UN questions usefulness of peacekeepers

A UN vote Wednesday will determine the mandate of security personnel in Lebanon.

At an outpost overlooking Lebanon's southern border with Israel, Hizbullah, an anti-Israel militant organization, is digging in. A mini-earth mover wheels to and fro, building ramparts and fortifications.

About 20 yards away stands an observation post, protected by sandbags and concrete retaining walls and manned by Fijian peacekeepers of the UN Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL).

The calm remains fragile along this troublesome border between Lebanon and Israel, described by some as potentially more dangerous to Mideast stability than the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

The UN Security Council is expected to vote Wednesday on extending UNIFIL's mandate, which expires that day. Although the mandate is likely to be renewed for another six-month period, there is a growing feeling within the Security Council that the 24-year-old peacekeeping force is close to outliving its usefulness.

"The Security Council has been discussing this for two years," says a European diplomat in Beirut. "UNIFIL is a very costly operation. When things are quiet in south Lebanon, the pressure to wind up the mission increases."

Labboune is one of several places along the frontier where UNIFIL observation posts and Hizbullah positions lie in uncomfortable proximity. Although the positions are erected for the same purpose – to monitor the border area – Hizbullah's activities are part of the organization's unrelenting conflict with Israel, while UNIFIL is supposed to help maintain the uneasy calm that exists along the frontier.

"Hizbullah is hardening its posts in several places along the Blue Line," says a Fijian officer, referring to the United Nations cease-fire line running along the border.

UNIFIL deployed in Lebanon in 1978 following Israel's first invasion of its northern neighbor. Although Israel finally withdrew its forces in 2000, south Lebanon refuses to stay quiet.

Hizbullah has stashed away a large amount of weaponry in the remote wadis, or valleys, of the border district; has placed antiaircraft batteries on hilltops; and occasionally shells Israeli outposts on a mountainous strip of territory claimed by Lebanon and known as the Shebaa Farms. Israeli warplanes violate Lebanese airspace on an almost daily basis, prompting Hizbullah to fire antiaircraft rounds across the border.

Caught awkwardly in the middle is UNIFIL. Because UNIFIL is in Lebanon at the request of the Lebanese government, the peacekeeping force is unable to prevent Hizbullah's state-sanctioned activities along the border, even when those activities breach the UN's own Blue Line. When Hizbullah fires mortar shells across the Blue Line at Israeli positions in the Shebaa Farms, the peacekeepers can do little more than count the exploding rounds and report the attack.

Equally, the UN has had little success in persuading Israel to halt its flights over Lebanese airspace, actions the UN calls "provocative" and "unjustified."

Israel has repeatedly accused UNIFIL of failing to prevent attacks against Israeli troops. But UNIFIL is unapologetic.

"The Israelis have their own interests in mind and they have been saying the same things about us since 1978," says Timur Goksel, a UNIFIL spokesman. "Basically our role is to observe and monitor the Blue Line.... We can't operate according to Israel's interests," he added.

The Lebanese government has also drawn criticism from the UN. Earlier this month, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan accused Beirut of flouting UN resolutions by permitting Hizbullah to stage attacks across the Blue Line. He called on Lebanon to deploy troops in strength along the border and to provide better basic services to the local population.

The Lebanese government argues that Hizbullah is legitimately resisting Israel's occupation of the Shebaa Farms.

Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri said on Monday that there had been no serious outbreak of violence along the border lately.

"But the situation remains fragile and that's why we have demanded another six-month extension for UNIFIL," Mr. Hariri said.

But UNIFIL is in the process of being reduced and its annual budget slashed. In the past year, battalions from Nepal, Ireland, and Finland have departed from Lebanon, more than halving UNIFIL's strength to 3,628. The figure is expected to reach 2,000 by the end of the year following the departure of the Fijian battalion.

At the same time, UNIFIL's annual budget has dropped from $143.9 million to $117 million for the next 12 months. But it still ranks as the seventh most expensive peacekeeping operation of the UN's 15 current missions.

No further reduction in UNIFIL's manpower is expected after this year, however, due to the prevailing uncertainty in the Mideast.

Diplomats in Beirut say that UNIFIL's presence is still essential to provide reliable information on developments in the border area.

At Labboune, a Fijian soldier in an observation tower watches an Israeli army jeep drive slowly alongside the border fence, churning up clouds of dust in its wake. A sun-faded blue UN flag snaps in the hot breeze. In the neighboring Hizbullah position, a fighter in civilian clothes and a baseball cap speaks into a walky-talky as the Israeli vehicle trundles by. The Fijian peacekeepers and their Hizbullah neighbors studiously ignore each other.

"We get a sense that the mission is coming to an end," the Fijian officer says. "But there is still a need for a military presence here. No one really knows what's happening down here except for us."

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