Southern Lebanon Unstable as Villagers Turn on UN Troops

UNIFIL has tried to end a series of clashes in previous few weeks during which Lebanese civilians grabbed weapons from soldiers, threw stones at them and blocked their route.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

"I want to speak directly to you, without intermediaries, so there won't be misunderstandings or mistaken interpretations. As a peacekeeper, a soldier and a person who loves this nation very much ... please let me enter your lives for a minute and take a few minutes of your precious time." With these polite words, Maj. Gen. Alberto Asarta Cuevas, the commander of the UNIFIL forces in Lebanon, spoke to the Lebanese people, particularly those in the south, in an open letter in the Lebanese press.

He then asked the Lebanese to show understanding for the trouble that would likely be caused them by UNIFIL's activities. He said his forces "meant first and foremost to ensure your safety, and I promise you that there is no hidden agenda behind this activity." Cuevas explained that "the rotation of UNIFIL forces takes place every four to 12 months, so there is always a possibility that mistakes will be made, but these are only made with good intentions."

With this unprecedented letter of apology, UNIFIL tried to end a series of clashes in the previous few weeks during which Lebanese civilians grabbed weapons from soldiers in a UNIFIL patrol, threw stones at them and blocked their route.

A UNIFIL patrol in South Lebanon.Credit: Reuters

The villagers say these clashes stem from over-enthusiastic actions by a French regiment that used sniffer dogs, broke into homes and carried out searches, while treating the villagers with contempt. The villagers made it clear they had a problem only with the French regiment and that their relations with the other foreign troops were satisfactory.

The Lebanese suspect that the French act according to instructions from Paris and go beyond their UN mandate. They say the French troops have carried out an exercise aimed at examining what might happen if Hezbollah attacked Israel with missiles.

Fears about the French

"Why does UNIFIL carry out exercises aimed at portraying Hezbollah as an aggressive element rather than carrying out a defensive exercise in case Israel attacks Lebanon?" a Hezbollah man in the Lebanese government complained. Another fear, raised this week by the editor of the newspaper As-Safir, was that the French are intentionally provoking the people in the south so the French can withdraw and cause UNIFIL to be dismantled. This would embarrass Hezbollah as the instigator and give Israel a pretext to attack.

Sources in the Lebanese government and army say UNIFIL does not cooperate with the army despite the agreements between them. Cuevas says his troops always try to go out to the field with a representative of the Lebanese army, but since around 12,000 UNIFIL troops take part in some 350 patrols daily, there are not enough Lebanese soldiers to go around.

Lebanon responded that its army has 6,000 troops in southern Lebanon and that this number is sufficient, and "why does UNIFIL turn to the army only when it needs help against the villagers, but does not always make sure to take along a patrol from the Lebanese army to prevent friction?"

At the end of the week, after discussions between UNIFIL commanders, the ambassadors of the countries with soldiers in UNIFIL, and the commander of the Lebanese army, the sides reached an agreement. All patrols will be carried out in cooperation with the Lebanese army, UNIFIL will no longer use sniffer dogs, searches of homes will be carried out by Lebanese soldiers, and UNIFIL will avoid entering the homes and yards of the villagers in the south.

These arrangements that turn UNIFIL into an observation and reporting force rather than a preventive force restrict its maneuvering room even further and remove the teeth from UN Resolution 1701, whose application has become the only yardstick for measuring the success of the Second Lebanon War. It turns out that Hezbollah, which opposed the resolution, has become one of its major supporters because it can establish itself inside Lebanon as it wishes and be seen as an organization that bolsters the country's status by backing UN resolutions.

MI's role

It was exciting to see Israeli Military Intelligence's color presentation in which it draws lines between Hezbollah's storehouses and the missile positions in the southern Lebanese village of Khiam. It was interesting to see the symbol for the village school "where the Israel Defense Forces is not allowed to go," as well as the "target bank" - this reveals an impressive intelligence capability.

Let's remember, however, that this is the same Military Intelligence that did not know what was on the boats of the Turkish flotilla. It's the Military Intelligence that does not know whether Syrian President Bashar Assad wants peace, that did not guess the results of the Lebanese elections, that did not expect the Lebanese prime minister's change of direction when he reconciled with Syria, and that has still not supplied proof of the transfer of Scud missiles from Syria to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah's number of missiles and rockets and their location are certainly vital information. But it's strange that Military Intelligence brags that it knows what everyone assumes it must know, and heaven forbid that it did not know. And let's remember that "we knew everything" before the Second Lebanon War also. Then, too, there was a "target bank," and we know what the result was. As everyone knows, a good bank does not make you a rich man.