In tense south Lebanon, UN force proves it helps to just talk

There are no illusions that UNIFIL peacekeepers, who marked the force's 40th anniversary this week, can prevent an Israel-Hezbollah war from breaking out. But by regularly convening Israeli and Lebanese officers, dangerous miscalculations can be averted.

Hassan Ammar/AP
Peacekeepers from 41 different national contingents that make up the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) attend a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of its peacekeeping presence in southern Lebanon, at the mission headquarters in the coastal town of Naqoura, on March 19.

Tensions have risen between Israel and the militant Lebanese organization Hezbollah and its patron Iran this past year, prompting many on both sides to wonder if a new war will soon shatter a calm that has lasted more than 11 years.

Yet, ironically, despite the hostile rhetoric and concerns on both sides of the Lebanon-Israel frontier, traditionally a locus for violence, it is one of the quietest borders in the current turbulence that is the Middle East.

There are several reasons for this. One is that the promise of massive destruction to both Lebanon and Israel in the next war – worse even than both sides suffered in the summer of 2006 – has served as a powerful deterrence and ensured that the violence has remained mostly at the level of rhetoric rather than military action.

But away from the limelight, a United Nations peacekeeping force that has been deployed in south Lebanon for over 40 years is providing a discrete, simple, but effective means of preventing dangerous misunderstandings or miscalculations between the militaries of Lebanon and Israel: communication.

There are no illusions that UNIFIL (the first I stands for “Interim,” which long ago became an anachronism) can stop a war if one should arise. But its role as a host of monthly “tripartite” meetings between Lebanese and Israeli officers has helped prevent past moments of tension from spiraling into something worse.

“The tripartite meeting mechanism is one of the most important confidence-building mechanisms UNIFIL has been using since 2006,” says Andrea Tenenti, the UNIFIL spokesman. “We have had over 110 meetings in 11-and-a-half years and no one has ever walked out, even during tense periods. There’s really a will of the parties to use this mechanism and a will to maintain the cessation of hostilities.”

The meetings, usually held at the beginning of each month, are hosted by the UNIFIL commander and include small military delegations from Lebanon and Israel. They offer an opportunity to address any concerns that may have arisen in previous weeks along the Blue Line, the UN name for a boundary matching the international border behind which Israel was obliged to withdraw its forces in 2000, ending a 22-year occupation of south Lebanon.

“I think UNIFIL does two things particularly well – communication and coordination, to decrease the risk of unintended escalation, and acting as a complicating factor to unilateral military action by Hezbollah or Israel due to their physical presence and the potential for local clashes to carry an international cost,” says Faysal Itani, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

UNIFIL, which this week marks the 40th anniversary of its establishment, currently deploys some 10,400 peacekeepers from 41 countries, including NATO members such as France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Turkey.

Fiery rhetoric as deterrence

It is also the only UN peacekeeping mission to boast a small navy, which plies Lebanon’s coastal waters in an attempt to ensure that no unauthorized weapons are smuggled into Lebanon in contravention of UN Security Council resolutions. Since 2006, more than 18,000 ships have been hailed by UNIFIL’s maritime component, and 11,000 referred to the Lebanese Navy for inspection, UNIFIL says. The peacekeepers have found contraband narcotics at sea, but, so far, no weapons.

Recently, tactical tensions along the Blue Line have flared with a decision by Israel to bolster its existing security fence with a concrete wall. Lebanon opposes the Israeli action, fretting that it will make a fait accompli an Israeli interpretation of the path of the international border that remains disputed in places.

Hezbollah has delivered its own warnings that it will not allow Israel to build walls inside Lebanon. In response, UNIFIL’s mediatory efforts stepped up significantly, with a total of four tripartite meetings in February instead of the customary one, and another two this month. In addition, the UNIFIL commander, a burly Irish general who has served several tours with the force in the past three decades, has held multiple bilateral meetings with Lebanese and Israeli officers.

In many respects, while the fiery rhetoric hurled by either side can sound alarming, it actually helps reinforce the strong mutual deterrence, reminding both sides of the cost of another war.

Local faith in Hezbollah

For the war-weary southern Lebanese, who in the last 11 years have experienced the longest period of calm since the 1960s, the prospect of yet another conflict is constantly at the back of the mind. But some prefer to remain guardedly optimistic.

“The feeling today is that because Hezbollah is strong that’s why we have not yet had a war,” says Hassan Balhas, a local administrative official, known as a mukhtar, in the Shiite-populated southern Lebanese village of Seddiqine. “If Israel feels that we are weak then they will attack.”

Seddiqine is well-acquainted with the past violence that has wracked south Lebanon. The village was under Israeli occupation between 1982 and 1985, then found itself on the frontline of an Israeli-controlled border strip until 2000. Around 80 percent of the village was destroyed during the month-long war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006. The roads around the hill village are lined with portraits of Hezbollah “martyrs”: some of them sun-faded with time, and others freshly colored, depicting those killed recently in Syria, where Hezbollah has played an important role in supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

War may come to south Lebanon, but few believe that it will start here. Instead, many eyes are turned to the east, toward Syria, where Israeli airstrikes against targets related to Hezbollah, and more recently, Iran, run the risk of triggering an escalation that could quickly get out of hand. In February, in an exchange that began with Israel’s downing of an Iranian-built drone, Syrian anti-aircraft units shot down an Israeli F-16 jet in the first such incident since 1982. The crew bailed out and landed safely in Israel, Syrian anti-aircraft installations came under heavy attack, and the incident then quickly died down.

“What if the pilot had landed in south Lebanon and been captured by Hezbollah? What would the Israelis have done then?” asks Abu Ali Sweidan, a Lebanese who in the 1970s was a senior military commander in south Lebanon with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. “I think people are being too confident here. I worry about a war beginning in Syria then spreading here.”

Psychologically preparing for war

Hezbollah officials repeatedly say that a war is not likely, as Israel will not embark upon a conflict that it cannot guarantee winning. But Hezbollah’s fighters believe another war is inevitable, one for which they have been training for a decade and are now, they say, preparing for psychologically.

“We are preparing ourselves mentally because we know the next war will be completely different from the past. We know it will be very big,” says a veteran local Hezbollah official in south Lebanon, speaking on condition of anonymity. “In 2006, we were no more than 5,000 people. Now we are tens of thousands, and we have gained a lot of experience from Syria. In 2006, we could fire a missile into Israel and put a hole in the wall. Next time, just one of our missiles will bring down three buildings.”

The ongoing war preparations on both sides underline that while UNIFIL’s interlocutor role helps ease tactical everyday concerns along the Blue Line, its ability to maintain calm has its limits.

Says the Hariri Center’s Mr. Itani: “UNIFIL’s mere existence and presence have some value, but it operates at the mercy of the forces it is supposed to separate.”

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