The peacekeeping challenge in south Lebanon

The UN resolution that won a cease-fire in the Israeli-Hizbullah war calls for bolstering the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) – presently only a skeleton apparatus of some 2,000 soldiers – with thousands of additional soldiers. Contingents have been pledged by Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Indonesia – all nations that refuse diplomatic relations with Israel. At the same time, Europeans have been slow to offer troops. Only Italy, volunteering to lead the force, has offered a sizable contingent.

One of Hizbullah's telling successes is that it has acquired such a fierce reputation for its tough toe-to-toe battles with Israel that no sentient prime minister wants to send his or her soldiers to complete a job that Israel failed to do. Even Turkish generals, who lead a revered army, are balking at the prospect of sending fighting units as peacekeepers to Lebanon.

After more than a month of Israeli bombardment, Hizbullah emerged with its support intact, if not increased. Its impressive and rapid response to the needs of those whose homes and lives have been ravaged – mostly, but not all Shiite Muslims – has further consolidated its impressive base of support.

Outsiders often forget that the Lebanese have suffered tremendously under Israeli attacks. One of the key tasks is to insure Lebanese civilians peacefully return to and rebuild their devastated villages. If UNIFIL, created in 1978 to oversee an Israeli withdrawal that was 22 years in coming, cannot help restore the civilian population to their homes, then the next few months will only be an interlude in the 2006 war.

Given Hizbullah's broad base of support and the fact that its supporters see no other force that can thwart Israel should it decide to reignite the war, it is completely unrealistic that the new international contingents will succeed either in disarming Hizbullah or in diminishing its appeal. To succeed, UNIFIL will need the cooperation, not the animosity, of Hizbullah.

The major question is whether UNIFIL-plus will operate not only competently but fairly. The key to restoring stability to southern Lebanon is not only to see Hizbullah stand down, but also for the new force to avoid being seen as an instrument of Israel. This means that it is crucial to recognize that both Lebanon and Israel have compelling security interests.

The new force will probably total no more than 8,000 soldiers, not the 15,000 originally envisaged. UNIFIL-plus will retain a major deficit that characterizes almost any international force, namely an endemic lack of local knowledge and language skills.

The deployment of thousands of Lebanese troops to the south should help to mitigate this problem, especially since the UN force is to work side by side with the Lebanese Army. Civilians have already welcomed their Army, and Hizbullah has usually treated the Army with respect. While outgunned significantly by Israel, the Lebanese Army is led by a professional officer corps, and it is technically competent.

The Security Council resolution anticipates that the Lebanese soldiers will disarm Hizbullah. There is no serious possibility that this will happen. Many soldiers applaud it for defending Lebanon, and the Army has been ordered to work "in cooperation with the resistance."

It is popular sport to castigate the UN for its failures, but no peacekeeping force will be any more effective than the contributing countries allow it to be. Will governments permit their soldiers to protect Lebanese civilians from Israeli "defensive" attacks, or will soldiers be ordered to mount risky offensive operations against Hizbullah? The problems are foreseeable, so we are doubtful.

Enhancing UNIFIL will do no more than freeze the situation in southern Lebanon. That in itself would be an accomplishment, but the real work that needs to be done is diplomatic. The integration of Hizbullah's military apparatus into the Lebanese Army should be a goal of diplomacy.

Thomas Milo is a specialist in Arabic Information Technology, and Augustus Richard Norton is a Boston University professor. Both writers served with UNIFIL as army officers.

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