|Recent clashes between residents of southern Lebanon and Unifil forces stationed there are symptomatic of a bigger crisis [EPA]
Four years after the end of the war between Lebanon and Israel, the role of the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (Unifil), which had been entrusted with keeping the peace between the two countries, has been thrown into doubt amid intensifying threats of another war.
Both Israel and Hezbollah, the latter having been the main target of Israel's 2006 war, have stepped up their accusations against Unifil. Israel is again accusing the peacekeeping forces of failing to prevent, if not of collaborating with, Hezbollah in its replenishment of its military power in south Lebanon. Hezbollah, meanwhile, believes that "certain contingents" of Unifil are spying for, if not assisting, Israel.
Earlier this month, the French contingent of Unifil encountered resistance by residents in several villages while carrying out "capacity testing exercises", leading to injuries on both sides. The "testing exercise" included searching homes, taking photographs and questioning residents in order to identify "Hezbollah members".
Residents accused the forces of violating private property and of not coordinating with the Lebanese army.
The context of the exercises was the simulation of a Hezbollah missile attack against Israel and how Unifil would react to protect the latter from more attacks. The manoeuvres only confirmed Hezbollah's, and with them the residents', suspicions that Unifil, or at least the French contingent, was in Lebanon to assist Israel.
Western diplomats say that the villagers' protests were manipulated by Hezbollah. Hezbollah has a strong influence over residents of the south, where Shia Muslims make up the majority of the population. But even Sunni Muslim and Orthodox Christian residents have rallied around Hezbollah, which they see as a legitimate resistance movement and their only defence against a potential Israeli onslaught.
The crisis was quickly contained. The Lebanese government assured Unifil that it supports the role of the UN forces and decided to dispatch another 2,500 to 3,000 soldiers to the south to reinforce the Lebanese army there.
For its part, Unifil changed some of its commanders on the ground to allay residents' fears and to ensure future cooperation.
However, the clashes between residents and the French contingent were only a symptom of a bigger crisis that has several dimensions.
Role and mission
|There are currently 12,000 Unifil troops in Lebanon [EPA]
Unifil was set up in 1978 following an Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, and was expanded after the 2006 war to prevent a new eruption of hostilities. It currently has 12,000 troops.
It was entrusted with assisting in the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which called for a cessation of hostilities, the deployment of the Lebanese army in the south, and the disarming of non-governmental militias. But from the outset there was a problem with the wording of Resolution 1701.
As a peacekeeping force, Unifil is supposed to prevent hostilities from both Hezbollah and Israel. But the wording of the resolution focuses on ensuring that Hezbollah is kept in check.
The UN Security Council, according to Resolution 1701, "authorises Unifil to take all 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 utilised for hostile activities of any kind".
From the Israeli point of view, this paragraph means that Unifil has to have the force to ensure that it may be able to prevent Hezbollah from regaining its base in territories south of the Litani River - the area which, according to Resolution 1701, should remain free of arms.
During the past four years Israel has continually accused Unifil of failing to fulfill its mission, and, on occasion, even accused it of outright "collaboration with Hezbollah". The Islamic group, for its part, has cooperated with Unifil forces but has remained suspicious of its mission and the countries behind it - especially the US and France.
Rules of engagement
Over the last three decades, residents of villages below the Litani River have grown to accept the presence of Unifil, which has become part of the south Lebanese landscape and even the population mosaic. Friendships and intermarriages have ensued over the decades. But while Unifil, in general, has not been perceived as a hostile force, its presence did not prevent or protect residents from Israeli raids and attacks during either the 1982 invasion or the 2006 war.
That war consolidated the image and role of Hezbollah as a resistance movement defending Lebanon, and earned the movement more support and influence in Unifil's operating grounds in the south.
Unifil's operating term comes up for renewal at the end of August, amid continuing debate over its role, prerogatives and efficiency.
Hezbollah believes that the residents of the southern villages drew a line in the sand, and curtailed Unifil's ability to aggressively check Hezbollah's activities.
But Herve Morin, the French defence minister, recently said that his country would seek to alter Unifil's rules of engagement and to integrate a special unit which would have the power to search the dwellings of suspected Hezbollah members in a weapons confiscation drive.
However, Israel may not wait for the United Nations Security Council to decide whether to grant Unifil more authority to launch an all-out campaign to disarm Hezbollah members and fighters in the south.
Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, the chief of the general staff of the Israeli army, said his forces would not hesitate to strike Lebanese towns and villages.
"Hezbollah is consolidating its presence in populated areas where Unifil can't discover weapons," Ashkenazi told Israeli radio.
"We will move in these areas if need be."
Earlier this month, the Israelis produced photos and surveillance claiming that these proved that Hezbollah had fortified 160 villages below the Litani River "without any interference by Unifil".
Internal Lebanese debate
|The clashes in the south have brought the issue of Hezbollah's weapons to the fore again [EPA]
Further Israeli threats and the debate over Unifil have sparked internal divisions within Lebanon's national unity government.
While most members of the leading March 14 coalition support an acceleration of government efforts to round up Hezbollah weapons, such a campaign will disrupt the government and inflame increasing tensions within the country.
In fact, the clashes in the villages of the south have again brought to the fore the debate about disarming Hezbollah - a debate which had taken a back seat after the formation of the national unity government.
Almost immediately after these clashes, the Kataeb Party (also known as the Phalange), the Lebanese Forces and some members of Al Mustaqbal coalition, led by Saad al-Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, sided with the Unifil French contingent, charging that Hezbollah had manipulated the clashes on behalf of Iran.
Al Mustaqbal, which maintains close ties with France, accused Hezbollah of acting on behalf of Iran to send a warning to Spain and France, who have forces within Unifil, not to endorse a series of tighter economic sanctions against Tehran.
Judging by press interviews with residents of the villages of Kherbit Slim, Toulin and
Qabrikha, the locals had been genuinely angry and resentful of the French contingent's behaviour, and had expressed strong support for Hezbollah.
While the impression is created that Iran is positioned to benefit from any show of strength by Hezbollah, the reality is that the residents would have rejected similar manoeuvres regardless of Tehran's wishes.
However, Unifil's role and position in the south is still likely to be inflamed by events that already threaten to shake, if not disrupt, the Hariri-led government.
The United Nations Special Tribunal on Lebanon, which is scheduled to release its findings later this year, could point a finger at Hezbollah, accusing it of having played a role in the 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, the late prime minister.
The release of the report could change the equation, resulting in all agreements between Hezbollah and the rest of the government partners collapsing, and placing Unifil under pressure to disarm Hezbollah - which will openly resist.
If these internal Lebanese divisions explode, Israel may still use what it sees as Unifil's failure as a pretext to opt for war on the south, or even on all of Lebanon.
At the same time, France may still try to push the UN Security Council to give more power to Unifil, thus empowering it to search out Hezbollah in the south. But such a move would fuel an internal Lebanese explosion.
Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.
This article was first published by the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.