“UNIFIL – Peacekeepers in the Line of Fire,” by Timur Goksel

UNIFIL – Peacekeepers in the Line of Fire
By Timur Göksel
Beirut, August 8, 2007 
Published by Heinrich Boell Foundation

Since October 2006, a beefed up UN force of some 15,000, including a naval force led by Germany, has deployed in Southern Lebanon to prevent new hostilities between Hizbullah and Israel, and to assist the Lebanese government in establishing its authority over the border region. But can the 'new' UNIFIL really make a difference, and be more effective than its predecessor? Timur Göksel, spokesperson for UNIFIL for more than 20 years, attempts an assessment.

Timur Göksel joined the United Nations in 1968 and was assigned as Press Information Officer/Spokesman to UNIFIL in 1979, where he served for 24 years and became Senior Adviser in 1995. Göksel's extensive experience on the ground has made him into an expert on the inner workings of UN peacekeeping in general, and an authority on South Lebanon in particular. Since his retirement in 2003, Göksel continues to lecture on theory and practice of peacekeeping at the demand of international ith a special focus on the UN at a variety of Lebanese Universities.

The United Nations, which has been running peacekeeping operations in multiple formats since the 1956 Suez war, and which now fields some 100,000 peacekeepers around the world, is a slow and, sadly, an inept learner, and an even slower doer. It is still to grasp that the nature of conflicts has changed after the end of the Cold War, and that most conflicts today do not occur between but within states. Furthermore, in many cases the belligerents are not states that are susceptible to international pressures, but non-state actors who may have ethnic, political, religious or economic objectives. Such difficult terrain requires high sensitivity for local political conditions, and flexibility in interpreting the individual mission in ways conducive to civil peace- building rather than military peace-enforcement.

What was wrong with the original UNIFIL?

UNIFIL was set up in 1978 after Israel's limited invasion of South Lebanon up to the Litani River (excluding the Tyre region) in reaction to a Palestinian terror operation in Israel that ended with close to 40 civilian deaths. UNIFIL was an American brainchild to salvage the momentum for peace in the Middle East created by the visit of the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem. A prolonged occupation of South Lebanon by the Israeli army was threatening to unravel this momentous development. Hence, and despite the opposition expressed by experienced UN senior staff to placing a peacekeeping force in the middle of a country wrecked by several civil wars raging at the same time, not to mention the armed conflict between Israel and the Palestinians who had turned South Lebanon into an armed mini-state of their own, UNIFIL was created with the promise of eternal political and material support from the US, and with a mandate that was entirely unrealistic and ambiguous.

With generous participation by countries such as France and Norway that provided not only infantry units but significant logistical input as well, UNIFIL was set up and dispatched in a short time mainly thanks to the credibility and acumen of a few UN bureaucrats led by Sir Brian Urquhart who was then the Undersecretary for Special Political Affairs and who managed the entire UN peacekeeping with a few dedicated staff members, unlike the hundreds that are employed today.

Lebanon as a host country was most welcoming but being in the midst of a brutal civil war it was also completely incapable of supporting UNIFIL in any meaningful way. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), on the other hand, was designated as the key party to deal with on behalf of more than a dozen Palestinian and scores of Lebanese factions, some of them nothing more than armed gangs. The PLO under the late Yassir Arafat who enjoyed the political recognition bestowed upon it by the UN, insisted on being the sole contact with UNIFIL and was actually helpful in incidents that involved forces it controlled. But when Palestinian or Lebanese groups it did not truly control (but often paid their salaries) were involved, PLO leaders all became conveniently unavailable. Thus, UNIFIL had to survive on its own with no support from the national government and no national judiciary or security forces available to back it up.

Since UNIFIL was designed as a force to operate within Lebanon and not as a buffer between two states, Israel, on the other hand, assumed no official responsibility towards it. Instead of handing over the areas it evacuated to UNIFIL, it put them under the control of a Lebanese proxy militia who it continued to pay, arm, feed and dress but for which it nevertheless denied any responsibility. UNIFIL, a lightly armed peacekeeping force, was thus thrown into a maelstrom of a conflict, a force sandwiched between heavily armed, undisciplined militias merrily firing at everybody else.

Over the years, UNIFIL was often cited as a symbol of UN's ineffectiveness. One classic line was that the UNIFIL did not stop Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon with 90,000 troops, more than 4,000 tanks and armored vehicles, an unchallenged air force, its navy, countless artillery batteries and local allies. On June 6, 1982 when the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) advanced with thirteen Centurion tanks towards the first UNIFIL checkpoint at the Hamra Bridge on the coastal road to launch the invasion, facing them were six Dutch soldiers with their rifles. Those soldiers who had not come to Lebanon to fight off a full-scale Israel invasion actually managed to immobilize two tanks with their simple anti-tank barriers after which they ran out of defensive measures.

That UNIFIL, despite its unworkable mandate and with no political support except for a small group of dedicated UN bureaucrats, turned out to be a resilient force that held its ground despite suffering more than 100 fatalities killed in action (out of 250 total fatalities) was an achievement in its own right. The real and rarely noticed success story however is how this force became a part of the land, how it established close links with the ignored people who had no state services whatsoever, gained their gratitude, enabled them to rebuild their lives and helped to transform an abandoned landscape into a thriving, secure region during the 1990s.

Is the new UNIFIL any different?

To be sure, for Israel, a UN force on its Northern border was only the second best option. It would have much preferred to see a strong NATO force deployed in the area that would come and eliminate Hizbullah, something its own army could not do. Only after the reality set in that no country would send its troops to get killed in a mission irrelevant to their own national interests did Israel agree to a beefed up UN force. 1

When the new UNIFIL was being discussed in the aftermath of the July 2006 Israel-Hizbullah war, it became a habit to refer to the original force as toothless and ineffective. The new, expanded UNIFIL on the other hand would have sweeping powers, would be heavily armed, and would have strong European countries as its components – for all practical purpose, a NATO-force under UN auspices. It would march into Lebanon and teach everyone a lesson on robust peacekeeping after the disastrous experiences with meek UN forces in Somalia, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Rwanda. The UN would never be caught off guard again, we were assured, as if the weaknesses of the UN and the caveats of its member states had been remedied. Actually, nothing has changed except that the new forces have better armed contingents who still won't use their guns unless they are directly threatened themselves.

The outstanding feature of the new UNIFIL was to mobilize leading European countries as its key components. Self-sufficient, well-trained and well-equipped infantry troops from France, Italy and Spain were able to move faster than the UN could ever dream of. More importantly, with the addition of Germany as a naval unit and participation of other European nations in varying capacities and numbers, UNIFIL acquired a political clout the UN could never match by itself.

Initially, all those major European countries and the UN failed to note one small detail: That force could not deploy in South Lebanon, even with an official Lebanese request and a UN decision, unless Hizbullah agreed. Hizbullah's consent was built one three straightforward conditions: One, the UN force may not come as an independent actor but only in support of the Lebanese army. Two, UNIFIL and the Lebanese army would not search for Hizbullah's weapons but would only be allowed to confiscate any weapons they happen to come across. Three, UNIFIL's mandate would be limited to the area south of the Litani River and the force would not expand its operations to any other part of Lebanon.

Very quickly all the talk of a new type of robust UN force subsided. Nevertheless countries agreed to participate and an impressive array of troops began to arrive. Here the UN failed miserably in its public diplomacy. The predominantly Shiite population, guided by mostly Hizbullah-affiliated local administrators, could not understand the difference between old and new UNIFIL. The old one was people-friendly, non-aggressive. Why was the new one so heavily armed? Why were they in an aggressive, fighting posture that did not include talking to people and trying to solve their problems? Certainly, those main battle tanks, artillery and anti-aircraft missiles would not be used against Israel. Then, against whom they were to be used? What was all that this talk of providing security for Israel about? Were these UNIFIL troops actually spies collecting information on the resistance for use by Israel as charged by Hizbullah leaders? Politicians of the contributing countries and UNIFIL personnel on the ground, unaware of the growing hostility to their presence and potential repercussions for the evolving power struggle between the Lebanese government and the Hizbullah-led opposition, were going on and on about new, robust rules of engagement. What did "liberal use of self-defense" mean? Would UNIFIL raid villages? Open fire whenever they felt threatened?

Already the original UNIFIL had wide authority to use self-defense that included resisting any attempt to prevent it from carrying out its mandate. The new Security Council Resolution 1701 provided for similar powers but used more paper space in explaining it. But what is the actual practicality of ever using such powers? In April 1980, on a Saturday night, because of a confrontation with Irish troops elsewhere in South Lebanon, and with full knowledge of the IDF, the Israeli proxy militia in South Lebanon, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), decided to attack UNIFIL's headquarters in Naqoura with heavy mortar fire. The UNIFIL hospital caught fire, its helicopters were damaged, the camp lost all its communications and the Operations Room where the command had congregated had no idea what was going on, including how many casualties UNIFIL had sustained. It was definitely a survival situation. One 120-mm mortar into that Operations Room and UNIFIL would have ceased to exist. But senior officers from 10 countries were still arguing if UNIFIL had the right to return fire. I discreetly arranged for UN observers on the border to pinpoint the source of the mortar fire. Luckily one was a sharp US artillery officer who came back with precise coordinates within minutes. Meanwhile, the Dutch battalion up the road had moved their 120mm mortars in place and said they were ready to fire in support of headquarters. I begged for firing at least two smoke rounds to show that we can respond. It wasn't done. We had the authority; we had the weapons and the best reasons in the world to open fire. Why didn't we?

For the same reasons why the new UNIFIL, despite all its impressive armor, will not get involved in any military confrontation with Hizbullah. Senior officers know that they cannot sustain a prolonged clash. Their sources for reinforcements and supplies are back in their home countries. Moreover, in today's South Lebanon with its militant villagers loyal to Hizbullah, UNIFIL cannot last especially if it starts killing civilians. Very quickly, casualties among the multinational troops will be going up, and back home political support for the mission will plummet. That is why with the old UNIFIL we eventually sent back the mortars some of battalions had because they were just getting rusty and the UN was paying for them.

So if all this impressive equipment that has been employed over the past year, including the largest naval force that these shores have ever seen, will not be capable to en force peace, then what can they actually achieve? In all fairness, the new UNIFIL caught on quickly to the realities of peacekeeping in South Lebanon and realized that more than a combat force, they were supposed to be a conflict management tool with heavy emphasis on winning the hearts and minds of the population; and that good relations with the people would also be key to force protection because true, useful intelligence information would come from them. Smaller contingents and the culturally more aware Italians quickly established close ties with villagers and began offering humanitarian services from donating generators to schools to organizing language courses. In time, fully professional French and Spanish contingents as well eased their aggressive postures. The UN, which had given the original UNIFIL humanitarian missions with a zero dollar budget, also contributed money and personnel for quick impact projects. The mood in South Lebanon began to change and the people began to rely more and more on UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army for their needs. Even Israel noticed that change in South Lebanon would lower the levels of hostility and eased back its perennial efforts to intimidate UNIFIL into serving its own interests. Thanks to the efforts of UNIFIL to perceive of its mission in more than just military terms, an atmosphere has started to emerge that may be conducive to finally end the conflict in South Lebanon. South Lebanon may now experience a period of calm and peace it has not known in decades.

The Shifting Sands of South Lebanon : How to Deal with Hizbullah?

Peacekeeping in South Lebanon is an extremely complex undertaking where Lebanese, regional and international factors and actors interact. Yet, the UN persists in perceiving the mission through a logic tailored to conflicts between sovereign states, whereas the conflict in South Lebanon today is basically between Hizbullah, an ideological non-state actor with an impressive paramilitary force, and Israel.

The new, expanded UNIFIL came with a pronounced reluctance to even talk to Hizbullah because key UN member states such as the US and (to a lesser degree) the Europeans look upon Hizbullah as a terrorist organization with global reach that serves the interests of countries such as Iran and Syria. Furthermore, some of the European states participating in the force insisted that the fact that Hizbullah is an armed group constituted an insurmountable impediment to conducting contacts, even if those contacts would be restricted to just sitting and listening to the other side's point of view. By refusing to acknowledge that Hizbullah is a party with legitimacy derived from democratic parliamentary elections and participation in government, not to mention the high degree of credibility it enjoys among its own constituency, UNIFIL jeopardized its initially high acceptance among the local population, thus denying itself essential sources of intelligence information. It is hard to understand what the UN or the players that influence the UN operations hoped to gain through by-passing Hizbullah. One has to wonder whether some actually thought that Hizbullah would be replaced by another, more pliant dominant force or at least, marginalized.

However, realities on the ground are different. Soon realizing that Hizbullah was still a dominating force and ideology in South Lebanon, some UNIFIL contingents established their own discreet channels with the party, by-passing the UNIFIL headquarters. Some of the contingents imported their own non-UN political staff and others mobilized their embassies in Lebanon.

Actually, there is nothing really new about UNIFIL's liaison channels with Hizbullah. But in the past those channels were publicly acknowledged, meetings were never held in secrecy and the UNIFIL command and therefore the UN Headquarters were always informed. When Hizbullah was consolidating its presence in South Lebanon in the early 1980s while pursuing an initially hostile attitude towards UNIFIL, contacts were established between the UN peacekeepers and the party to reduce misunderstandings and hostility. That arrangement became permanent and even more effective after Hassan Nasrallah became Hizbullah's leader in 1992.

Not surprisingly, Israel has continuously deplored and denounced such contacts that were established by UNIFIL, first with Palestinians groups, then the Lebanese resistance and now Hizbullah, and has quoted them as a paramount example of the UN's bias and unreliability, and as a reason why it opposes UN peacekeeping forces in general. Such public attitude does not however reflect the thinking of Israel's true policy makers, the military. In fact, the Israeli Defense Forces actually encouraged the UN personnel to maintain contacts with hostile non-state forces as the only available channel of communication to avoid misunderstandings and inadvertent clashes and at times reach understandings.

However, if not subjected to a set of stringent rules and monitoring, such channels of communication, useful as they are, can easily turn into a slippery slope. Without supervision from the command level, the forces on the ground may be tempted into local "deals" with groups operating in their area, and that usually means compromising the mission goals. UNIFIL suffered from such deals shortly after it was deployed in 1978 and in response the force developed strict rules on liaison with local forces. By setting strict rules of who is allowed to conduct such contacts and how they are to be handled, UNIFIL was able to neutralize the hostility of some groups, establish friendlier relations with the public and the local news media, and generate valuable local intelligence support. The current mix of official and clandestine backchannels, on the other hand, endangers the unity of command of UNIFIL, opens inroads for playing different contingents or command levels against each other, and in general threatens the integrity and the reputation of the force.

Dangers facing UNIFIL

Grossly inflated expectations of UN peacekeeping operations to the effect that the force will be capable of taking over and "fixing" a country usually end up with a loss of credibility for the world body and even with physical attacks against it. The UN cannot act like new colonialists on a civilizing mission. It cannot get ahead of its hosts who would rather solve their problems in their own way, usually through bargaining and negotiations. In Lebanon, there are UN resolutions that call for the disarming of militias, including Hizbullah. Some think the UN should do it. But the Lebanese government says that disarming cannot be done by foreign armies using force as that will lead to internal conflict, and that the Lebanese will do it their way, through negotiations and persuasion with full attention to civil peace in the country. Countries contributing troops to UNIFIL have seen the danger and insist that the force stick to its rules of engagement that forbid it to engage Hizbullah without coordinating first with the Lebanese army, in order to avoid any scenario that may drag UNIFIL into Lebanon's endless internal conflict.

Another danger facing UNIFIL is the UN's archaic mindset. A multinational force with the participation of 30 countries is not an ideal setup for operating in southern Lebanon. True, its parades are so colorful with so many flags and varieties of food and cultural shows. That would be all fine and well if South Lebanon wasn't still a conflict zone where hostilities could erupt without much warning. The UN still subscribes to the view that balanced geographic representation ensures impartiality of the UN force. It doesn't. It is the national interests of its powerful members that set the course. Differences in training, doctrine, officer quality, communications and other capabilities make a mockery of any claims to unified command and control. Costs of maintaining such a force skyrocket because of separate services that have to be provided to all these contingents, including meeting special dietary requirements. Transport costs add up given the distances and the need to arrange for frequent rotations. Soldiers from poorer countries often arrive with very basic equipment and expect the UN to provide everything else from transport to radios. Language at times becomes a paralyzing barrier. UNIFIL is already facing severe command and support problems with its diverse contingents trying to get away with their own way of doing things. In the case of renewed hostilities or other serious incidents, UNIFIL could rapidly disintegrate and deliver a serious blow to any further role for the UN and the European Union in the Middle East conflict.

Finally, like most multinational forces, UNIFIL too suffers from an emphasis on risk aversion. This is perfectly natural as no country joins peacekeeping to lose personnel. No contingent commander would like to risk his soldiers in a confrontation. After all his performance will be judged by his national commanders and his advancement depends on that judgment. Nobody cares for pro-forma UN performance reports. But if the safety of the troops becomes the top priority, then the success of the mission becomes secondary.

Unfortunately UNIFIL is now at this crossroads especially after the recent car-bomb attack that killed six Spanish peacekeepers. Not only the Spanish contingent but the entire UNIFIL immediately went on high alert and adapted perfectly legitimate and understandable security measures. Even the local population sympathized with the measures taken that basically eliminated all contacts between the troops and the people. UN personnel were confined to bases and could only move in heavily guarded, armored convoys. A vital link to the people who could provide warnings for similar attacks was thus severed. The UNIFIL command is much aware of the problem, which is a perhaps unintended but serious result of the attack on the Spanish, but it is hard to see how it can relax the measures taken. Not to be outdone, UNIFIL's civilian security officers, a new feature of the "Baghdad Syndrome" that has taken over all UN field missions following the lethal attack against the UN in Iraq, clamped down on movement of civilian staff members too. These security officers, ill-informed about the realities of the land they are in and whose first reaction is to restrict movement have done heavy damage to the UN's image in Lebanon. They simply do not understand that in this part of the world, if you are designated as a target no amount of body armor and number of cars in a convoy will protect you. Only advance intelligence warning would, and the most reliable and maybe the only way to receive such information is for the peacekeepers to stay in touch with the people they are sent to protect and who, if treated with respect, will in turn protect the troops.

Comments (3)

Imad Naassan said:

Washignton Quarterly’s newest edition has published Dr. Landis’ Syrian Opposition study:


August 12th, 2007, 2:09 am


t_desco said:

Islamist hints at attacks by militants outside northern Lebanon refugee camp

The leader of a Syrian Islamist group claimed in an audio tape aired Sunday that some al-Qaida-inspired militants have left a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon and hinted they will soon launch attacks.

Abu Jandal al-Dimashqi, the self-declared leader of Tawhid and Jihad in Syria, also mourned the death of Abu Hureira, the deputy leader of Fatah Islam, whose followers inside Nahr el-Bared camp have been battling the Lebanese army since May 20.

The government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora announced Aug. 6 that police in the northern port city of Tripoli near Nahr el-Bared had killed Abu Hureira, a Lebanese whose real name is Shehab al-Qaddour.

“The martyrdom of our brother Abu Hureira has fanned the flames,” said al-Dimashqi in an audio tape posted on an Islamic Web site. “Let the government of traitor Saniora know that some of Fatah Islam’s heroes have left the camp and are now among you. Wait for a black day.”

The authenticity of the audio tape could not be verified, but it was posted on a Web site commonly used by Islamic militants.

Al-Dimashqi criticized residents of Abu Hureira’s northern village of Mishmish for refusing to bury him in the town’s cemetery because he fought against the army. Three of the 136 soldiers who have been killed fighting Fatah Islam were from Mishmish.

A senior army officer told The Associated Press that the military took the statement “seriously” and was analyzing it. But the officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the army’s actions “are not based on statements posted on the Internet, but on military plans.” …

August 12th, 2007, 4:21 pm


why-discuss said:

Other interviews (in french and Englosh) of Timour Goksel.
I was listening to an interview with Timor Goksel on NPR, where he was asked about Fateh el-Islam’s involvement in the attack against the UNIFIL soldiers. He said that Fateh el-Islam was not responsible for that bombing and that the main suspects are actually Osbat al-Ansar. If Osbat al-Ansar are behind this attack wouldn’t that indirectly incriminate Hariri, Inc.? Aren’t they allied with Osbat al-Ansar and provide them with funding and support?

August 13th, 2007, 1:14 am


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