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

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    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.
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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.

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.

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“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.

In other recent incidents, UNIFIL soldiers had their paths blocked by unarmed civilians, vehicles searched and equipment seized, including cameras, laptop computers, and GPS instruments.

Is France pursuing a separate agenda?

Zahwi, the mayor of Qabrikha, accuses the soldiers of gathering intelligence on Hezbollah. “The French UNIFIL have stopped exercising Resolution 1701 and are now working with the French government,” he says.

Neeraj Singh, UNIFIL’s spokesman, says such allegations are “totally unfounded.”

“There is no hidden agenda or separate national agenda,” he says.

Nonetheless, some UNIFIL officers privately voice doubts that the Lebanese army is a reliable partner in fulfilling Resolution 1701, suspecting that it is too sensitive to the interests of the powerful Hezbollah. The French contingent lately has been pushing to adopt a more robust attitude in carrying out the mandate, including greater freedom to conduct weapons searches in populated areas. Not everyone in UNIFIL welcomes such assertive behavior, given the politically sensitive environment of south Lebanon.

“Unfortunately, this is going to cause trouble,” says one UNIFIL official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Local appreciation for French troops

Qabrikha is perched on the lip of Wadi Salouqi, a deep valley system with precipitous slopes covered in dense evergreen oaks that was a Hezbollah stronghold in the 2006 war. The dusty streets are lined with portraits of “martyrs,” Hezbollah fighters killed fighting Israel – a testimony to the high level of support in the village for the group.

Still, UNIFIL and the residents of south Lebanon have been living with each other for more than three, often violent decades. Although contingents come and go and mandates change, most southerners remain deeply appreciative of the international presence.

“We like them and we’re still friends with them. The French have done a lot of good things in the village,” says Hassan Fahs in Tulin village, a neighbor to Qabrikha. “The problems started when they stopped cooperating with the Lebanese army.”

UNIFIL commander clarifies purpose

Singh says that the peacekeepers maintain constant coordination with the Lebanese army but, given that UNIFIL performs 350 patrols a day, it would be a “logistical nightmare” to have the peacekeepers and Lebanese troops patrolling together all the time.

On Thursday, Major General Alberto Asarta Cuevas, the UNIFIL commander, took the unusual step of issuing an open letter to the people of south Lebanon to explain the force’s mission.

“Our presence in Lebanon, far from our homes, has no other purpose than helping you to live in peace, contributing with all our means to your protection and the stability of the area,” he wrote.

Similar tensions with Spanish soldiers in '07

In June 2007, six soldiers of the Spanish UNIFIL battalion were killed by a sophisticated car bomb in an unclaimed and still unresolved attack. The ambush occurred after several months of tension between the Spanish contingent and local civilians, similar to the current friction with the French peacekeepers.

Goksel, the retired UNIFIL veteran, says that the mission’s success is largely dependent on the peacekeeping force's ability to personally engage with the local population to overcome misunderstandings and to build levels of trust.

“UNIFIL has to do their own communications with the local people, not rely on the Lebanese army to transmit messages on its behalf,” he says, adding that a failure to resolve the situation would be “very dangerous and could affect UNIFIL’s operations in the long term.”

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