Opinion |

Between Hezbollah, Israel and Another War: Can UN Peacekeepers Really Keep the Peace?

The multinational force keeping Israel and Hezbollah apart has managed 13 years without major conflict. I went to southern Lebanon to see this small miracle up close – just as that winning streak is in danger of ending. Part 1 of 2 part series

Arnon Grunberg
Arnon Grunberg
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UNIFIL armored vehicles drive past a billboard bearing a portrait of a killed Hezbollah fighter, near the village of Marjayoun, in southern Lebanon, near the Lebanon-Israel border. March 15, 2014
UNIFIL armored vehicles drive past a billboard bearing a portrait of a killed Hezbollah fighter, near the village of Marjayoun, in southern Lebanon, near the Lebanon-Israel border. March 15, 2014Credit: AFP
Arnon Grunberg
Arnon Grunberg

In April 2007, I landed at Beirut's airport almost a year after the last big conflict between Hezbollah and Israel had ended - the war of the summer of 2006 that ended in a tie. At the same time, a deployment of Italian UNIFIL soldiers arrived on a peacekeeping mission. They were headed to southern Lebanon, near the Israeli border.

Virtually no-one expected the peacekeepers to succeed. Most of the Lebanese that I spoke to were convinced that a new war with Israel would break out within a year, a handful even feared another civil war.

Israeli soldiers ride a tank returning from southern Lebanon after a UN-imposed cease-fire went into effect to end a month of violence that killed more than 900 people. Aug. 14, 2006Credit: AP

In 2007, the editor-in-chief of the Naharnet newspaper Nafal Daou, a representative of the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite nationalist movement, made the most accurate prediction. He told me that the next great war in the Middle East would be between the Sunnis and the Shias. He added that he didn’t expect a peaceful resolution, neither in the short nor the long term.

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The Arab Spring flowered and shriveled, followed by the war in Syria - a cataclysm that appeared to be precisely a great war between Shias and Sunnis - and a catalyst for an unprecedented flow of refugees across the region and beyond. Politicians in Europe used the refugee crisis for electoral gain, fanning unrest among their citizens.

But despite several mostly aerial skirmishes between Hezbollah and Israel on Syrian soil, the border between Lebanon and Israel remained remarkably stable. A small miracle. And in spite of the arrival of about a million-and-a-half Syrian refugees moving toward Lebanon, the country stayed relatively calm. Another small miracle.

I wanted to see these small miracles up close, so I went back at the end of 2018.

The Palestine-Israel conflict might be less of a hot topic in the West than a few decades ago, and the war in Syria may be one of its forgotten wars - people tend to forget at an alarming rate - but the Middle East bears far more weighty significance than being just the periphery of Europe.

The ill-advised American-led invasion of 2003 in Iraq had many unintended consequences, the birth of ISIS being just one of them. And it is the existence of ISIS and its terror that helped the extreme-right in Europe so enormously, fueling their portrayal of Muslim citizens as a danger and potential threat to Europe and its "real" citizens.

In the same way, in the first decades of the twentieth century, the Jews were portrayed as Bolsheviks and anarcho-terrorists - a threat to peace and prosperity in Europe.

The Middle East is still Europe’s back garden. If the region goes up in flames. Europe won't be able to pretend that it’s business as usual.

Lebanon is one of the few countries in the Middle-East where Christians, Shias and Sunnis can still - or one might say: once again - coexist in a situation of relative peace. Yet, the country is also home to all the problems of the Middle East in general: the conflict with Israel, the issue of Palestinian refugees, often already third-generation, Syrian refugees, the conflict with Iran.

Since President Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and the consequent escalation of tensions with Tehran, all eyes are now on Iran's military proxies in the region. Because of Hezbollah's close Iranian ties, it's not inconceivable that this conflict will be fought out on Lebanese territory.

A Hezbollah fighter holds an RPG as he takes his position between orange trees at the coastal border town of Naqoura, south Lebanon, April 20, 2017.Credit: Hussein Malla/AP

There was another reason for this visit. The idea of multilateralism might sound boring and bureaucratic, but a multilateral stake in de-escalation and keeping at least a baseline of peace - especially in the current climate - isn't something that can just be dismissed.

I wanted to see the workings of this multilateral worldview, by visiting one of the longest surviving UN peacekeeping missions: UNIFIL. The Interim Force in Lebanon was established in 1978, to keep the border between Israel and Lebanon stable. It wasn't supposed to last this long.

When I embedded with the Dutch army in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007, I was escorted by a Captain Cynthia. When I visited Lebanon in 2018, she is the only Dutch national deployed at UNIFIL, as a military gender advisor, and she invited me to visit her, to see UNIFIL itself, but also to see what a gender advisor actually does on a day-to-day basis.

If I have learned anything from my time in Afghanistan and Iraq it is that war, including the prelude and aftermath, is a tragic form of absurdism complete with the necessary comic intermezzos. Still, the question should be asked: Is a peacekeeping mission more than the tragic absurdism that multilateralism’s opponents so eagerly accuse the UN of generating?

And the question that follows: If the Middle East really buckles, can life in Europe remain business-as-usual?

Getting permission to visit UNIFIL bases turns out to be quite complicated. Like many institutions, if not all, the UN fears the possibility of negative publicity. Perhaps the UN’s anxiety on this matter is more palpable than in other institutions, bearing in mind that the multilateral worldview is under fire.

The second time I visited Lebanon, in 2018, I landed in Beirut in the third week of October. This time, there are no UNIFIL soldiers in sight: after all, UNIFIL is not extending its reach or headcount as it did after the war in 2006. My 14 year-old godson and his mother accompany me. It seemed appropriate to give the adolescent the opportunity to see the region for himself.

Because the application procedure for permission for my visit to UNIFIL and Captain Cynthia went through the Dutch Ministry of Defense, the ambassador to the Netherlands in Lebanon, Jan Waltmans, got wind of my arrival and was kind enough to invite me for coffee.

Despite the fact that diplomats can’t necessarily talk openly - although it appears that even diplomats speak more freely now than before - I couldn’t rule out that he had something interesting to say. So I decided to begin my visit to Lebanon with him.

A retired Lebanese soldier holds a national flag, during a protest in front the central bank at cuts proposed in the 2019 draft austerity budget. Beirut, Lebanon, May 13, 2019Credit: Hussein Malla,AP

Waltmans, a tall man in his fifties with a white button-down shirt, the top button undone, welcomes me to the embassy with a glass of water and takes me down to a bookshop and/or cafe where we drink coffee and eat cake.

"Lebanon is a gorgeous country," Waltmans says. "They don’t need anything from me, but sometimes you do end up in an argument because people here want to pay for everything for you. At a certain point I told them: "If you want to us to remain friends, you really have to stop being the first to snatch the bill every time.""

The ambassador and I savor our pieces of cake.

"The sectarian system in Lebanon doesn’t encourage solutions to be found efficiently," he continues. "Their main interest is not the country itself but the communities or families they represent. More than a billion and a half dollars of electricity is wasted. The quality of drinking water in Lebanon is among the worst on the planet."

Political power in Lebanon is divided by the constitution among the country’s various ethnic and religious groups to ensure fair representation and to prevent the monopoly of power by any one sector. The Sunnis put forward a Prime Minister, Shias elect the Speaker, and Christians choose a President.

Lebanon has frequent power outages. The rich have their own generators, but most Lebanese are dependent on the owner of a generator in their street or district. Across the country, there are faint whispers that the owners of generators are partly responsible for the bad electricity in the country.

"We have to reform," says the ambassador. "The public sector is unwieldy. And the job market is strained due to the arrival of the Syrians." By "we," he means Lebanon.

"Can the region shelter them temporarily?" I ask. We have nearly finished eating our pieces of cake.

"That is possible," he answers. "Fifteen percent of the refugees live in so-called tented settlements because they’ve lost everything, they are mostly from rural areas in Syria. But if you compare it to what I encountered in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Liberia, it’s not so bad here. And take Iraq, we asked the Iraqi refugees what they needed to return to their homes. They told us: "Electricity, no more landmines, a system of health-care, schools, and then we’ll take care of rebuilding our houses ourselves."

Syrian refugees in the camp outside the Bekaa valley town of Saadnayel, east Lebanon. Lebanon hosts over a million refugees from Syria. April 23, 2019Credit: Hussein Malla,AP

"We have allocated 100 million for this, a quarter of which is a Dutch investment. And one million people have returned home. In Lebanon, we try to support the Lebanese armed forces to focus the monopoly on violence with them. In Tripoli, which saw people shooting at each other from balconies, we’ve set up a football pitch. Since then, no one fires from the balconies anymore.

"I see a lot of young people. And they can tell me anything, they’re not used to that. The most frequently asked question is, "How can we get out of here?" It’s agonizing."

We finish our coffees. Yes, there are small miracles, but none big enough to quench the deeply rooted presumption that things are better elsewhere.

On our way to the embassy, the ambassador points out several buildings that illustrate why Beirut was once called the Paris of the Middle East. He adds that the luxury storefronts remain empty because tourists from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have stopped visiting. Despite the praise that the ambassador gave the country in which he is stationed, faded glory appears to be the only glory left.

Back in 2007, the way south was a relatively adventurous endeavor. The Israeli air force had bombed the bridges between Beirut and the south and they were yet to be repaired. Still, even then, we managed to get to our destination - the Lebanese villages close to the Israeli border.

A Spanish soldier on secondment to UNIFIL holding a M60 machine gun stands guard near navy divers as Lebanese boy looks on. Rest House Hotel beach in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre. Sept. 14, 2006Credit: AP

Eleven years later, the same journey is a smooth taxi-ride, despite being stopped at a checkpoint just south of the city of Tyre. Here, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) are basically a toothless army, because the presence of active non-state militia in the area remains overpowering. Not least Hezbollah, with its links to Iran and their weapons and political weight.

Political power and weapons are still closely tied in Lebanon, a remnant of the civil war. The southernmost tip of Lebanon is not accessible to anyone, in an attempt to suppress the flow of weapons and fighters to an area that is officially supposed to be a demilitarized zone.

I am accredited so I’m allowed to visit the area, which is not yet the case for my fellow travelers. After a few phone calls to the colonel of the LAF in the city of Saida, they’re also allowed to join me.

Naqoura is a seaside town, a few kilometers north of the border with Israel. It is where UNIFIL is headquartered. UNIFIL began in 1978 to guarantee peace between Lebanon and Israel, but couldn’t prevent the Israeli invasion of 1982 nor the war of 2006. Its mandate was subsequently expanded after 2006.

Across from HQ, my travel companions and I stay at the somewhat luxurious, but largely empty, Hotel Rêve de la Mer. The swimming pool is grandiose, but out of service. It seems likely that this hotel wouldn’t have been built without the presence of the UN troops and their HQ. The drawn-out presence of foreign troops, peacekeeping forces or otherwise, always impacts its surroundings’ economics. The army generates its own economy, whether we like it or not.

The Hotel Rêve de la Mer pool, southern Lebanon, opposite UNFIL Headquarters: 'The somewhat luxurious, but largely empty, Hotel Rêve de la Mer. The swimming pool is grandiose but out of service'Credit: Marianne Koeman

My first day with UNIFIL happens to coincide with "UN Day." There is a holiday for most anything in the world, so why not the United Nations? The head of mission at UNIFIL, the Italian Major-General Stefano del Col, gives a short speech and decorates employees who have worked for the UN for 20, 25 and 30 years, respectively. A peacekeeping mission doesn’t solely run on military personnel, but also people that carry out support duties.

Maj-Gen Del Col dedicates a moment to those that fell in service of UNIFIL, over 250 people over the years, among whom are several Dutch soldiers.

After this he quotes former UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, who once said that the UN wasn’t intended to create heaven on earth, but to protect humanity from its own hell.

The ceremony is followed by food and non-alcoholic beverages. Here we meet George, a soldier from Ghana. Cynthia taught George to swim, for which he expresses gratitude to her. Cynthia mentions that there was a time when they could swim in the sea on Saturdays, but this has since been prohibited because a UNIFIL employee had almost drowned.

She also says that they have made efforts to make the pool at UNIFIL more female-friendly. As a woman you would get stared at by the men. She sent out a survey among female UNIFIL staff and most of the female staffers shared her position. Only the French and Austrian women felt that the claim was nonsense.

42 countries supply troops to UNIFIL (as of May 2019). Indonesia supplies the most soldiers (1310), but also Nepal (871), Malaysia (825), India (780) and Spain (630) send a considerable numbers. UNIFIL’s jurisdiction is split across an area of two sectors: eastern and western.

Arnon Grunberg with UNIFIL peacekeepers in Naqoura, LebanonCredit: Maj. Cynthia Bakker

We have lunch at HQ in the French-Lebanese restaurant La Terrace, informally also referred to as Chez Joseph et Marcelle, with Renaud, a Belgian stationed here since 2009 who heads the Joint Mission Analysis Center. Marcelle warmly welcomes Renaud with the words: "Comme l’habitude?" Here they know that Renaud enjoys his steak au poivre with fries.

Once we’re seated he says: "Although I have a French name, but I’m actually Flemish, I was an officer in the Belgian army."

When the steak arrives, he talks about his work analyzing geopolitical developments that could impact their mission.

"If you would’ve told the Lebanese in 2010 about what would happen in the region over the past eight years, they’d think all hell would break loose [here]. This hasn’t happened.

"We have here what I call a balance of terror. Bearing in mind that small things can spiral out of control fast, which is what happened in July of 2006. The price of conflict is too high for either party.

"Israel tells us that when a conflict with Hezbollah occurs, they will evacuate their population near the border. But how do they do that when they’re under fire? And if they evacuate before the conflict they can kiss their element of surprise goodbye."

Renaud talks so much that he barely touches his steak.

"The Lebanese elite want to keep the official Lebanese army on a tight leash, this benefits them," he says. The weaker the state and its army, the more power the elites have for themselves. They don’t want the army to interfere with their militias.

"We have no mandate to search every house individually [for weapons], but taking all the countries involved into account, like Italy, Spain, France, Ireland, Germany, Austria, China, etc., a level of peace is maintained.

"At the moment there are in excess of 10,000 UNIFIL soldiers on active duty. Even if you wouldn’t have the brightest of soldiers, it would still be very difficult to hide arms under their noses, given the relatively small area of operations for which UNIFIL and the LAF are responsible. Besides, rockets that aren’t stored under the proper conditions will eventually deteriorate."

For now, the price of war is too high, and that is the good news, but this can change at the drop of a hat. Prices fluctuate.

On my second day with UNIFIL, I attend a workshop that Cynthia has organized on gender roles. This is accompanied by a drill from Turkish Army Lieutenant-Colonel Akif, which he himself refers to as a lecture. There are about 40 soldiers from various countries in the room.

UN peacekeepers observe Israeli excavators attempt to destroy tunnels built by Hezbollah that crossed the U.N.-drawn Blue Line between Lebanon and Israel. Near Mays al-Jabal, Lebanon. Dec. 13, 2019 Credit: Hussein Malla,AP

Akif is a charming, gentle man who talks about cultural differences, leadership, and gender in military operations. He bases this on six cultural dimensions as laid out by the Dutch organizational psychologist Geert Hofstede: masculinity versus femininity, individualism versus collectivism, avoiding unpredictability and distance of power. Based on these dimensions, the culture of one country can be compared to a host of other countries.

Akif suggests that Finnish culture is less hierarchical than Malaysian culture. "Yes, in the sauna we’re all equal," a Finnish soldier confirms.

Akif explains: "Gender equality occurs when women are able to perform outside of the parameters ascribed to their sex." He then says there are feminine and masculine styles of leadership. A female Croatian officer heading a platoon protests: "I have 25 people under my command, all men, I exercise masculine leadership."

Akif delves into the topic and says: "But you deliberate with your subordinates, which is feminine, you have a feminine style of leadership but you’re unaware of it." He doesn’t mean that her leadership is feminine because she is a woman, but because she is deliberating with her subordinates. A rather ironic cliché in this context: "masculine" leadership, apparently, is just giving orders.

Not all attendees have a firm grasp on the English language, which is challenging for the follow-up discussion. Akif closes with the remark: "If I have confused you, this was good."

The soldiers thank Cynthia for the workshop, the Indonesian soldiers want to take a picture with her and Akif.

That afternoon Akif hands me a keyring. He also has a sheet with a beautiful calligraphy of my name, so flawless that I initially suspect it to have been made by a computer. He hands me the piece of paper.

I ask if he has a feminine style of leadership and without hesitation he replies: "Yes."

I wanted to probe him about Turkey but I acknowledge the sensitivity of the subject. All he says is: "The attempted coup cost us many officers, the following day I went to the office and there was virtually nobody there."

That night Lebanon endured heavy bouts of rain and hail. Together with Cynthia and my travel companions I dine in an almost empty Chez Joseph et Marcelle. There’s a solitary Colombian soldier devouring a pizza. My godson utterly enjoyed his time at the UNIFIL headquarters because there are so many dogs around.

"Yes," Cynthia replies, "many Lebanese drop off their unwanted pets at UNIFIL."

A peacekeeping mission can be put to so many uses.

This article was originally published in NRC Handelsblad in The Netherlands.

Arnon Grunberg is the author of the recent novels "Good Men" and "Birthmarks." He was born in Amsterdam and lives and works in New York. Twitter: @arnonyy

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