South Lebanon has long been synonymous with occupation, violence, and conflict – a legacy of its proximity to Israel and the presence of militant groups dating back to the Palestinian armed factions that emerged here in the 1960s.
Yet since the end of the last war between Israel and Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah organization a decade ago, the region has experienced a rare and welcome period of calm. The local economy has improved, new construction continues to alter the skylines of the villages that dot the stony hillsides, farmers plow their tobacco fields and harvest their olives in peace, and children attend school without the fear of daily shelling and air strikes.
In a Middle East that is beset with turmoil and instability, south Lebanon has become an “oasis of peace,” says Maj.-Gen. Michael Beary, the newly appointed commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, which is known by the acronym UNIFIL.
“UNIFIL is one of the most successful UN missions, and 10 years of peace here is evidence of that. We have 10-year-old kids here in south Lebanon that have never experienced the conflict that has been so characteristic of Lebanon’s recent history,” he says, speaking in his first interview at UNIFIL’s headquarters in Naqoura, a village on the Mediterranean two miles north of the border with Israel.
Yet, despite the calm, the threat of future conflict is ever present. UNIFIL has played a critical role in helping maintain the peace in south Lebanon, but whether the area descends once more into violence is a decision that lies squarely in the hands of the two protagonists – Israel and Hezbollah. And since the inconclusive end of the month-long conflict in 2006, both sides have been feverishly preparing for a new war.
Hezbollah has amassed new weapons systems that allow its leaders to boast that all of Israel is now within range of its rockets. Its ranks have swelled massively with new recruits, many of whom are receiving invaluable combat experience in the bloody battlefields of Syria fighting the enemies of President Bashar al-Assad.
Israel has trained its army to better cope with a non-conventional force like Hezbollah, improved the defenses of its armored vehicles, and increased its intelligence-gathering powers and its ability to hit multiple targets by artillery and airpower, analysts say.
Despite the preparations, however, neither side is in a rush to fight, both wary that the next conflict promises to be many times more destructive – for both Israel and Lebanon – than in 2006.
“There has been a mutual deterrence between the Zionist entity [Israel] and the Resistance [Hezbollah], and this is a reality that many Israeli officials talk about,” Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, said in a speech Aug. 13 marking the anniversary of the end of the 2006 war. “Ten years of safety and security are no gift from anyone.… Israel is being deterred by a country in which the Resistance is increasing its powers and capacities.”
UNIFIL has been present in Lebanon since 1978, an international response to Israel’s invasion and occupation of south Lebanon in March that year after years of Palestinian cross-border attacks. The first letter “I” of UNIFIL stands for “Interim”, a word that long ago became obsolete as the peacekeeping force witnessed another Israeli invasion in 1982 – again targeting Palestinian forces based in the area – and then 18 years of occupation and resistance before the Israelis withdrew from a border strip in May 2000.
By the time a quickly escalating round of attacks and reprisals erupted into war in July 2006, UNIFIL numbered 2,000 armed observers deployed along the Blue Line, the UN’s name for a boundary corresponding to Lebanon's southern border.
In the wake of the 2006 war, UNIFIL was given a new mandate and its size was boosted to a maximum ceiling of 15,000 troops. Today, there are some 10,500 peacekeepers in south Lebanon drawn from 40 countries. It is the only UN mission that has a maritime component – a small naval force that is tasked with preventing the smuggling of armaments by sea into Lebanon.
UNIFIL’s long experience in south Lebanon is personified by General Beary. Before assuming command of UNIFIL last month, Beary had served three tours with the Irish battalion in south Lebanon, the first as long ago as 1982 during the Israeli invasion. His subsequent tours in 1989 and 1994 were marked by the violence of occupation and resistance, daily attacks and shelling making life miserable for the local population.
“Going back to my previous experience, Lebanon was a basket case and everywhere else – Libya, Iraq, Syria – no major issues,” he says. “Now we have the complete reverse. We have complete instability in so many parts of the Middle East, but Lebanon and particularly south Lebanon, because of the presence of UNIFIL, is enjoying a period of calm.”
View from on high
That calm is apparent at the lofty vantage point of Sheikh Abbad hill, nearly 3,000 feet high on the Lebanon-Israel border. A mile east of the Lebanese village of Houla and towering over the Israeli city of Kiryat Shemona and the Hula Valley, the hill was once considered a flashpoint in the aftermath of Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon. On the summit, and bisected by the Blue Line, is a stone tomb containing the remains of either a local religious sheikh, according to the Lebanese, or a fifth century rabbi, according to the Israelis. The Israeli army built an imposing military base beside the tomb, its gray concrete walls and bristling antennae giving it the appearance of a battleship. On the Lebanese side is a UNIFIL position manned by Nepalese peacekeepers.
“Our job here is to monitor and report,” says Maj. Bharat Singh Bista, the commanding officer of the UNIFIL post.
These days there is little to monitor at this quiet, wind-buffeted location. But 16 years ago, crowds of Lebanese youths would visit the site to toss stones at the Israeli compound, taunt soldiers by dangling yellow Hezbollah flags over the fence, and on one memorable occasion perform Lebanon’s traditional dabke dance on top of the tomb before a pair of unhappy-looking Israeli soldiers.
Today, like the rest of south Lebanon, Sheikh Abbad hill is peaceful and only occasionally visited by a handful of curious Lebanese. Strict rules govern each visit. An unarmed UNIFIL peacekeeper carrying a UN flag accompanies the visitors who cannot number more than six people at a time. They are not permitted to take photographs and can only spend five minutes at the tomb.
Other than monitoring activity along the Blue Line, UNIFIL helps train and equip Lebanon’s army and navy to better operate in the southern border district and defend the coastline. It also operates a comprehensive Civil-Military Cooperation program that undertakes a range of activities to support the local population, from improving infrastructure needs to giving language courses.
But arguably, UNIFIL’s most important function is to mediate between Lebanon and Israel to quickly douse any flare-ups along the Blue Line. Israel regularly accuses UNIFIL of ignoring what it says is Hezbollah military activity that is forbidden in the border district under UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which helped end the 2006 war.
In July at the UN Security Council, Israel presented a satellite photograph of the southern Lebanese village of Shaqra marked with what it said were the locations of dozens of bunker entrances, arms storage sites, rocket launchers, and anti-tank positions.
“The village of Shaqra has been turned into a Hezbollah stronghold with one out of three buildings used for terror activities,” said Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the UN.
However, UNIFIL’s mandate does not allow searches of private property, and it says that Israel has not provided detailed data, such as map coordinates, to support its allegations.
“While there have been general references to certain villages we have not received hard information that a particular situation exists, so it’s difficult for us to react,” General Beary says.
Furthermore, Beary notes, Israel breaches UN Resolution 1701 on a near daily basis with its military overflights in Lebanese airspace, a violation regularly protested by the Lebanese government.
Once a month, UNIFIL hosts a tripartite meeting of Lebanese and Israeli army officers to address any concerns that have cropped up. Currently, UNIFIL is cautiously eyeing Israeli earthworks close to the Blue Line in the south east border area, where Israel is constructing a new patrol road linking two military bases in the Shebaa Farms hills. The work has caused a storm of protest in Lebanon as Beirut says the land, which Israel seized from Syrian control in 1967, is Lebanese territory. On Friday, protesters briefly crossed the Blue Line to plant Lebanese flags on the Israeli-controlled side.
By Friday evening, the protesters had dispersed, as had the Israeli troops and their construction gear. A broad slash of brown earth marked the controversial new road cutting up the side of steep rocky slope just across the Blue Line.
An Indian UNIFIL soldier standing in the hatch of an armored personnel carrier scanned the landscape with a pair of binoculars. The silence of the scene was broken only by the high-pitched whine of an Israeli reconnaissance drone circling high, and invisibly, above in the darkening sky.
That a partially built road is the main current source of consternation for UNIFIL perhaps illustrates just how much south Lebanon has changed over the past decade.