Judging by your remarks, gentlemen, it seems that Lebanon is an island, was the sarcastic comment of Mark Malloch Brown, the United Nations deputy secretary-general, six weeks ago, before the war in Lebanon ended. At the front artillery thundered, Katyushas fell in northern Israel and the Israeli Air Force was bombing Lebanon.
Back at the glass building in New York, senior UN officials held round-the-clock discussions organizing an international task force to deploy in southern Lebanon. It was hard to get any country to volunteer troops, and the few countries agreeing to do something in order to advance a truce conditioned it by committing their troops strictly to maritime missions, and not to set foot on Lebanese soil.
Since then, due to American pressure, Arab involvement, the distress of the Lebanese government and primarily due to a shift in the European position, Lebanon has changed from being a rejected "island" to a sought-after destination. Troops from more than 10 countries are already adjusting to their new Lebanese environment. Four countries (Germany, Greece, Denmark and Holland) have announced their contribution of navy units to the force. This is in addition to troops from over 25 countries that are already represented in UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon) and UNTSO ( United Nations Truce Supervision Organization).
The new force is intended to consist of 9,000 troops from 20 countries, with 2,000 of them serving in UNIFIL. The UNIFIL backbone consists of two motorized battalions from the Indian and Ghanaian armies, a mine clearing and construction unit from the Chinese engineering corps, and a unit from the Polish army. The rest are officers from France, Italy, Canada, Ireland and a lone Russian officer.
The force is to be deployed in three stages, the first of which was concluded early this month. Five thousand soldiers are in Lebanon today: three mechanized battalions, one reconnaissance battalion, two engineering battalions, two communication platoons, a military police unit and general headquarters. The Israel Defense Forces are supposed to leave Lebanon when a minimal force of 5,000 "blue helmets" is deployed. The second deployment stage is scheduled for October 5, and the third and last for November 4.
There is still no concise definition for the missions, authority and final makeup of the forces.
The UNIFIL spokesman also does not have all the answers. Alexander Ivanko, a 44-year-old Russian who used to be a reporter for the daily Izvestia daily, confessed during an interview that he is not familiar with the Middle East. He has not yet learned all the terms and definitions related to his new workplace. He arrived in Lebanon only two months ago after working in the UN force in the Balkans.
His office is in the Naqura UNIFIL headquarters, close to the Rosh Hanikra border crossing. He can list only a few signs by which one identifies UNIFIL troops: Every soldier must wear a blue helmet or alternately a blue vest. The soldiers wear their national uniforms, and are equipped with the standard weapons issue of their native armies. On one sleeve they wear the UN symbol, and on the other their country's flag. The UN troops drive in vehicles painted white and bearing the letters "UN."
In Nahariya, they remember the jolly '80s when UNIFIL soldiers and their families rented apartments, filled the cafes and hotels and provided prostitutes with a living. But over a decade ago, the Lebanese government demanded that the UNIFIL force not stay in Israel. Security Council Resolution 425 established the force following the 1978 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. This resolution ruled that the force's task was to report on the Israeli retreat, and ensure the enforcement of the Lebanese government's sovereignty over its territory.
Hezbollah and Lebanon are interested in a representation of Muslim countries in the force; Israel disagrees. Turkey maintains diplomatic relations with Israel and was permitted to send troops. Israel decided to rule out the participation of troops from Bangladesh and Malaysia, which refuse to have diplomatic ties with Israel. What particularly upset the Foreign Ministry were several expressions and actions that took place in the two countries during the war. The Bangladeshi communications minister inaugurated a bridge named after Hezbollah and declared "their love" for the Lebanese resistance movement. Malaysia's foreign minister declared that his country is interested in assisting Hezbollah. On the other hand, Israel consented to the Indonesian offer to send troops.
Israel is concerned by the question of how Security Council Resolution 1701 will be translated into action. In the past, Israel had arguments with UNIFIL over the interpretation of its mandate. Once, when Israeli representatives complained that UNIFIL troops do nothing to prevent terrorist operations while in progress, the force's commanders responded: Show us where it says we have to act in this manner. And they were right. Nowhere does it say that UNIFIL has to prevent terrorism. But according to Israel, the clause in Resolution 425 charging UNIFIL with the mission to restore international peace and security on both sides of the border aims at exactly that.
Will the force's troops enforce their authority over Hezbollah fighters, even those who refuse to comply? The answer depends mainly on the Lebanese government. If it prevents Hezbollah from carrying weapons, there will be no need for UNIFIL's intervention. As of now, Hezbollah is apparently obeying the rules of the game. Its members wander in the south without uniform or weapons. But if the Lebanese government fails to take a stand, the blue helmets are not likely to fill in. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan clarified that it is not his troops' duty to confiscate arms.
Regarding supervision of border crossings between Lebanon and Syria, UNIFIL does not intend to be forceful. The navy force may possibly try to detain and examine incoming ships, but nothing will be done on land. This task is left to the Lebanese army. A suggestion being considered is to station international customs personnel at the border crossings. "It is all still being shaped, including the force's mandate," stressed an Israeli diplomatic source at the UN. "The real test will not be in words, but in concrete actions."
"Israelis have a tendency to disregard other armies," says Dr. Ilana Bat El, a political and security consultant who lives in Brussels. Bat El served in the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia from 1995 to 1997. "It comes mainly from ignorance. Israel has very little contact with foreign armies, apart from the United States. We have never contributed to international forces, and the few joint maneuvers we have are for short lengths of time."
She says that "it is a pity that this is Israel's approach. You have to understand that the quality of peacekeeping forces is subject to the quality of the soldiers serving in them, and their mandates' definitions. The French force is excellent. Judging by my time in Bosnia, it is well equipped, professional, experienced, tough and is not afraid of a body count. A lot depends on the force commander. In international forces he must be particularly charismatic. The present commander is not senior enough, and one can assume he is not very highly esteemed in the French army, since he was sent to command UNIFIL."
Another opinion stresses willingness to act and appointed task: "The problem does not lie in the capabilities of the armies comprising UNIFIL, but in their willingness to act and the definition of their task," says Binyamin Amidror, an expert on military doctrines and a former head of basic combat doctrine at the General Staff. "The capabilities are irrelevant. These armies are not here to fight. An army intending to take part in warfare must be equipped with mortars and cannons and intelligence systems such as sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles, and it does not seem like they are carrying such equipment with them. What intelligence will they posses on Hezbollah? The task they are sent to perform depends 90 percent on intelligence, and they will have no intelligence on Hezbollah. The real significance of this is that UNIFIL will serve more as a restraint against the IDF. Israel's past experience with international observer forces and troops since the War of Independence has not been favorable. For the most part they are helpless when confronted with the Arab elements among which they operate, but they manage quite well when faced with the IDF."
Amidror, a former military commentator for Haaretz and Ha'olam Hazeh, stresses that "European armies are mostly well-trained and disciplined. Tradition and combat experience are also important. Most armies arriving here lack combat experience. Even if several among them have units that fought in battles, such as the French, Italian or Spanish, chances are that these units will not find their way into Lebanon. You should keep in mind that these armies are based on career soldiers and volunteers. Some of them see the military service as a way out of unemployment or idleness, and they only wish to finish their term in Lebanon in one piece."
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