Lebanon’s permanent ‘interim’ UN force

Despite its supposedly temporary mandate, UNIFIL has become institutionalised in southern Lebanon.

Hezbollah and Syria: An unbreakable alliance?
UNIFIL was established in southern Lebanon following Israel's invasion in 1978 [Reuters]

The latest press release from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) concerns the August 22 firing of rockets from Lebanon in the direction of Israel and the August 23 Israeli “retaliatory bombing” of a site in Lebanon nowhere near the rocket-firing location.

UNIFIL Commander Major-General Paolo Serra is quoted as condemning the first incident as “a serious violation of [UN Security Council] resolution 1701“, which requires Lebanon and Israel to respect the UN-designated “Blue Line” separating the two nations.

Resolution 1701 is not invoked in Serra’s response to the second: “After receiving the news about the airstrike, I was in contact with the IDF commander, stressing upon them to cease from any offensive military operation”.

Established following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1978, UNIFIL has become institutionalised in the south of the country despite the supposedly “interim” nature of its mandate. The force was originally tasked with, among other things, “[c]onfirm[ing] Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon” and “[r]estor[ing] international peace and security”. The former task was accomplished 22 years later, courtesy of the Lebanese resistance; the latter is obviously a joke.

Presently comprising more than 10,000 international military troops distributed among an archipelago of camps and outposts that are surrounded by concrete walls and razor wire and boast the flags of their respective countries, the UNIFIL occupation is viewed with indifference by much of the population. South Lebanese friends of mine contend that the troops’ primary function is shopping.

Security Council Resolution 1701 authorised UNIFIL ‘to take all necessary action … to ensure that its area of operations is not utilised for hostile activities of any kind’.

However, some have questioned the force’s durability in the aftermath of the decision by the European Union – which contributes several thousand personnel to UNIFIL – to classify Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organisation. Earlier this month, a Jerusalem Post headline posed the alarming question: “Will Hezbollah wage terror campaign against UNIFIL?”

The Post cites a Financial Times article that quotes a pro-Hezbollah mayor in southern Lebanon: “We as locals in the south treated the UNIFIL like sacred guests – we protected them… What do they do in return? Put us on the terrorist list.”

Indeed, following a 2007 car bombing that killed six UNIFIL troops, The Christian Science Monitor reported that some UN contingents had enlisted Hezbollah’s protection against the increasing threat posed by radical Sunni armed groups.

While the Financial Times claims that the UNIFIL force, “and particularly the Europeans in it, provides Hezbollah with a buffer against future Israeli attacks”, UNIFIL’s “buffering” track record leaves much to be desired.

The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, for example – which helped spawn the creation of Hezbollah – resulted in the deaths of nearly 20,000 civilians.

Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon involved the slaughter of another 1,200 persons, primarily civilians. During the war, in an act referred to by then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as “apparently deliberate targeting”, four UN personnel were killed in a UN observation post in the south Lebanese town of Khiam – a less bloody follow-up to the 1996 incident in which Israel shelled the UN compound in Qana, killing 106 Lebanese civilians who had taken shelter there.

Israeli immunity from ‘hostile activities’

UNIFIL’s mandate was expanded at the end of the 2006 war via Security Council Resolution 1701, the anti-Hezbollah bias of which came as no surprise given the views of key international participants to the drafting process. The US philosophy was perhaps best articulated by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who applauded the devastation of Lebanon as the “birth pangs of a new Middle East”.

The resolution authorised 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”.

In a 2010 article for Al Jazeera, Lamis Andoni documented some of this “action”:

… [T]he French contingent of UNIFIL encountered resistance by residents in several [south Lebanese] 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’… 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.

As for protecting Lebanon from “hostile activities of any kind”, UNIFIL has dutifully registered ineffectual complaints regarding Israel’s pathological violation of Lebanese airspace, while its services during the 2006 war included denying refuge to a civilian convoy fleeing the village of Marwahin in accordance with an evacuation order from the Israeli military. Commented veteran Middle East journalist Robert Fisk at the time: “The UN, it seems, can talk mightily of the need to protect the innocent … but will do precious little to shield them in southern Lebanon”.

The convoy was subsequently fired on at close range by an Israeli Apache helicopter, resulting in the deaths of 23 people, most of them children.

Half-a-billion-dollar stargazing sessions                                                    

Two weeks before the latest exchange of rockets between Israel and Lebanon, four Israeli soldiers were wounded during an incursion into southern Lebanon. In this case, Major-General Serra acknowledged the violation of Resolution 1701.

There are presumably a number of ways in which half a billion dollars could address the needs of the Lebanese population rather than those of its long-term guests.

Lebanon’s Al Akhbar offers a summary of UNIFIL’S role in the affair by As’ad AbuKhalil: “Israel was caught red-handed [by Hezbollah] in the act of a terrorist violation of Lebanese territory, while UNIFIL stood by counting the stars in the skies over Lebanon”.

Noting a dearth of reports on the incident in the Western media, AbuKhalil invites readers to “[i]magine for a second that a commando unit of Hezbollah were to violate the ceasefire line and enter occupied Palestinian territory on a mission of violent/espionage nature”.

Of course, Israel benefits from a prevailing double standard according to which any hostile act committed by Israel is self-defence and any defensive act committed by Israel’s opponents is aggression and/or terrorism. The EU designation of Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organisation has prompted the discussion of UNIFIL’s fate, but it should really prompt a discussion of why Israel – itself a military institution responsible for far more acts of terrorism than Hezbollah – is not eligible for similar designations.

None of this is to imply that UNIFIL is some sort of pro-Israeli conspiracy designed to destroy Lebanon from within; the force simply exists within a framework engineered to allow Israel to operate with impunity. Intermittent UN condemnation of Israel’s “excessive, indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force” and “violation of international humanitarian law” amounts to little more than fodder for raving Zionists, who detract attention from Israel’s crimes with hysteria over a hallucinated anti-Israel UN bias.

According to the UN website, UNIFIL’s budget for the period of July 1, 2013-June 30, 2014 is $492,622,000, approximately $84m less than the budget for the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti.

Just as the massive international resources funneled into the latter occupation could be utilised for more productive initiatives than, say, inadvertently infecting swathes of the Haitian population with cholera, there are presumably a number of ways in which half a billion dollars could address the needs of the Lebanese population rather than those of its long-term guests.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work , released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog , Salon , The Baffler , Al Akhbar English and many other publications.

Follow her on Twitter: @MariaBelen_Fdez