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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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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