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UNIFIL in Lebanon finally receives its rules of engagement

An Unenviable Task

The UN peace-keeping force in Lebanon finally receives its rules of engagement, to the disquiet of many Lebanese, reports Lucy Fielder, Al-Ahram


The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which has expanded from 2,000 to 5,200 and is expected to triple by the end of the year, has been granted a "robust mandate", to use UN jargon. This includes authorisation to use force against "hostile activity", set up temporary checkpoints and intercept the movement of "unauthorised weapons" -- ostensibly those of Hizbullah -- if the Lebanese army is unable to do so.

"It was passed as a [UN Charter Chapter 6] peace-keeping mandate, but to make certain parties were more supportive they included items that should be under Chapter 7 peace enforcement," says Timor Goksel, a former spokesman and adviser to UNIFIL. "This is like Chapter 6.5."

UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which brought an uneasy calm to ravaged Lebanon and mandated the force, was passed after weeks of US and British refusals to call for a ceasefire. Many Lebanese saw the resolution as biased, supporting as it did Israel's right to "self-defence", even as it still occupied pockets of Lebanon, while Hizbullah had to "cease all military action".

UNIFIL's purpose is to support 15,000 Lebanese troops taking up positions across the south, parts of which were solely controlled by Hizbullah before the conflict. Bolstering UNIFIL was aimed partly at persuading Israel and the United States to accept a cessation of hostilities. Analysts say that in line with US-Israeli demands the force was granted a stronger mandate than many Lebanese, or indeed contributing states, wanted. "UNIFIL II" has no mandate to disarm Hizbullah, but it is expected to prevent the movement of the resistance movement's arsenal, used to keep invading forces at bay and to strike at northern Israel.

One clause gives rise to particular concern. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which has deployed five brigades in the southern areas formerly controlled solely by Hizbullah, will take action concerning the movement of unauthorised weapons, UNIFIL said. "However, in situations where the LAF are not in a position to do so, UNIFIL will do everything necessary to fulfil its mandate in accordance with Security Council resolution 1701," read a statement outlining the ground rules of UNIFIL II, issued 3 October.

Lebanese Army commander General Michel Sleiman told Al-Akhbar newspaper Friday he hoped UNIFIL's mission would be completed by next summer and sought to assuage fears about the international troops' mandate to use force. "There is no fear since the forces are there to back the Lebanese army, which is the only one with the right to issue orders in the south," he said.

Those who supported Hizbullah's resistance, meaning most of the south, already feel UNIFIL is there to protect Israel. German Chancellor Angela Merkel sparked controversy in Lebanon and appeared to confirm such perceptions when she cited Germany's historic responsibility for Israel's existence and said Germany's contingent to the UN peace-keeping presence aimed to protect it. Germany is sending battleships to patrol Lebanon's coastal waters rather than troops, seemingly to avoid any risk of confrontation with Israeli soldiers.

Meanwhile, UNIFIL's stronger mandate drew suspicion in Beirut. Speaker of parliament Nabih Berri said UNIFIL must stick to its mandate under 1701. "We, as Lebanese, are facing major problems and we don't need a new controversial issue to talk about," said Berri, whose Amal movement fought with Hizbullah during the 34-day war. "UNIFIL should abide by 1701 by helping the Lebanese army defend Lebanon's sovereignty."

UNIFIL, which was established in 1978 to confirm Israel had withdrawn after its invasion of that year, had a stronger mandate than many realised before, including the power to set up checkpoints and the right to defend itself. The force's large European contingent -- made up of German, Spanish, Italian and French troops -- may ensure that both sides treat it with caution, but it also raises the profile of the force and its mission.

An Indonesian contingent of 1,000 is expected by the end of the month. Turkey is sending engineers. Germany's warships are currently off Cyprus and are expected to patrol the coastline from mid-October. This will bring UNIFIL up to half its expected size.

To some, the south already seems a little crowded, with many southern Lebanese greeting new troops with suspicion, though not hostility. Local newspapers reported that villagers had mistaken the Spanish contingent's Hummer vehicles for Israeli ones because they were not the UN's usual white.

"They seem in some ways like a new occupying force," Issam Faris told Al-Ahram Weekly in the high, windswept border village of Maroun Al-Ras, from which Israeli troops withdrew last week. "There's a lot of them and they're dressed and armed like a normal army," he said. Goksel described heavier armour as the "show part" of being "robust".

Whether UNIFIL can do anything about Hizbullah's weapons is a moot point. Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, who has long warned that any international force might deploy on Lebanese soil to protect Israel rather than as neutral monitors, said the group had replenished its weapons supply in the days immediately after the war and was now stronger than when it started on 12 July.

"Blockade and close the borders, the sea and the skies. This will neither weaken the will nor the arms of the resistance," he told the "Divine Victory" rally in Beirut on 22 September.

Analysts say Hizbullah and the Lebanese Army have an agreement that resistance fighters should keep their weapons hidden, which they can do easily, with their sophisticated underground bunker system. Fighters are invisible, simply having melted back into the villages from whence they came. Banners celebrating the victory, yellow flags, pictures of Nasrallah and bulldozers of Hizbullah's "construction jihad" engineering arm are the outward signs of the group in the south.

According to Goksel, the problem with "robust" mandates is having the political will to implement them. "Countries are not going to lose their soldiers for somebody else's war," he said. And Israel will want UNIFIL to take whatever action it can on Hizbullah's arms. "Denigration of UNIFIL by Israel will start very soon, because it will not be happy with what it is doing," he said.

Meanwhile, a UN report this week found that Israel had used a 500kg precision-guided bomb in an attack in late July that killed four UNIFIL soldiers from Austria, Canada, China and Finland while they were at their base. It said Israel struck 21 times within 300 metres of the base on the same day.

UNIFIL spokesman Alexander Ivanko said Friday that the force reported Israeli violations of Lebanese air space to the Security Council daily. On Friday alone, the Lebanese army said 12 Israeli planes flew over south, east and north Lebanon. Talks are underway for Israel to withdraw from the last pocket it occupies, the divided village of Ghajar by the Golan Heights.

Unless the international community brings pressure to bear on Israel to stop all violations of Lebanese sovereignty, the UN mission's inability to do anything except report them to the Security Council may fuel a sense of bias.

Perhaps in an effort to offset such perceptions, UNIFIL launched a public relations offensive last week emphasising the boost the force gives to the local economy. Acting Chief Administrative Officer Jean-Pierre Ducharme said in a statement UNIFIL spent about 60 per cent of its budget on procuring from local companies.

"The soldiers spend a lot of money here, they visit local attractions, eat out, travel, and this in the end helps to stimulate the economy," he said. Their visitors would also boost tourism, he added.