Analysis: UNIFIL peacekeeping cuts both ways

The latest round of tension between Israel and UNIFIL is a clear echo of the 1983 Beirut Showdown.

October 26, 2006 23:13
3 minute read.
UN UNIFIL observation post lebanon

UNIFIL 248 88. (photo credit: AP [file])


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For a few weeks in 1983, Captain Charles B. Johnson of the US Marine Corps became a media star in America after he singlehandedly forced three IDF tanks to retreat and not enter one of the Muslim areas of Beirut. At the time, Johnson was an officer in the ill-fated multinational force sent to try and return law and order after Israel had invaded the Lebanese capital in the first Lebanon War. His action brought him the praise of his superiors, including warm words from the White House and thousands of letters from well-wishers back home. The reports on how, wielding just a pistol, he had pushed back the might of the Israeli army transformed him overnight into an American hero. It was perhaps one of the more esoteric episodes of that bitter war, but revealing in its way. If Israel's biggest ally got so much satisfaction from humiliating us in the eyes of the world, what should we expect from less friendly countries? The latest round of tension between Israel and the newly bolstered UNIFIL is a clear echo of the 1983 Beirut Showdown. Few in Israel had any illusion that the new UNIFIL would act forcefully against Hizbullah fighters returning quietly to their strongholds in southern Lebanon or make a serious effort to interdict arm shipments from Syria, replenishing stockpiles used during the war. The government might have been eager to market it as a new and resolute force, but that was only in order to try and show we had gained something in the latest war. The best that Israel could realistically hope for was that the blue helmets would provide sufficient backing for the Lebanese Army deployment along the border that might, one day, enforce sovereignty and dissolve Hizbullah's fighting capability. But while Israel's diplomats were urging various nations to send sizable contingents to the region, they somehow overlooked the drawbacks. As crowded as south Lebanon already is with armed forces, another 20,000 foreign soldiers, equipped with tanks, battleships and helicopters, weren't going to be pointing their guns only at Hizbullah. Regardless of where their sympathies lie, the units based in Lebanon are eager for legitimacy in the eyes of the local population and the quickest and easiest way to win that is to act tough with Israel. Hence the big talk over the weekend by the French defense minister on the possibility of shooting down Israeli planes if the IAF persists in flying over the country. But if it's just empty talk, what have the French got to lose? And just say one of their number fires a surface-to-air shoulder missile. Who will get the blame? The perception of the new international force in Lebanon, in Israeli eyes, is of an improved version of the old South Lebanese Army, proxies who are there to act as buffers between Israel and the terror threat. That is how our politicians have been describing them. But we are the only ones capable of buying into such an illusion. Any country that is prepared to put its troops at risk in Bint Jbail and Marjayoun is going to try and get local assurances that they won't get shot at and have to suffer suicide bombers. Appearing as Israel's defenders is no way to go about that. Whether the new UNIFIL will eventually improve security on the northern border is an open question, but in the long run there's bound to be trouble. Despite Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's eagerness for Germany to play a major role in the new force, Berlin was worried that, six decades after the Holocaust, soldiers of the Bundeswher might be pointing their guns once again at Jews. Few Israeli understood these concerns. The guns, after all, were supposed to be pointed the other way. But for the Germans and other nations there was no question - they were to keep the peace in both directions, and Wednesday's incident between IAF F-16s and the German Navy helicopter proved how out of touch with reality Israel still is.

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