BEIRUT (Reuters) – If you want yoga lessons, herbal medicine for a sick cow or help clearing cluster bombs in south Lebanon, try United Nations troops — who have also kept the peace between Israel and Hezbollah for the past year.
The south has been notably calm since fighting stopped on August 14, two days after the U.N. Security Council mandated an expanded, tougher UNIFIL force to oversee an Israeli withdrawal and help newly deployed Lebanese troops secure the area.
Hezbollah guerrillas, who fired thousands of rockets into Israel during the 34-day conflict, now have no visible armed presence in the UNIFIL zone south of the Litani River.
Israeli warplanes still violate Lebanese airspace almost daily, but few shots have been fired in anger apart from a brief clash between Israeli and Lebanese troops on February 7 and two rockets that hit Israel June 17. Hezbollah denied firing them.
“The outcome of the first year is very positive,” UNIFIL’s
commander, Major General Claudio Graziano, told Reuters. “There’s still a lot to be done. It’s a young mission.”
Neither Israel nor Hezbollah has challenged UNIFIL, which now has 11,500 troops and a 2,000-strong naval force from 30-odd nations. But a car bomb that killed six Spanish peacekeepers on June 24 was a bloody reminder of dangers faced by the force.
The attack, whose perpetrators remain unidentified, prompted U.N. troops to step up their protective measures and underlined their need to foster good relations with the local populace.
Hence the yoga and veterinary services offered by UNIFIL’s Indian battalion, as well as the work of Chinese demining teams and other medical, humanitarian and reconstruction efforts.
NO PEACE, NO WAR
Twelve months after the war, which killed about 1,200 people in Lebanon and 158 Israelis, there is still no formal ceasefire.
Moreover, U.N. mediation has yet to win either the release of two Israeli soldiers whose capture by Hezbollah sparked the conflict, or freedom for Lebanese prisoners held in Israel.
But both sides say they support the U.N. peacekeepers.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said the situation in south Lebanon had improved drastically with UNIFIL’s help.
“The fact that the Lebanese (army) forces have, for the first time in decades, been exercising Lebanese sovereignty over territory that was previously an Iranian-inspired mini-state is an important achievement,” he added.
Regev accused Iran and Syria of continuing to arm Hezbollah in violation of U.N. resolution 1701 which ended the war, saying the Security Council should consider action against them.
“We are concerned about the flow of illicit military equipment across the Litani southwards and concerned that urban areas in the south are not sufficiently monitored and patrolled and have become areas where Hezbollah and other jihadist groups have been able to rebuild their military machine,” he said.
That is not UNIFIL’s view.
Graziano said his forces had found no “terror or military activity,” except for two bombings against UNIFIL and the rocket attack, though there might still be weapons caches in the area.
“At this moment Hezbollah is really respectful of 1701,” the Italian general declared.
Hezbollah denies any military activity or weapons smuggling south of the Litani, but says it has replenished its arsenal.
“We understand that UNIFIL’s role is to protect Lebanon’s sovereignty. We agree to this, no more and no less,” said Ali Fayyad, head of a Hezbollah think-tank in Beirut.
He complained that the U.N. force had been unable to prevent Israeli overflights or obtain from Israel maps of minefields or data on cluster bomb strikes that could save lives in the south.
“Resolution 1701 has achieved a ceasefire in practice, but has not stopped Israeli hostilities against Lebanon,” Fayyad said, referring also to continued Israeli occupation of the disputed Shebaa Farms area claimed by Beirut.
“MANAGING THE CONFLICT”
Lebanon’s Western-backed government has asked the Security Council to renew UNIFIL’s mandate when it expires on August 31.
“The peacekeeping task will remain easy as long as the belligerents want it,” said former UNIFIL adviser Timur Goksel.
“UNIFIL is managing the conflict, not solving it. The potential for a flare-up is still there, but I don’t think the parties are in a mood to start anything now,” he added.
Israel proved unable to disarm Hezbollah last year and the task is beyond the mandate of UNIFIL, which says a political solution is needed. For now, the group’s armed power remains one of many issues dividing rival factions in Lebanon.
Hezbollah, along with its Shi’ite and Christian allies, is locked in a nine-month-old dispute with the government. Failure to resolve this before a looming presidential election could result in rival governments — and a major headache for UNIFIL.
“It’s important that the Lebanese authorities don’t abdicate their responsibility,” Graziano said, urging them to “work very hard to find an internal solution in order to allow the tools of peacekeeping and (resolution) 1701 to work at their best.”