.
According to UNIFIL documentation, there have been scores of attacks against UNIFIL by Israeli forces since its arrival in Lebanon and dozens of incidents of UN posts coming under Israeli fire during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict.
The first Qana Massacre, on April 18 1996, was another Israeli-claimed ’accident’ that saw a UNIFIL post attacked. A hundred and thirteen (113) civilians were killed having sought safety at the UN base as Israel had bombed and flattened 17 nearby villages in the areas shortly before. In addition to those killed, more than 300 of the 800 seeking safety were wounded.
A UN investigation concluded that Israel’s explanations of sustained 14 shells per minute firing over a 30 minutes period and that it was all a regrettable accident was disingenuous.
Today, a visitor finds the targeted UNIFIL base untouched for the past 12 years, the devastation permanently documenting a heinous war crime.
By May 24, 2000, Hezbollah forced Israel into a nearly full withdrawal, which allowed UNIFIL to resume its military tasks and last summer the UN Security Council has extended UNIFIL’s mandate until August 31, 2008.
Recent Casualties from Israeli Fire
On Monday 24 July 2006, an Israel tank shell hit four Ghanaian soldiers. Earlier, UNIFIL engineers from China were fired at while repairing a road connecting Tyre and Naqoura which had previously destroyed by the Israeli airforce.
A week earlier on 16 July 2006 shrapnel from Israeli tank shells seriously wounded an Indian soldier.
A UNIFIL international staff member and his wife were killed after an IAF airstrike on the Hosh area of Tyre where they lived on July 17. Their bodies were recovered from the rubble on July 26.
On 25 July 2006 four UN peacekeepers from Austria, Canada, China and Finland were killed when an Israeli aerial bomb struck a UN observation post over looking the blue line into near the former Khiam concentration camp. Again, the Israelis claimed were responding to "Hezbollah fire from that vicinity," and the four had taken shelter in a bunker under the post.
The area around the site was shelled a total of 14 times by Israeli artillery throughout the day despite more than a dozen communications via telephone between the UN liaison and the IDF during which the UN demanded Israeli shelling of their post cease. Following the direct bombing of the post and deaths of the UN observers, a rescue team was also shelled as it tried to recover the four bodies from the rubble. One UNIFIL office angrily surveying the carnage stated that Israel was better at finding and bombing UNIFIL than it was Hezbollah.
Israeli Planes Continue to Harass UNIFIL and Lebanon
On October 3, 2006, an Israeli fighter penetrated the 2-nautical mile defense perimeter of the French frigate Courbet, triggering a diplomatic incident.
Three weeks later six Israeli F-16’s flew over a German vessel patrolling off Israel’s coast just south of the Lebanese border. The German Defense Ministry said that the planes had given off infrared decoys and one of the aircraft had fired two shots into the air. The Israeli military accused the Germans of launching a helicopter from its vessel without having been given permission by Israel, and denied vehemently having fired any shots at the vessel and said "as of now" it also had no knowledge of the jets launching flares over the German vessel.
The "as of now" wording is signature Israel military speak, often used to give it an out, after an incident recedes from public attention, to allow for a later qualified admission of responsibility.
On 31 October 2006, eight Israeli F-15s flew over many areas of Lebanon, including Beirut.
The IAF jets also flew over a French peacekeeper position in Lebanon. According to the French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, the planes came in at what was interpreted as an attack formation, and the peacekeepers were "seconds away" from firing at the intruders.
Dating back to Roman and Mamluk days, foreign troops have never had an easy mission in Lebanon.
As college students in Portland, San Diego, and elsewhere continue to represent France and other countries in Model United Nations, UNIFIL’s Real World mission in Lebanon to some extent represents France, Italy, Spain, Germany and the other contributing Nations as well as the international community’s mandate. It has done a creditable job despite some doubts from those for whom it risks and loses its lives to protect and despite Israeli criticism and harassment. Ultimately Lebanon’s future and its political sovereignty depend on its people and hinges upon the intent and actions of the community of nations and their willingness to resist Israeli aggression in Lebanon and through out the region.
A period of hoped for calm in Lebanon has now shattered by the latest assassination and the apparent selection of General Michel Suleiman as Lebanon’s new President, is in doubt, Lebanon’s best hope for a national consensus may be the growing Lebanese Army, Hezbollah and UNIFIL cooperation. That tripartite cooperation may well lead to Lebanon being able to secure and safeguard its Southern border, airspace, and help rebuild the Country.
Dr. Franklin Lamb is currently based in Lebanon where he is doing research on Hezbollah and the effects of Bush Administration policy in the Region. He can be reached at email@example.com