UNIFIL after four decades of peacekeeping in Lebanon
Beirut- After being the proxy battleground of the Middle East for several decades, southern Lebanon is experiencing one of its quietest and most stable periods in recent history. Eleven years of peace and stability on the volatile Lebanese-Israeli border area are largely due to a combination of international political interests and international peacekeeping.
The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), one of the longest serving peacekeeping missions, has been in southern Lebanon for almost four decades. First deployed in 1978 following an Israeli incursion against Palestinian guerrillas using southern Lebanon to launch attacks on Israel, it was significantly strengthened in August 2006 under UN Security Council Resolution 1701 to monitor the cessation of hostilities between Israel and Lebanon involving the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
“Being able to maintain peace and to have a stable south (for that long) is unprecedented,” said UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti. “The south is becoming one of the quietest [areas] in the region. That’s not only because of UNIFIL but also because we have the strong will of the parties (to the conflict) not to start a new war and to preserve the stability they have been enjoying in the last 11 years.”
UNIFIL’s mandate, due for routine renewal at the end of August, includes marking the “Blue Line” along the Lebanese-Israeli border, supporting the Lebanese Army and helping restore state authority in the south.
What is commonly referred to as UNIFIL II deploys more than 10,500 peacekeepers in its zone of operation south of the Litani River. It includes troops from 41 countries, with the main contingents from Spain, Italy, France, Indonesia, India, Malaysia and Ghana. It has also a maritime task force of seven ships monitoring Lebanese territorial waters against weapons smuggling.
A key advantage of UNIFIL II, compared to the original force, is that it has been operating in close coordination with the Lebanese Army. The latter was redeployed in the south in 2006 after being absent for more than 30 years. UNIFIL-sponsored tripartite meetings grouping Lebanese Army officers and representatives from the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have been instrumental in defusing tensions.
“These meetings are the most important confidence-building mechanism that we have,” Tenenti said. “We had more than 100 meetings in the last ten years and no one ever walked out. There were animated discussions but everyone stayed in the room until things were resolved. If UNIFIL was not there things would have been different.”
Tenenti downplayed Israeli accusations that UNIFIL is “whitewashing” Hezbollah’s activity on the Blue Line in violation of Resolution 1701. “We haven’t seen any evidence of rearming in the south of Lebanon,” he said. “We have more than 400 patrols a day by all contingents, including foot, vehicle and helicopter patrols night and day, which is pretty intense in such a small area.”
Analysts agreed that UNIFIL is maintained today for political interests rather than to resolve the complex and long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict.
“We need to build up on that peace,” Tenenti stressed. “UNIFIL is opening a window of opportunities for the parties to move from a state of cessation of hostilities to a permanent ceasefire.”
Although Hezbollah and the Shia Amal Movement are deeply entrenched in its zone of operation, UNIFIL’s coordination is limited to the Lebanese Army.
“We have relations with mayors from different villages who belong to Amal and Hezbollah and we do relate to them our activities but whenever we see evidence of weapons or presence of militias we call in the Lebanese Army. They are in charge of the legality and security of the south and they intervene,” Tenenti explained.
Having been there for almost 40 years, UNIFIL has become an integral part of southern Lebanon’s landscape. Despite occasional incidents in the course of the mission, the multinational force is largely accepted by the local population.
“With such a large number of troops you would think that we would have more friction but we really had very few incidents,” Tenenti said. “We never left the south even during wars and occupation. We have lost more than 300 peacekeepers (since 1978) and the people of the south are aware of that.”
In parallel to its military tasks, UNIFIL provides humanitarian assistance, including health care and veterinary support, reconstruction of war-devastated infrastructure and social activities, such as language classes, yoga sessions by the Indian contingent or taekwondo classes by the South Koreans.
Years of peace and stability have encouraged investments and development projects in the south, which only a decade ago was a no-go area for civilians. Resorts have been built, historic landmarks restored and visitors are coming back.
“It is a totally different south from the south I saw in 2006,” Tenenti said. “The dividends of peace are remarkable and the people can really be addicted to peace, making it difficult to look back to war. We need to cherish this and preserve it, as well as build on it.”