Blues for the Blue Berets

The locals in south Lebanon, the thinking goes, will be worried about clashing with the foreign forces because behind each battalion stands a world power. Such logic is flawless in the ivory tower of Harvard, but it won?t help if Syria makes do with a rocket war.

The deadly car bomb that hit a United Nations patrol in southern Lebanon on Sunday did not surprise the veterans of the multinational force that was stationed in Beirut a quarter-century ago. At the time, the Americans fled when subjected to suicide bombings. The means and motives remain in place. The organizations take on different forms; sometimes they're supported by Iran, other times by Syria, and lately, by the global jihad network.

The paradox regarding forces like the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon since the cease-fire in the Israel-Hezbollah war lies in the negative correlation between their effectiveness and survivability. The more UNIFIL wants to act in a military and professional manner, the greater the friction between it and Hezbollah and other armed groups. UNIFIL has regular, separate contact with the Lebanese army and Israel Defense Forces; the eastern brigade's Spanish commander and western brigade's Italian commander meet with their Israeli counterparts, IDF colonels Raviv Nir and Ofek Buchris. Those who oppose UNIFIL's presence have other ways of communicating with it: through dummy bombs along the patrol route. And if the wearers of the blue berets have a hard time translating the roadside Arabic, the threat is carried out.

Western European governments' disaffected attitude toward Israel has so far not been reflected in UNIFIL's functioning. Belgian, Spanish, French and Italian forces - along with a fleet of 16 ships, primarily German, in the Mediterranean - carry out their mission properly. By contrast, the Afro-Asian units (from India, Nepal, Ghana and Indonesia) tend to identify with the problems of the southern Lebanese population and attribute them to Israel. To prevent the formation of a bloc that is particularly hostile to Israel, UNIFIL forces are deployed in an intercontinental mix: a battalion from Europe is stationed alongside each battalion from the Third World.

In a bid to endear itself to the local population, UNIFIL tries to get people to forget its defined task, the enforcement of UN Resolution 1701, and highlight its fight against disease and distress, rather than against Hezbollah. The Indian unit, for instance, takes pride in its mass medical campaign - for body and teeth, man and animal - especially in providing artificial limbs for Lebanese wounded by Hezbollah explosives or Israeli cluster bombs. A Don Quixote has also appeared: With the support of the Instituto Cervantes, a worldwide organization that promotes the study of Spanish and the advancement of Spanish culture, 300 residents of the Lebanese town of Marjayoun and neighboring villages are studying Spanish. They are being taught by 35 officers from the Spanish battalion.

Foreign forces near the border that do not want to be seen as occupation armies are meant to act as a tripwire. The locals, the thinking goes, will be worried about clashing with them because behind each battalion stands a world power that will issue a tough response if provoked. Such logic is flawless in the ivory tower of Harvard, and appears to work along the Israeli-Syrian border, where the UN Disengagement Observer Force is deployed - but it won't help if Syrian President Bashar Assad sets his tanks aside and makes do with a rocket war. The logic also doesn't work in the era of suicide bombings, when there is no strong central government and other international elements such as Tehran and Al-Qaida are behind opposition activity.

Until the Six-Day War, Israelis tended not to take Lebanon seriously. The joke used to be that the IDF unit assigned to deal with Lebanon would be the military orchestra, conducted by Izhak "Ziko" Graziani. The UNIFIL orchestra, led by Italian general Claudio Graziano, has stronger instruments, but it is being conducted by the UN Security Council and the governments and public opinion of other countries.

The difference between the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization lies only in their respective sources of authority. Israel, of course, prefers NATO, where Arab sympathizers Russia and China don't have veto power. But the forces of the countries that are members of both organizations - which have been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Lebanon - are limited and vulnerable.

Of all the sickbeds in the world, the last one that these countries would be happy to get involved with is Gaza. A few weeks ago, Pietro Pistolese, who heads the European Union Border Assistance Mission (known as BAM) in Rafah, awarded impressive medals to the border monitors in a festive ceremony. One "boom," though, and the BAM people scattered in every direction.