Poland is withdrawing its troops from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the U.S. is pressuring other European contributors to the mission to send additional soldiers to Afghanistan, and Israeli defense officials are worried the multinational force north of the border might collapse entirely. Israelis, however, aren’t the ones who should worry. South Lebanon’s Christians stand to lose the most if that happens.
“If UNIFIL leaves, we’re going with them,” a young Lebanese man told me in the village of Rmeich in February this year. “Everyone is frightened about what might happen.” Rmeich is a Maronite Christian enclave near the Israeli border. Along with the adjacent Maronite village of Ein Ebel, it is surrounded by Shia cities, towns, and villages where support for Hezbollah runs deep. “There are many Hezbollah people near here,” the man continued. “They wear civilian clothes. They used to come into our town with guns and harass us before the [July 2006] war, but not anymore thanks to UNIFIL.”
UNFIL was created in 1978 to help the Lebanese government restore its sovereignty over the area after it was taken over by Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization and used as a base for guerrilla and terrorist attacks against Israel. The force was bolstered by thousands of mostly European soldiers after the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 and given a similar mandate. Hezbollah controlled the border area after Israeli soldiers withdrew from the “security belt” in South Lebanon in 2000. War was all but inevitable under those circumstances. So in addition to bringing the Lebanese Army and government back to the border where they might prevent another war outbreak, UNIFIL was supposed to prevent Hezbollah from replenishing its partially depleted stock of rockets and missiles through smuggling roads over the land border with Syria. In this, UNIFIL failed. Almost all analysts say Hezbollah has a larger arsenal now than it did before the 2006 war even started.
UNIFIL gets little credit for helping South Lebanon’s Christians, and that’s too bad. But the force gets far more credit than it deserves for keeping Hezbollah in check. UNIFIL’s presence is something of a problem because it appears the “international community” is doing something constructive to prevent the next war when it actually isn’t. Neither are the Israel Defense Forces, the Lebanese Army, or anyone else.
Some Lebanese officers are still loyal to Damascus. They were never purged from the armed forces after occupying Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents were forced to withdraw in the wake of the massive demonstration in downtown Beirut on March 14, 2005. “Sometimes we see things we don’t understand,” another resident of Rmeich told me recently. “Huge covered-up trucks get through the army checkpoints, and they’re not even stopped. When I go through in my open car, I have to pull over.”
The impotence of the UN mission is embedded right in its name. It’s supposed to be an “interim” force. That’s what the “I” in UNIFIL stands for. Yet it was sent to Lebanon in 1978. The “interim” has lasted for more than three decades. The PLO no longer exists in South Lebanon, but Hezbollah was built up from nothing in the exact same place while UNIFIL stood idly by. UNIFIL looks like it might prevent the next war if you squint hard enough, but it’s little more than a convenient fiction for those who prefer to cross their fingers and hope for the best. Only if it collapses will a more robust solution be possible.
I met American-Israeli military historian Michael Oren for the first time under fire on the Israeli side of the border while Hezbollah fired Katyusha rockets into burning Israeli cities in August of 2006. He said in order for UNIFIL to be effective it had to be authorized under a UN Chapter 7 resolution, like the NATO force in Kosovo, rather than the watered-down Chapter 6. “It needs to be a combat force in Lebanon,” he said, “not a peacekeeping force.”
He’s right about that, but no government in the world wants to send its soldiers into combat in South Lebanon. So Lebanon is left with a weak force that still can’t do much more than protect Christian islands in a vast sea of Hezbollah. The Israelis won’t have much more to worry about if UNIFIL goes. The people of Rmeich and Ein Ebel, however, have one more reason to bite their nails and consider a move to Beirut.