U.N. peacekeepers hope to fill Lebanon vacuum

Once-impotent force looks to new mission

April 19, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KFAR DUNIN, Lebanon -- For 22 years, United Nations peacekeepers here have been virtual spectators to Israel's war against Palestinians and Lebanese Shiite militias in South Lebanon, watching combatants and innocent villagers die and often losing their own men in the crossfire.

Now, with Israel planning to withdraw by July, the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon could emerge from its obscure role on the fringes of the Middle East conflict to become a pivotal player.

Some of its members are eager for the chance to fulfill UNIFIL's mission.

"From a very personal point of view, I think UNIFIL should be allowed to fill the vacuum after the Israelis withdraw," says Lt. Col. Theophilus Tawiah, 49, commander of Ghanbatt, the Ghanaian battalion in the nine-nation, 4,500-member U.N. force.

"The international community needs to assure the Lebanese they are safe and has to assure the Israelis they are safe, and I think the only means by which this assurance can be given would be the deployment of the troops into the vacuum which is likely to be created by the withdrawal of the Israelis."

Sometime in the next three months, U.N. map specialists intimately familiar with South Lebanon's steep rugged hills and fertile valleys are likely to give the signal that Tawiah and Ghanbatt have been waiting for.

When these experts certify that the last Israeli soldier has left the occupation zone in South Lebanon, UNIFIL will move in and try to restore peace and security, as its mandate requires.

The assignment, if it comes, would be fraught with danger in a nation that has not seen peace for a quarter-century and would test whether UNIFIL's mandate is strong enough to sustain it.

In this era of muscular peace enforcement in places such as the Balkans, UNIFIL is a throwback to the days of lightly armed peacekeepers in blue berets allowed to fire their M-16 rifles only in self-defense.

UNIFIL's commander, Brig. Gen. Seth Kofi Obeng, was at U.N. headquarters in New York this week laying out contingency plans for the aftermath of Israel's pullout. With Israel's withdrawal officially declared at the United Nations on Monday, formal planning will move ahead.

The stakes are high for Ghana and its soldiers here. A small West African country with strong ties to the West, Ghana has gained international prestige as a steady contributor to peacekeeping since it sent troops into the Belgian Congo in the 1960s.

Ghana has supplied troops continuously to UNIFIL. Obeng is Ghanaian, as was the peacekeepers' first commander, Lt. Gen. E.A. Erskine.

The wrong assumptions that accompanied Erskine's arrival in 1978 are summed up in the word "interim" that remains a misleading part of UNIFIL's name.

After Israel invaded Lebanon in March 1978, the United Nations demanded that it withdraw "forthwith" and created UNIFIL to help the Lebanese government restore stability. But Israel never fully withdrew.

Stuck in the middle

Perched on the front line, UNIFIL has watched Israeli soldiers and Palestinian and Lebanese militias fight each other but lacked the means or the mandate to stop them or to protect civilians on both sides of the border.

Israeli forces brushed UNIFIL aside during their 1982 invasion of Lebanon, later withdrawing part way while carving out a nine-mile-wide occupation zone in the south.

The U.N. troops found themselves helpless during fierce fighting between Israel and Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah guerrillas in 1996. Lebanese civilians sought protection in a U.N. compound manned by Fijian troops, only to come under a renewed Israeli bombardment that left more than 100 dead.

Early this year, they witnessed stepped-up fighting that brought an increase in Israeli casualties and retaliatory airstrikes against Lebanese power stations.

Since it arrived, UNIFIL has lost 235 men, some caught in crossfire, others the victims of accidents or illnesses.

South Lebanon might have suffered even more had UNIFIL not been there keeping tabs on the fighting, documenting abuses of the rules of war, brokering cease-fires, limiting the flow of weapons and providing humanitarian services to villagers, from clinics and medicine to school notebooks.

The 600-square-kilometer area UNIFIL controls has been stabilized to the point where many South Lebanese who fled before and during 1978 have returned, boosting its population from 15,000 to 300,000. Lebanese who became wealthy abroad have dotted hardscrabble villages with imposing new villas.

Ghanbatt's force of 651 goes about its limited duties of manning roadway checkpoints and conducting patrols with a correctness inherited from the British.

"As you were," Tiaweh tells a young soldier who straightens rigidly to attention as the commander walks past.

Ghanbatt's freedom of action, always limited, was further curtailed by a U.S.-brokered agreement in 1996 dubbed the "April Understanding." Intended to prevent attacks on or from civilian areas, the accord also served to legitimize the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah.

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