In August 1986, a French soldier from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) on sentry duty shot and killed two members of the Amal Movement during an altercation. That night, nine French UNIFIL positions came under attack by Amal gunmen. Over the next month isolated attacks were launched against UNIFIL positions, mainly those manned by the French. In early September 1986, a roadside bomb killed three French soldiers on a morning run, and days later another French soldier died in a bomb attack against his patrol. The slew of attacks led Paris to pull the bulk of its troops, leaving just a small detachment to protect the peacekeeping mission’s headquarters in Naqoura.
Given its bloody history with UNIFIL, one would think France would understand more than most the sensitivities and realities of peacekeeping in South Lebanon. But recent French moves to press for a more robust approach in fulfilling United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the July 2006 Lebanon-Israel war and calls for the disarmament of Hezbollah, among other things, suggests otherwise.
A peacekeeping force can only function if it has the support of the majority of the population and political forces in its area of operations. UNIFIL, which has been in Lebanon since 1978, survived in the south because it learned how to interact with the realities of a complicated and evolving situation on the ground. The local population has generally been in favor of UNIFIL’s presence and even Hezbollah came to tolerate and cooperate with the force.
Even though UNIFIL was unable to fulfill a key component of its mandate for 22 years — overseeing an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and helping restore Lebanese government control to the south — the force became a symbol of reassurance for southern Lebanese and a vital mediator between Hezbollah and Israel in times of heightened tension.
Following the 2006 war, UNIFIL’s numbers ballooned from 2,000 peacekeepers to more than 13,000. The bulk of the troops were drawn from top European militaries and the initial deployment consisted of a large number of special forces troops, which could deploy rapidly but were wholly unsuited for peacekeeping duties in such a complex arena. The Spanish battalion quickly landed in trouble when its elite troops pushed the boundaries of the mandate by staging reconnaissance missions in Hezbollah security pockets, unearthing old bunkers and arms stockpiles.
Warnings were given: tensions mounted with local residents, and soldiers encountered newly-planted improvised explosive devices while on patrol, but the Spanish continued their weapons searches. In June 2007, a powerful and sophisticated shaped-charge car bomb exploded beside a patrol of Spanish battalion armored personnel carriers, killing six peacekeepers. The investigation into the incident is ongoing, but the Spanish modified their behavior and have faced no more trouble.
A UNIFIL officer told me recently that if one asks an average UNIFIL peacekeeper the purpose of his mission, chances are he will answer that it is to ensure that the area south of the Litani River is free from weapons.
“That’s not the mission,” the officer said. “That’s the mission of the Lebanese army. We are just here to help the Lebanese implement 1701."
The French have been grumbling recently that there are too few Lebanese troops south of the Litani and are seeking to tighten controls on arms reaching the border district. That presumably means adopting a more unilateral approach to weapons searches and less coordination with the Lebanese army, seen as an unreliable partner by many in UNIFIL.
The French, and perhaps some other battalions, are taking their mission too seriously. In reality, UNIFIL is almost irrelevant when it comes to war and peace along the Lebanon-Israel border. If Hezbollah or Israel want to go to war, UNIFIL can do nothing to stop it. UNIFIL’s only essential role is to act as intermediary between Hezbollah, the Lebanese army and the Israelis. An indirect bonus of the force’s presence is the economic and humanitarian benefits brought to the south.
If war breaks out, the UNIFIL battalions will either leave Lebanon as fast as possible or dive into the bomb shelters to sit it out. Those with gung-ho attitudes about mandate fulfillment should take a deep breath, relax and enjoy the summer sunshine. There’s not much else they can do.
NICHOLAS BLANDFORD is a Beirut-based
correspondent for The Christian Science
Monitor and The Times of London.