UN shifts toward aid projects in Lebanon

The battle-hardened Spanish Legionnaires aren't all that familiar with having to win hearts and minds. Spain's elite fighting force is more accustomed to operating in hostile environments such as Bosnia, Iraq, or Afghanistan.

But recently in this remote border village, they put on smiles and spent the day handing out sweaters, shawls, and blankets to wide-eyed Lebanese boys and girls.

With calm now prevailing in south Lebanon after the devastating summertime war between Hizbullah and Israel, the UN peacekeeping force here, known as UNIFIL, is beginning to emphasize its humanitarian side, says Milos Strugar, the mission's senior adviser.

That type of role, he says, is crucial to maintaining the good will of the local population. Spanish battalion doctors and a veterinarian now hold regular clinics in the villages, and the soldiers have just begun teaching Spanish language courses. Madrid has allocated €5 million ($6.5 million) to the battalion to be spent on humanitarian projects.

"Our training in Spain is always for war fighting," says Lt. Col. Garcia Vaquero, commander of the Spanish battalion. "But you don't need specific skills here – we rely on our Spanish character. We share a drink with the people, sing and dance."

To be sure, the transition from soldier to humanitarian hasn't always been so smooth. Some residents complain that the UN peacekeeping force – now six times larger than its pre-July war strength – is insensitive to local feelings, charging around in tanks and armored vehicles along the narrow, rutted roads of the border district. And keeping a close eye on the newly arrived troops is a suspicious Hizbullah, which for now is quietly tolerating the increase of foreign troops.

More than a thousand Spanish soldiers are part of UNIFIL, a 29-year-old peacekeeping mission that had been winding down before the 34-day Israeli-Hizbullah war gave it a new lease on life. UNIFIL's prewar strength of 2,000 has risen to more than 12,000 peacekeepers.

UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which helped end the conflict last August, has given UNIFIL new responsibilities on top of the previous role of border observation and liaising between Lebanon and Israel to defuse any tension.

"Now the focus is much more on controlling the situation on the ground," says Mr. Strugar. "We have added tasks: The area of operations is much larger and we help the Lebanese Army keep it a no-weapons zone and prevent hostilities from breaking out."

Local residents are slowly adjusting to the arrival of thousands of additional foreign soldiers, although some grumble about "unfriendly" European soldiers and the presence of large armored vehicles on small roads.

"We like the Spanish as much as our Lebanese Army. The only problem is their fast vehicles," says Theeb Mohammed, a resident of Wazzani.

Two weeks ago, a jeep full of Spanish soldiers was mobbed by angry residents of one village just north of UNIFIL's area of deployment. UNIFIL says the soldiers were checking alternative convoy supply routes between Beirut and the south, while locals accused them of spying on Hizbullah.

The Spanish recently encountered a more serious threat, however. In December, suspected Hizbullah fighters planted several bombs against one of its patrols, which had discovered an abandoned Hizbullah position with stockpiled mortar shells and rockets. The ordnance had been brought into the area before last summer's war, but the local Hizbullah commander apparently resented the intrusive searches.

The area was formerly used by Hizbullah to launch attacks into the Shebaa Farms, an Israeli-occupied mountainside claimed by Lebanon. The trip-wire detonated bombs, all constructed from Israeli-made components, were planted by "experts with a lot of technical experience," an internal UNIFIL report on the incident said.

"This situation suggests a change in the threat that UNIFIL may have to face," the report said.

However, according to a UN officer, UNIFIL has been assured by Hizbullah leaders that there would be no repetition and that the local commander had been acting unilaterally and was reprimanded. Hizbullah has adopted a low profile in the district since the war. Its fighters have abandoned positions along the Blue Line, the UN name for Lebanon's 70-mile southern border.

"In the UNIFIL area, we have seen no evidence of movement of arms into the area," Strugar says.

However, on Monday the Israeli army said it had destroyed five linked bombs lying close to the border fence, claiming that they were planted by Hizbullah over the weekend. Hizbullah said they were from before the war, while UNIFIL said it was impossible to tell one way or the other.

But Hizbullah officials say that they are concentrating efforts on the political battle with the Lebanese government and have no plans for an imminent resumption of hostilities against Israel.

"We have no specific decision now to take action, but in the future if Israel continues the occupation [of the Shebaa Farms], other options might be available," says Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hizbullah's deputy leader.

Last week, the command of UNIFIL changed hands when French Gen. Alain Pellegrini handed over to his successor, Italian Gen. Claudio Grazziano, in a colorful military ceremony at the force's headquarters in Naqoura.

Even as the two generals delivered speeches and shook hands before an audience of military officers and diplomats, Hizbullah flags and pictures of "martyrs" killed during last summer's war were going up all along the border, a subtle message to Israel that the Shiite fighters are not going away.

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