The UN’s Disintegration in Lebanon

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.”
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