x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Stuck in the middle

Cover With tensions on the border between Israel and Lebanon at their highest point since the 2006 war, Joshua Hersh reports on the beleaguered UN peacekeeping force charged with averting a new catastrophe.

With tensions on the border between Israel and Lebanon at their highest point since the 2006 war, Joshua Hersh reports on the beleaguered UN peacekeeping force charged with averting a new catastrophe.

Shortly before noon on Tuesday, August 3, a small unit of soldiers from the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) approached the border with Lebanon. They had come to remove a tree that was blocking their view - or, more precisely, a security camera's view - of the Lebanese side of the land. This is common practice for the IDF: the region where they were planning to work, near the Lebanese village of Addeiseh, is hilly and lightly wooded and filled with hidden nooks. Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia, has long used this terrain to their advantage, and so Israel purposefully keeps the area surrounding their electrified security fence, which runs the entire length of the border, pristine and devoid of obstacles.

The tree that the Israelis wanted to remove was on the other side of the fence but still within Israeli territory, according to the UN. The security fence - as would be repeated frequently in the aftermath of that day's violence - runs parallel to, but does not in fact define, the border. That border, demarcated by the UN after Israeli troops withdrew from South Lebanon in 2000, is known as the Blue Line after the blue helmets of the UN peacekeepers - the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) - who have been patrolling the Lebanese side since 1978. Near the village of Addeiseh the distance between the security fence and the Blue Line is only a few metres, but the UN's ongoing project to mark the border with large blue barrels had not yet reached this spot and the precise location of the line is still subject to confusion.

Soon after the work began, 10 soldiers from the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) arrived and demanded that the Israelis stop, insisting that the tree was on Lebanese soil. As a verbal exchange grew into a full blown confrontation shots were fired (the Lebanese insist that they were firing weapons into the air in warning) and an IDF officer, standing at a remove from the group, took a direct hit and was killed. (Early reports indicated that shot was fired by a sniper rifle, but this has not yet been confirmed by the ongoing investigation.) The Israelis returned fire, and directed missiles and tank fire at Lebanese targets. When the clash finally ended four hours later, a Lebanese Army base was destroyed and four people had been killed: two Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese journalist and the Israeli officer.

Israel and Lebanon have clashed constantly over the years and tensions have not diminished in the decade since Israel finally ended its 18-year occupation of South Lebanon. In 2006, Israel waged a massive month-long war in Lebanon, aimed at Hizbollah militants who had kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. Since then the border has been as calm as an active volcano, and about as predictable. Skirmishes happen with some regularity - although the tree incident was the most significant clash since 2006 - and war perpetually seems imminent. In fact, a new report by the International Crisis Group, warning of a "catastrophic conflict" the next time the two countries engage, was published the day before the tree incident.

In the midst of all this sits Unifil, and not in an enviable position. Having stepped, 32 years ago, into the heart of one of the world's most intractable conflicts, Unifil has found it impossible to disentangle itself. Currently, Unifil operates under a mandate, authorised in 2006 by UN Security Council resolution 1701, which calls for the removal of all weapons from South Lebanon save those in the hands of the Armed Forces. This directive is clearly pointed at Hizbollah but the resolution is more ambiguous about what role Unifil ought to play in confronting the problem. It orders the force only to "assist the Lebanese armed forces in taking steps toward" this goal. But the Army has shown itself to be ambivalent at best about this agenda, and all involved agree that without a firmer commitment from the Lebanese government, which has at least symbolically approved Hizbollah's right to defend Lebanon, little progress will be made.

This practical reality, however, hasn't stopped most people from pointing the finger at Unifil when something goes wrong, which is precisely what happened in the aftermath of the tree skirmish. None of the Israelis knew why the LAF had decided to come down to the Blue Line on the day of the tree-cutting, but they did know who to blame. Earlier that morning, as is the standard procedure, the IDF had informed Unifil officials of their tree-cutting plans; Unifil, in turn, relayed the message to the Lebanese Army, who responded with displeasure, and requested that the IDF cancel the mission. (The IDF refused.) The Israelis felt betrayed.

A UN official later told me that the Israeli military has since let it be known that they may not inform the UN of future tree-cutting missions. Israel has long accused Unifil of providing cover for Hizbollah - or even conspiring with the group - but on this day pretty much everyone found something to fault in Unifil's actions. The lack of clarity about the location of the border - something the UN has attempted to remedy, with mixed results - was a recurring theme.

The Lebanese, for their part, were outraged to learn that when the fighting started, the Unifil troops in the area had fled the scene. Throughout the day local television showed the peacekeepers lamely waving white flags in the direction of IDF tanks, and that night the Hizbollah-run station Al Manar repeatedly broadcast images of panic-stricken Indonesian peacekeepers being tended to by nearby villagers. "The impotent international forces beat a retreat, left the place of combat and watched the unfolding events from afar," the newspaper As Safir complained. Gen Abdul Rahman Shehaitly, the Lebanese officer in charge of liaison with Unifil, put it this way when I asked him about it: "In such a case, they must not leave the area. They must increase into the middle, and tell everyone, 'We are here, do not shoot.' They must be brave."

In some respects Unifil is doomed to suffer these slights and to be perceived as a failure; indeed, Unifil's futility may be the one point of agreement between the various combatants in the Middle East. "Everybody wants Unifil to do what is in its own interest," said Sahar Atrache, an analysis with the International Crisis Group. "Both parties criticize Unifil and think that it's not doing much, but at the same time both of them violate the rules, and also both consider the presence of Unifil and 1701 as a framework that is necessary to preserve peace."

In response, or perhaps preemptively, supporters of Unifil reject grandiose visions for the force. It is merely a "maintenance" operation, they say. Its real value in the Lebanese hot zone - in the words of former Unifil spokesman Timur Goksel - is as a "punching bag" for the frustrations of both sides, or "a scapegoat," as Milos Struger, the current political chief, puts it. Unifil won't change the course of the Middle East, and it won't stop the inevitable. But that doesn't mean it can't do some good along the way.

One day in mid-July, I went down to South Lebanon to go on patrol with a Unifil unit from Italy. Ever since the end of the 2006 July war between Israel and Hizbollah, Unifil has been transformed from a 2,000-person observation mission to a 15,000-person military powerhouse, with tanks and artillery and troops from Nato countries like France and Spain and Italy. The rules of engagement were altered, as well, to authorise Unifil troops to use force to carry out their missions. It was hoped by Israel and its allies on the UN Security Council that this newly "robust" Unifil could succeed where Israel's troops had failed during the month-long war: rooting out Hizbollah's arms.

But this "robust" peacekeeping - what a Unifil employee one described to me as the "Afghanistanisation of Unifil" - brought with it a new set of obstacles. South Lebanon is not Afghanistan, and as UN troops from European countries started driving through villages in 60-tonne Leclerc tanks and poking around villages inquiring about Hizbollah sympathisers (a category that encompasses just about the entire population of South Lebanon), locals started asking why a mission that had begun with the promise of ending the Israeli occupation was suddenly so consumed with undermining what they regarded as Lebanon's only effective national defence - Hizbollah and its arms. As one Hizbollah official put it to me, echoing a refrain heard across the south, "If Unifil has come to assist Lebanon, how come their backs are toward Israel?"

The Italians are the least-resented force among the European missions - this may be why the UN placed me with them - and I wanted to get a glimpse of how the newly "robust" Unifil forces operated in the South. I was shown around that morning by First Lt Nicola Abbattista, who did his first tour of Lebanon with the initial wave of Italian troops, in the fall of 2006. He's now on his third tour in Lebanon - next year, his brigade will do their first stint in Afghanistan - and he has grown accustomed to the way of life here. He was raised in a tiny town in the deep south of Italy - the "south south" as he puts it, where horsemeat is a culinary delight - and in some ways this has made it easier for him to see things from the perspective of a rural villager. He is also a military man, top to bottom, in a straight line. At 15, he enrolled himself in a military academy high school, and now, at 28, he carries himself with the studied determination of a career officer.

As we got into an armoured personnel carrier - the middle of three in a patrol convoy - Abbattista strapped a handgun to a holster on his chest and said, "We usually do patrols that last six to nine hours, but my unit can stay out of the base for two days." Today would be much abbreviated. The vehicle we were in, known as the Lince ("lynx"), had been introduced by the Italians in Afghanistan just three years ago; it was favoured for its increased mobility and protection against roadside bombs. This one was a hand-me-down. It had a place for a turret gun, but the Italians don't often use it. "We are very happy with this vehicle," Abbattista said.

Driving down towards the Blue Line, Abbattista explained that part of his job as company commander is to run a quick reaction force covering the western half of Unifil's territory. Early one morning just a few weeks earlier he received a call to race over to the nearby village of Touline, where a unit of French soldiers had gotten into some kind of trouble. The roads in this part of the south are steep and curved, winding through narrow valleys where some of the fiercest fighting of the 2006 war occurred, and it took Abbattista an hour to reach Touline. By the time he arrived, the Lebanese Army was there, and the situation appeared to be calm. But what had taken place in Touline that morning would reverberate for weeks, and prove emblematic of the difficulties facing Unifil in the South.

The weekend before, Unifil troops had carried out a 36-hour full-deployment exercise, which raised the ire of the locals. For months, the IDF has been insisting that Hizbollah has moved their weapons into the villages. Villagers, for their part, came to see the Unifil troops - and especially the French, who were believed, without specific evidence, to be carrying Israel's mantle - as far too aggressive, and they perceived the exercise as an attempt to further infiltrate their private space. ("The French think they are here to colonise, like in Africa, or Congo, to re-colonise Lebanon," said Dr Hassan Hajezi, the mayor of Kabrikha. "They're treating us like we're hostile tribes.") In more than two dozen incidents that weekend, Unifil troops encountered resistance from irritated villagers who tried to block the military vehicles from entering villages, or threw stones at them. "There's no question it was a staged operation, set up by Hizbollah," a second UN official told me. (Hizbollah officials, and the villagers, depict the confrontations as spontaneous.)

On the morning Abbattista was called to Touline, French troops had driven through the village and the neighbouring town of Kabrikha as part of a military exercise - and the situation had become even uglier. Evidently, the French soldiers had driven their armoured vehicles - which are particularly wide and cumbersome - into some small streets in Kabrikha, damaging the houses. Residents came out of their homes to demand they leave, and one person got into an altercation with the troops. (The French say he jumped onto the turret gunner and started trying to punch him.) According to the mayors of Touline and Kabrikha, the French detained the man, and, seeking a quick escape, raced back down the hill into Touline where they took a wrong turn and found themselves at a dead end.

An infuriated mob of villagers from both towns, having followed the French here, quickly disarmed the soldiers and pummelled them with rocks and sticks until the Lebanese Army arrived and restored calm. UN officials later held reconciliation meetings with the residents in Touline and Kabrikha, and declared the conflict a thing of the past. But in the villages, which I visited later, a feeling of scepticism and distrust lingered.

"Usually, we don't go through the villages," Abbattista told me when I asked what he thought about the French unit's decision to enter Touline and Kabrikha. "But in Touline the main road there goes through the town - you have to go through the village." Abbattista avoided the sensitive issue of whether Hizbollah might have stored arms in the villages, and what Unifil ought to be doing about it. Instead, he said, "I prefer to not go into the villages because for them, imagine, to have these vehicles coming through two, three times a day? I understand that they have their own lives. So I imagine in my life, if I have soldiers coming through my home every day, I wouldn't like it."

The situation in Touline seemed to illustrate a persistent dilemma for Unifil. Needing to do anything it takes to stay in South Lebanon, Unifil commanders have to be wary of the effect their work has on the locals, while continuing to find ways to carry out their mandate. At the same time, they must be cognizant of the fact that clever organising by Hizbollah can blur the distinction between genuine grievance and tactical propaganda. Publicly, Unifil officials say that they have full freedom of movement in the South, and point out that their mission is, technically, simply to assist the LAF in whatever operations it elects to carry out. But in private, they acknowledge that the reality on the ground can require tremendous dexterity.

The possibility of being manipulated by Hizbollah - or, perhaps worse, by the Lebanese Army operating in concert with the militia - is a constant worry for Unifil. One particularly "low moment" in this regard, according to the UN official, came last summer at the town of Khirbet Selim, just below the Litani River. On July 14, an explosion rocked a building there and IDF leaders were quick to claim that the facility was a Hizbollah weapons depot. Unifil dispatched a team of soldiers to the building, where they formed an outer ring of security around the site but, as per their rules of operation, left the inner ring of security to the LAF. All day and night, the UN official said, they could see people coming and going from the building, removing suspicious-seeming cases.

It wasn't until 2pm the following day - 36 hours later - that Unifil troops were able to investigate the site itself. Later, when French troops were dispatched to the town where the UN believed the suspicious cases had been taken, they were accosted by villagers bearing rocks, and a dozen peacekeepers were wounded. In the aftermath of Khirbet Slim, Israeli officials insisted that Unifil troops ought to have approached the situation more aggressively. "The Lebanese army and Unifil must re-adapt their activity to the new reality in which Hizbollah is rebuilding its military infrastructure south of the Litani River within the civilian population," Gabriela Shalev, the Israeli ambassador to the UN, stated at the time. (Alain Le Roy, the head of UN peacekeeping operations, did publicly declare the Khirbet Slim facility to be an "actively maintained" munitions depot; Hizbollah denied the claims.) But the search for Hizbollah's arms sometimes poses dangers greater than sticks and rocks - dangers that troop-contributing countries may be unwilling to withstand. In 2007, after an explosion killed three Spanish peacekeepers traveling on a road near the village of Khiam, the Spanish almost entirely stopped carrying out patrols. Spanish troops, according to residents in the south, had been among the most aggressive in looking for evidence of Hizbollah re-arming, and some in the UN believe the attack was a retaliatory message. (Others are equally convinced the act was carried out by Sunni Islamists affiliated with al Qa'eda - it was endorsed, after the fact, by Osama bin Laden - and Hizbollah has denied any involvement.)

When I asked Abbattista about hunting for Hizbollah's weaponry, he replied, "I think that is the last part of our job. The first part is to be present for the people." "I think that UN and Nato missions are very different," he continued. "With Nato, it is a military mission," Abbattista said. "In a UN mission, the first thing that you have to do is think about the population, the perception of the population, and you have to know that the population wants you to stay here. Here I don't want to make problems."

Using force, he went on - echoing a unanimous sentiment across the South - would be the worst possible outcome. The day that Unifil uses force to achieve its objectives, it is commonly accepted, will be Unifil's last day in South Lebanon.

Lost in all the talk of "robustness" is the fact that the period since 2006 has been one of unprecedented calm along the Lebanon-Israel border. In fact, the violence that followed the tree-cutting incident in early August could easily have escalated - and Unifil, despite enduring blame from all sides, can take some credit for the fact that it did not. Throughout the afternoon, it emerged, UN officials had worked the phones, reaching out to Gen Shehaitly and his Israeli counterpart, Brigadier General Yossi Hayman, who eventually came to the phone after ignoring the first attempts to get him on the line. Early in the afternoon they helped negotiate a short term ceasefire to allow the combatants to collect the wounded. When it expired, they waited for a lull in the fighting and sent the deputy force commander, Santi Bonfanti, into the combat zone in a white UN helicopter, pleading with both parties to not shoot him out of the sky. "What Bonfanti did was very brave," the second UN official said. "We had no way of knowing what sort of retaliatory action the IDF would take at that point.

The next morning, when Israel announced their intention to return and finish removing the tree, Unifil publicly declared that the tree was on Israeli territory. It was an uncharacteristic move: Unifil generally seeks to avoid assigning blame. ("How useful in this context is it to actually say the truth about things?" the first UN official told me. "To apportion blame in stark terms does not help stabilise the situation. What helps is to create a certain fuzziness.") But the hope, the second UN official explained, was to give the Israelis a reason to not have heavy trigger fingers that morning. All day long, Unifil troops stood nearby at the ready, but no further violence broke out.

In this light, Unifil's failures are more a product of heightened expectations than anything else. It is supposed to absorb blows, not deliver them - and if Unifil is going to play a role in forestalling the next round of the Israeli-Lebanese conflict, it won't be because of its military might. "Robustness does not come with equipment or weapons," Timur Goksel said. "It's a mindset." Joshua Hersh is a regular contributor to The Review.