Photo: AP
UNIFIL soldier in Lebanon
Photo: AP

UNIFIL: Our hands are tied

Former UNIFIL spokesman: Peacekeepers have a hard time dealing with the fact that after gruelling military training they are downgraded to being diplomats with rifles

Ineffective; an utter failure; totally useless. These are some of the milder terms that Israeli officials have uttered over the years to describe UNIFIL, the United Nations peacekeeping force deployed in southern Lebanon.


As leaders of the world discuss the prospects of replacing UNIFIL with a larger, and perhaps more effective force, UNIFIL soldiers feel they have been given a bad rap.


After years of being abused by Hizbullah, restricted by their own orders, and slammed by Israel, some feel their critics fail to understand the complexity of their duties.


“Our job was to monitor, never to take sides,” said Micheál Mac Diarmada, a retired UNIFIL soldier from Ireland who was last stationed in Lebanon in 1991, but has been back there many times since.


“We had 47 Irish soldiers killed in Lebanon, and they were killed by all factions involved,” Mac Diarmada said.


In the line of fire


UNIFIL soldiers point out that over the years they built good relations with all the rivalling parties, but on many occasions they were unwittingly caught in the line of fire, as the following anecdote demonstrates.


In late 1985, Mac Diarmada recalled, UNIFIL decided to establish a land communication line with the mostly Christian South Lebanese Army (SLA). Previously, when U.N. soldiers were on patrol, the SLA sometimes misidentified them and opened fire, so the line was set up for UNIFIL to inform the SLA in advance of their patrols and prevent any mishaps.


But Hizbullah, misreading the situation, thought UNIFIL was in cahoots with the rivalling SLA and subsequently targeted UNIFIL troops. Mac Diarmada, who was in his mid-twenties at the time, was wounded in this attack, a victim of confusion and sectarian strife.


UNIFIL, an acronym for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, was created in 1978 to “confirm Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, restore the international peace and security, and help the Lebanese government restore its effective authority in the area.”


The force, headquartered in Naqoura, is made up of nearly 2,000 troops, assisted by several hundred military observers, international civilian personnel and local civilian staff. UNIFIL troops hail from China, France, Ghana, India, Ireland, Italy, Poland and the Ukraine.


“We don’t think that UNIFIL’s history in Lebanon has been a success story,” Mark Regev, a spokesman of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said.


“There’s a gap between the UN, that says Hizbullah must be disarmed, and UNIFIL people on the ground, who cooperate with Hizbullah,” Regev said.


Regev noted that the main problem lies with the organization’s structure and mandate.


“Israelis have their own interests,” said Timor Goksel, a former UNIFIL spokesman who now lectures at the American University of Beirut.


“UNIFIL has been providing a free service to them. They want you to fight their battles for them. The Israeli position is perfectly understandable, but in Lebanon that’s not the case,” he said, citing UNIFIL’s good ties with both the Lebanese army and the Lebanese people.


Unlike the force’s acrimonious relationship with Israel, the Lebanese government is supportive of UNIFIL, Goksel said, and there is a consensus that both the government and Hizbullah want UNIFIL to stay.


There is general agreement that Hizbullah uses the UN emblem to cover its activities, but all those interviewed stressed that Hizbullah never fired from inside UN bases.


UNIFIL bases are surrounded by a safety zone, in which it is forbidden for artillery to fire. Hizbullah forces position themselves in these safety areas, while they are aware that UN forces do not have the authority to stop them, since they can only apply their weapons in self defense.


UNIFIL soldiers have also been the victims of Israeli assaults, the most recent case being the Israeli aerial attack on a UN patrol base near Khiam on July 25, in which four UN soldiers were killed.


According to news reports, shortly before the attack, a UNIFIL officer repeatedly warned the Israeli army they were firing too close to the UN post, but to no avail. Israel expressed deep regret over the deaths and is investigating the incident.


Frustrated soldiers


A former company sergeant with UNIFIL, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that during his service in Lebanon, which ended in 2004, Hizbullah would often use UN bases to enjoy the protection of the UN flag.


“Hizbullah were firing from beside the UNIFIL positions for 20 years. There’s nothing new in that,” said the retired soldier, who comes from Ireland.


“In the first years of UNIFIL, from 1978 up to 1983, there was a ridiculous situation in which you nearly had to be killed before you could return fire,” he said bitterly. “Frustrating? That’s an understatement. You ask any soldier in any army in the world, if they are fired on or fired over, to sit there and watch it day after day, or hour after hour. And you’re told you can’t fire.”


“Nobody in UNIFIL is stupid enough to think that they are going to change what’s happening in Lebanon with the rifles in their hands, when everybody else has better guns,” Goksel said. “UNIFIL is a peacekeeping force. They try to solve problems by dialogue. It’s true, there are very strict self-defense rules, that are what peacekeeping is about,” he said. “You’re not coming as a combat force.”


UNIFIL soldiers have a hard time dealing with the fact that after a gruelling military training, they are ‘downgraded’ to being “diplomats with rifles,” as Goksel described it. “But there’s no other option,” he said.


UN Spokesman Farhan Haq confirmed that there are cases in which Hizbullah opens fire in proximity to UN bases.


He recalled a recent incident in which Hizbullah fired near a UN engineering contingent and Israeli forces retaliated, forcing a UNIFIL armoured personnel carrier to withdraw to a nearby position.


Putting UN forces in danger is simply not acceptable, Haq said, adding that the UN protested to both the Israelis and the Lebanese.


More recently, on August 6, three UNIFIL soldiers were lightly wounded when a mortar round fired by Hizbullah reportedly landed outside the headquarters of UNIFIL’s Chinese contingent.


Replacing UNIFIL


While UNIFIL clearly lacks teeth, the UN rejects accusations that UNIFIL is a paper tiger.


“UNIFIL has been present since 1978 and has done a lot to forestall violence repeatedly over the past three decades,” Haq said.


But he admitted that changes are needed.


“In recent weeks, events have taken a turn for the worse, and something larger and more forceful is needed.”


Mac Diermada assured that his battalion was an effective force, and has grave doubts about the prospects of a new multinational force in Lebanon.


“I believe that if it’s in an idea that comes from George Bush and Tony Blair, it immediately is going to be frowned upon,” he said. “It will be a peace enforcing multinational force as opposed to being a peace keeping force. Once you go in with that attitude, you’re going to make yourself enemies.”


Reprinted by permission of The Media Line Ltd.


פרסום ראשון: 08.08.06, 00:00
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