The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) was set up in 1978 after Israel s invasion of South Lebanon in response to a Palestinian bus hijacking in Israel that ended with more than 30 civilian deaths. The US realized the occupation of South Lebanon by the Israeli army was threatening to unravel the momentum for peace created by the visit of late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem. Yet Washington ignored the objections of experienced UN staff against placing a peacekeeping force in a country without central authority and wrecked by a raging civil war as well as armed conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and pushed for the creation of Unifil.
Unifil, a lightly armed peacekeeping force with no enforcement powers and an unrealistic and ambiguous mandate, was thus thrown into the conflict without a properly defined area of operations, sandwiched between heavily armed, undisciplined militias and Israel.
Over the years, it became a habit to refer to Unifil as a toothless and ineffective symbol of UN peacekeeping. But Unifil turned out to be a resilient force that held its ground despite suffering more than 100 fatalities.
In the aftermath of the July 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, some western leaders took their cues from Israel and naively called for Unifil to be replaced by a fighting multinational force that would go in and teach Hezbollah a lesson. Both Hezbollah and the Lebanese government announced they would not allow the deployment of a quasi-occupation force that could set off a new round of civil war. In any case, no country came forward to seriously discuss such a force. Thus the idea of a robust Unifil II, not under enforcement stipulations of Chapter VII of the UN Charter but under peacekeeping rules of Chapter VI, emerged.
Actually, nothing has changed except that Unifil now has better armed units that still won t use their guns unless they are attacked. Unifil, for all its impressive weaponry, will not get involved in any military confrontation with Hezbollah because it cannot sustain a prolonged clash. Moreover, in today s South Lebanon with its militant villagers loyal to Hezbollah, Unifil cannot last if it starts killing civilians. The talk of robust peacekeeping quickly subsided and Unifil, much to Israel s chagrin, began to operate as a classic peacekeeping force in support of the national army.
The outstanding feature of the new Unifil was to mobilize leading European countries as its key components. With self-sufficient, well-trained and well-equipped infantry troops from France, Italy and Spain and with the addition of Germany as a naval unit and participation of other European nations, Unifil acquired political clout the UN could never claim by itself.
In all fairness, the new Unifil caught on quickly that it was meant to be a conflict management tool with emphasis on winning the hearts and minds of the population and that good relations with the people would also be key to force protection because useful intelligence information would come from them.
The mood in South Lebanon began to change and the people began to rely more and more on Unifil and the Lebanese Army for their needs. South Lebanon is now experiencing a period of calm and peace it has not known in decades. But, unless a permanent peace is put in place, the conflict will re-erupt.
There are UN resolutions that call for the disarming of militias, including Hezbollah, and stopping the flow of weapons across the Lebanese borders. Some think the UN should do it. But the Lebanese government says that disarming cannot be done by foreign armies as that would lead to internal conflict, and that the Lebanese will do it their way. Countries contributing troops to Unifil are not willing to change their peacekeeping mandate no matter how hard Israel wants them to.
Unifil is now at a crossroads. After the car-bomb attack that killed six Spanish peacekeepers, UN personnel were confined to bases and could only move in heavily guarded, armored convoys. A vital link to the people that could provide warnings against similar attacks was severed. The Unifil command is aware of the problem, but to achieve consensus among the 30 countries making up the force is a formidable task. A multinational force of 30 countries is not the right structure in southern Lebanon. Differences in national interests, training, doctrine, officer quality, communications and other capabilities make a mockery of any claims to unified and effective command and control structure.
In this part of the world, if you are designated as a target no amount of body armor and machineguns on your vehicles will protect you. Only advance intelligence warning will, and the most reliable and maybe the only way to receive such information is for the peacekeepers to stay in touch with the population. That population, if treated with compassion and respect, will in turn protect the troops.
Timur Gokselserved first as the official spokesman and than as the senior advisor of Unifil between 1979-2003. He now consults on conflict and peacekeeping and teaches the same at American University of Beirut. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.