x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

UN troops attacked by civilians

Detonation in Lebanese village controlled by Hizbollah leads Israel to call for Unifil peacekeepers to have more search powers.

A UN soldier with Unifil patrols the border between Lebanon and Israel earlier this year.
A UN soldier with Unifil patrols the border between Lebanon and Israel earlier this year.

BEIRUT // A mysterious explosion last week in a South Lebanon village controlled by the Shiite Islamist group Hizbollah has led Israel to call for an expanded mandate for United Nations peacekeepers to search for weapons stockpiles hidden by the group along the Israeli border. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) is already set to renew its mandate for more than 10,000 international troops tasked with preventing a repeat of the Hizbollah infiltration of the border that sparked the bloody 2006 conflict.

But in light of the explosion last Tuesday, which was widely thought to be an accidental explosion of Hizbollah ordinance stored in the village, Israeli officials are pressuring the UN to expand the mandate of those troops to include searches for Hizbollah stockpiles of weaponry. Although authorised to intercept illegal weapons shipments, Unifil has been timid about attempting to find weapons and often refuses to even look for them, according to Israeli critics.

The notion of international troops searching Lebanese villages for weapons related to Hizbollah's "resistance" operations is extremely controversial in South Lebanon, and was highlighted when Unifil forces attempted to enter the village of Khirbet Selm, where the explosion took place, over the weekend. An angry crowd of residents and Hizbollah supporters attacked the UN troops with rocks and sticks, lightly wounding 14 members of the contingent, according to UN officials.

Local media reported that the UN soldiers were not accompanied by Lebanese troops, as required under their mandate to search civilian homes, but that the crowds dispersed after the Lebanese army arrived to restore order. In a second incident, residents of a nearby village led by Hizbollah cadre members stormed an unoccupied Israeli observation post at the weekend in protest over the presence of IDF troops in an area they claim belongs to Lebanon.

UN officials argue the disputed sliver of land in the occupied Chebba Farms area is actually Israeli controlled, a claim disputed by both Lebanon and Hizbollah. In a letter of complaint to UN officials, an Israeli diplomat argued that Unifil forces are being prevented from properly securing the border area and need an expanded mandate to prevent Hizbollah from arming the border area. "All of these flagrant violations of resolution 1701 - inter alia, the arms smuggling and the obstruction of movement of Unifil forces - must be denounced and addressed in clear and unambiguous terms by the international community," Israel's envoy to the United Nations, Gabriela Shalev, wrote in the complaint. In the letter to the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, Ms Shalev described the abandoned building in which the explosion took place as "an arms cache that consisted of Hizbollah arms, including rockets, mortars, artillery shells, grenades and additional ammunition which had been brought to the area following the Second Lebanon War".

For its part, Lebanon strongly objects to allowing the peacekeepers to search Lebanese homes for weapons and one witness to Saturday's confrontation in Khirbet Selm described the behaviour of the Unifil forces as those of occupiers, not peacekeepers. "They surrounded the village with armoured vehicles and the way they came raiding the whole village it felt like an occupation," said local resident Ali Sherri.

"Not only this, they wanted to enter houses randomly not considering the privacy of the people, the women, as if Khirbet Selm is a village of criminals. "They started shooting in the air and this provoked the inhabitants of the village, pushing them to take action by blocking the main road with burning tires and demanding an explanation to what the Unifil was doing. If they had come with the Lebanese army I'm sure no one from the village would have complained about their actions."

Michael Williams, the UN envoy to Lebanon, yesterday called for restraint after the clash between villagers and peacekeepers. He said the fighting and the explosion of the depot were "testing incidents" that should not be repeated. He spoke after a meeting with the prime minister-designate, Saad Hariri. Mr Williams also called on Israel to end daily flights over Lebanon, which he said were "serious violations" of a ceasefire that ended a month-long war between Israel and Hizbollah troops in 2006.

mprothero@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by the Associated Press