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Civilian clashes with UN soldiers rise in Lebanon's Hezbollah heartland

Civilians in the southern Lebanese town of Qabrikha, where many support Hezbollah, attacked French soldiers with the UNIFIL peacekeeping mission last weekend. The UN Security Council is expected to discuss the rising tensions today.

By Correspondent / July 9, 2010

Lebanese soldiers secure a French UN vehicle after it was attacked by civilians in Toulin, southern Lebanon, July 3. Villagers seized weapons from U.N. peacekeepers and hurled stones and eggs at their patrol on Saturday, security sources said, the latest in a series of confrontations near the Israeli border.

Karamallah Daher/Reuters

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Qabrikha, south Lebanon

A violent clash between Lebanese civilians and French United Nations peacekeepers last weekend has cast into doubt the durability of a key UN peacekeeping mission even as the war drums continue to beat between Israel and Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah.

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The UN Security Council is expected to convene Friday at the request of France to discuss rising tensions in the past two months between the peacekeeping force, known as UNIFIL, and residents of southern Lebanese villages. The southerners accuse the French UNIFIL contingent in particular of exceeding its mandate and “snooping” on Hezbollah in their villages.

Briefing: What are Hezbollah's true colors?

“They [UNIFIL] have to understand that Qabrikha from one end to the other is with the Resistance," says Ali Zahwi, the mayor of Qabrikha village, referring to Hezbollah. "This is the land of the Resistance. Everyone you see here, whether walking along the road or riding a tractor, is with the Resistance."

Israeli accusations fuel tensions

However, analysts say that the civilian protests are being manipulated by Hezbollah to send messages to the international community warning of UNIFIL’s potential vulnerability should the actions of the peacekeepers threaten the Iran-backed party.

In a possibly related move, the Israeli army on Wednesday made public previously classified intelligence on Hezbollah’s alleged military preparations in the town of Khiam, which lies in the UNIFIL-patrolled zone. The release of the data comes after months of repeated allegations by Israel that Hezbollah has turned southern villages into military encampments in preparation for another war with Israel. The allegations have contributed to the rising tensions between local Lebanese and UNIFIL.

“Of course, the protests are Hezbollah-motivated, we all know that. But in this atmosphere, when the Israelis say the villages are targets and then UNIFIL enters the villages in force, what do you expect the residents to do?” asks Timur Goksel, a university lecturer in Beirut who served as spokesman and senior adviser with UNIFIL between 1979 and 2003.

Why UNIFIL is here, and why its mission expanded in 2006

UNIFIL has been present in Lebanon since 1978, following an Israeli invasion of south Lebanon. After the month-long war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, the force was expanded from some 2,000 peacekeepers to a present strength of 11,500, including contributions from leading European countries such as France, Italy, and Spain.

UNIFIL’s mission is to oversee the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which helped end the 2006 war. The resolution, in part, calls on UNIFIL to assist the Lebanese army in making the southern Lebanon border district a weapons-free zone.

Since March, relations have steadily soured between residents of some staunch Hezbollah-supporting villages and the 1,420-strong French battalion, the second-largest contingent in UNIFIL.

The latest incident occurred on July 3 when a French soldiers were surrounded by an angry crowd after the UNIFIL patrol attempted to drive their armored vehicle down a narrow street. One French soldier was lightly hurt, aerials were torn off two UNIFIL vehicles, and a weapon was stolen, prompting the peacekeepers to fire warning shots in the air. The situation was diffused with the arrival of Lebanese troops.

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