“Mr. UNIFIL” Reflects on a Quarter Century of Peacekeeping in South Lebanon
On 19 March 1978, three days after Israel’s first invasion of Lebanon reached the Litani River, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously passed (with two abstentions: Czechoslovakia and the USSR) Resolution 425 calling on Israel “immediately to cease its military action” and to “withdraw forthwith its forces from all Lebanese territory.” The resolution also decided the creation of an interim force in southern Lebanon “for the purpose of confirming the withdrawal of Israeli forces, restoring international peace and security and assisting the Government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area.” With a mandate of six months, the first troops of the United National Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) arrived on 23 March.
Under U.S. pressure, Israel withdrew its own forces from Lebanon by October 1978. But because it turned the border zone over to right-wing Lebanese Christian auxiliary force (later named the South Lebanon Army or SLA), Israel was seen as remaining in effective control. As a result, UNIFIL’s mandate under UNSC Resolution 425 was repeatedly renewed and extended.
Israel’s area of occupation greatly expanded following its second invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, which pushed all the way to Beirut. Though Israel pulled back from the Beirut region that autumn, for the next three years it occupied the entire southern part of the country up to the Awwali River just north of Sidon. After completing a phased withdrawal in June 1985, Israel retained a 10- to 20-km wide “security belt” along the border with a salient jutting northward encompassing the town of Jizzin—about 10 percent of the country. In May 2000, Israel withdrew from south Lebanon entirely and the SLA was disbanded, but UNIFIL remained because its mandate had not been entirely fulfilled since the Lebanese government’s “effective authority” had not been returned.
While the boundaries of Israel’s occupation shifted over the years, UNIFIL’s area of deployment never changed. From the outset, it was limited to the areas Israel occupied in 1978: Lebanon south of the Litani River except for the “Tyre pocket,” where the PLO in 1978 had been strong, and the border strip where Israel’s proxy the SLA was ensconced. The UNIFIL area was divided into a number of sectors where some nine to ten national contingents contributed by UN member states were deployed, each based in villages or towns in the area it was assigned to patrol. The national contingents, though under the direct command of their own officers, were under overall UN command. Though the composition of the force changed over time, there was nonetheless considerable continuity, with national contingents of a number of countries remaining in south Lebanon, patrolling the same sectors, for many years. UNIFIL troops were assisted by the UN Observer Group Lebanon, a unit of some fifty men from the UN Truce Supervision Organization set up in 1949 to monitor the armistice lines. Almost all the UN observers, like the UNIFIL staff officers lived in Israel. By contrast, the UNIFIL national contingents, both troops and officers, lived in the south Lebanese villages where they were deployed.
Until Israel’s full withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, the size of the UNIFIL force varied over the years, reaching as high as 6,000 but mostly remaining around 4,000–4,500. Following the withdrawal, the UN temporarily raised the authorized limit to 7,900, but when the area remained calm and the anticipated atrocities did not materialize, UNIFIL was gradually reduced to 2,000 and remained at that level through the summer 2006 war. As that war ended, the UNSC on 11 August unanimously passed (without abstentions) Resolution 1701, which “enhanced” UNIFIL, raising its authorized force strength to 15,000 and expanding its mandate.
With UNIFIL—the new UNIFIL—very much in the news following the summer 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah, JPS decided to interview the man most closely associated with the “old UNIFIL.” Timur Göksel, who had been with the UN information office in Ankara, Turkey, joined UNIFIL as its press officer and spokesman about six months after its creation and remained with the organization for the next twenty-four years—years that saw not only Israel’s invasion and two major incursions, but also the height of PLO power and its obliteration, the birth and development of the local resistance after 1982, the waning of the powerful Amal movement and the rise of Hizballah. Because of Göksel’s long association with the interim force (where individual tours of duty rarely exceeded a few years), his familiarity with every village and hamlet south of the Litani, and his personal acquaintance with all the leading players, he has frequently been referred to as “Mr. UNIFIL” or “Mr. South Lebanon.” In 1995 he became UNIFIL senior advisor as well as spokesman, confirming the political and mediating roles he had exercised from the outset. Since his retirement from UNIFIL in 2003, he has taught conflict management and other courses at the American University of Beirut and continues to visit south Lebanon on a regular basis.
The interview took place at the end of November 2006 in one of Göksel’s favorite Beirut hangouts, the Café de Prague, formerly the Rose and Crown bar where foreign journalists congregated during the early years of Lebanon’s civil war. The immediate background to the interview was the assassination of a young cabinet minister, Pierre Gemayel (son of Lebanese ex-president Amin Gemayel and nephew of Phalangist leader and assassinated Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel), raising tensions and exacerbating the standoff between the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, backed by a Sunni-Christian-Druze coalition, and the opposition led by Hizballah, but which itself had Christian and Druze components. With rumors abuzz about the impact of the deteriorating situation on the new UNIFIL forces, still being deployed a the time, the interview was interrupted several times by journalists and others seeking Göksel’s take on the unfolding events: he seems to have remained an unofficial spokesman for south Lebanon and popular with journalists not only for his knowledge but for his colorful speech and shoot-from-the-hip frankness. The interview, which took place on 24, 26, and 27 November 2006 over serial espressos and in clouds of cigarette smoke, was conducted by Linda Butler, associate editor of JPS.
Butler: Everybody is talking about the new UNIFIL and the fact that it can use force. What did the original UNIFIL’s mandate say about the use of force? How far could they go?
Göksel: Look, like all peacekeeping forces, the original UNIFIL had the right of self-defense. Most people don’t realize that self-defense includes using weapons against those who are trying by force to prevent you from carrying out your mandate. There is a wide latitude in “self-defense” for using force, if you want to use it.
So it wasn’t that the original UNIFIL was emasculated or lacking a mandate. The problem is not what’s missing on paper, but what’s possible on the ground. UNIFIL in 1978 was given these powers, but who was going to back you up? Could you count on the international community to send in a force to help you? Was there some semblance of local authority to provide support? No. So basically you were given this wide mandate but told you were on your own.
The difference today is there’s a longer menu of reasons that the new UNIFIL can open fire—they’re spelled out in detail. And of course now the Lebanese national army is on the ground. The absence of that army or any other legal force was the major cause of the original UNIFIL’s perceived failure. But the flip side of that backing is that the new “enhanced” UNIFIL that is supposedly so “robust” can’t do anything without the okay of the Lebanese army. When the old UNIFIL deployed in the south in 1978, we didn’t ask anybody for anything because there was nobody to ask, so we did what we wanted—within the “rules of the south,” of course, the local customs and practice, and with a healthy dose of realism. What the new force has going for it is that the international community is more involved, and the sponsors of the new UN resolution are completely committed to it.
Butler: But wasn’t that the case back in 1978? Wasn’t there strong backing, especially from the United States, for UNSC Resolution 425 calling for Israel’s withdrawal and creating UNIFIL?
Göksel: That backing was pretty short-lived, and while the United States was the driving force behind Resolution 425, its real motivation was not to solve the Lebanon problem but to buy time to save the Egyptian-Israeli peace initiative opened by [Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem a few months before. If Israel had been allowed to stay in Lebanon, the Barbara Walters–inspired Sadat mission would be finished. And after the usual foot dragging and delays, Israel did leave south Lebanon, at least technically. The UN certified the withdrawal. It’s true that Israel’s Lebanese proxies, the militia of Sa`d Haddad, remained. The whole thing was a gimmick, but that’s what the Americans wanted and they got it.
Actually, there was a lot of opposition to the creation of UNIFIL from UN officials. They said it wasn’t doable to have a peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, that there was no state, that it was a civil war situation, that the force would be left to the wolves. They were overruled, but it was because of this opposition that the force was called “interim.” The Americans pushed the resolution through by saying “no, no, this is just for the very short term, so let’s call it an interim force, it will be out in one year.” So UNIFIL was created and then everybody forgot about it. And there were a number of mistakes made at the beginning that UNIFIL never stopped paying for.
Butler: For example?
Göksel: The decision to put UNIFIL headquarters in Naqura, right on the Israeli border, and to have the UNIFIL civilian employees and staff officers living in Israel—I myself lived there for twenty-two years. This made us hostages of Israel and its proxy, Haddad’s South Lebanon Army. [*] The fact that all these UN people had to cross into Lebanon every day meant that Israel or the Haddad people could just close the border at will, for no reason. “The border is closed, you can’t go to work.” Okay, you don’t go to work. Or they close it in the evening, and you can’t go home. The Israelis of course were very happy to have these hundreds of UN families spending money in Israel. Plus, because Lebanon was in a state of war, most of UNIFIL’s official purchases were from Israel also. So it was very lucrative for Israel. But this didn’t change their attitude to the UN.
Butler: Who made the decision about the headquarters at Naqura and the staff living in Israel?
Göksel: It was a UN decision. Obviously, it was not possible for the headquarters to be in Israel, the occupying country, but the officers wanted it close enough to Israel so they could play tennis, have a beer, and that sort of thing. None of them wanted to be confined to the village of Naqura—Beirut after all was inaccessible because of the civil war. Of course there were good excuses for not locating it elsewhere. The Lebanese government had suggested the barracks in Tyre, for example, but the Palestinians didn’t want UNIFIL moving into what was basically their logistical and command center and they argued that because that area—the so-called “Tyre pocket”—had not been occupied by Israel in 1978, the UN couldn’t take it over. The UN agreed. Tyre wasn’t all that safe anyway, but they could have chosen some village that would have been both safe and beyond Israel’s control, except most such villages lacked infrastructure and conveniences. So they hit upon Naqura, which had once been the UN crossing point between Lebanon and Palestine. That was the first and most serious in a long series of mistakes at the beginning.
Butler: What were some of the others?
Göksel: There were some concessions that shouldn’t have been made. For example, as I just mentioned, when UNIFIL was established the Palestinians insisted that the UN couldn’t move into areas Israel had never occupied. Besides the Tyre pocket, there was another smaller area to the east that had not been taken—there was a concentration of Palestinian bases there and I guess the Israelis didn’t think it was worth the losses they would have had to incur to capture it. So the Palestinians argued that they had the right to keep those bases—I think there were about sixteen of them—smack in the middle of what should have been the UN zone. The UN agreed. A big mistake. So this area east of Tyre, south of the village of Juwayya, became the “Iron Triangle” [†] where UNIFIL couldn’t enter. The Palestinians agreed that we could control access to the Iron Triangle and prevent entry of all but humanitarian supplies, food and such—in other words, no weapons. But come on! There were hundreds of ways to get to those bases and no way to control what went in.
The Israelis never let the UN forget that concession, and they insisted on getting a similar deal for their own guys, the Haddad militia, who were deployed in this wide strip all along the border. They claimed Haddad was independent—analogous to the Palestinians. Excuse me? Haddad gets a salary from the Israelis, he’s supplied by them, armed by them, clothed by them, takes his orders from them—it was an auxiliary force! But using this claim of independence they didn’t allow the UN to take up the entire border area. The UN went along. That created a lot of problems for us because these guys were always trying to encroach on UNIFIL areas, and not just to extend Israel’s control but also, it should be said, to expand the areas where they themselves could “tax” the local population. There were a number of clashes between us and the SLA over the years, and a number of UN soldiers got killed. In any case, the UN had accepted the deal and it became an established fact. One of the inherent weakness of any multinational command—which is always worse in a UN command—is that the contingents make local deals with the forces on the ground, without telling headquarters. These later come back to haunt you.
But beyond the mistakes, it has to be said that the whole UN peacekeeping idea is prone to miscalculations. Whatever the manuals say, there are no fixed rules—it’s all very local, you have to play it by ear. It’s very difficult to take any collective action. There are these nine or ten separate national contingents. Everyone goes through the motions of being under UN command. We have these terrific parades, so colorful, so spit and polish, in perfect formation—I love them! But do you think any of those contingents will take orders from the UN when the going gets rough? Basically, they all do their own thing. It’s worse with this new “robust” UNIFIL because no less than twenty-nine countries have contingents. So a young cabinet minister gets assassinated in Beirut the other day [‡] and all of a sudden there’s talk of some of the contingents being pulled out. Ya habibi—what’s the connection? Is it so easy to give up UN peacekeeping?
But that’s the way it is. You don’t really control the national contingents. For starters, no one trusts the set up at UN headquarters in New York. There are 100,000 peacekeepers all over the world, and they’re managed by a couple of bureaucrats who have never served in an army in their lives and who specialize in not offending anyone. Nobody’s going to entrust their soldiers to these guys. Plus if the situation on the ground gets ugly, New York doesn’t want to hear about it. The less you refer unpleasant issues to them, the happier they are. And there are bound to be unpleasant issues: when UNIFIL came in 1978 they had no idea about the local dynamics, who the Palestinians were, what the Israelis were all about. They thought relations with the Israelis would be easy because they thought they were Europeans and because their army had such a legendary reputation. They got over that pretty quickly.
So UNIFIL was thrown into this environment where there was no state, no army, where there was a triple war going on, where you had all these Palestinian groups, all these Lebanese groups, you had the Israelis, you had their SLA proxies. So this is where you send these nice UN soldiers with their light rifles and tell them not only to survive but to fight these characters when necessary, with absolutely no support from anybody. If you ask me, that original UNIFIL that everybody’s denigrating so much was a lot more “robust” than this one that can’t even put up a checkpoint. I mean, the presence of the Lebanese army makes everything so safe and easy for the UN. Somebody gets a flat tire and they call in the army to fix it.
Butler: Explain what you mean by a triple war going on.
Göksel: Well, there was the civil war “south Lebanon version,” the civil war “Beirut version,” and the cross-border Palestinian-Israeli war. The Palestinian-Israeli war was pretty straight forward, but the alliances and stakes in the two civil war versions differed. The parties that were allied to each other, at least nominally, in Beirut—i.e., the Palestinians and Shi`a—were fighting each other in the south, where it was an internal war for turf, not ideological; even the Christian-Muslim dimension had already quieted down by the time we got there. In the version up north, in Beirut, it was the so-called Islamo-Palestinian-progressive alliance against the mainly Christian forces.
That was the environment, in a nutshell. You are a UN force, you are told to keep your area peaceful. So if armed Palestinians come into your area, you’re supposed to disarm them and hand their weapons over to the national authority because it’s a national sovereignty issue. But excuse me, where’s the national authority? So you’re told to turn them over to the PLO liaison officer who signs for them, and you say “please don’t let your guys come into our area again,” and he says “yes yes,” you kiss, you have a cup of tea, and it’s all very friendly. And then ten days later you stop another Palestinian patrol and confiscate their weapons, you check the numbers and you find it’s the same weapons, back again.
Butler: It’s that easy to confiscate their weapons, just like that, no fuss?
Göksel: That’s why we had a lot of clashes—weapons are crucial to a man’s honor in our parts. People got killed on both sides. UNIFIL took a lot of casualties—about 270 dead over the years and out of that about 100 were killed in action. That’s a very big number, and most of those were in the first years. Whether these confiscations were friendly or turned nasty depended partly on which Palestinian faction you were confronting. If it was Fatah it was usually pretty friendly, because we were on good terms with their leaders. Besides, they had a bunch of good former Jordanian officers in the Tyre area with a degree of control over their men.
But there were fourteen different factions, Palestinians plus their allies. I know because one of the first tasks the force commander assigned me when I first came to UNIFIL—even though I came as the press officer, not a political officer—was to make an inventory of all the groups we had to deal with and who was affiliated with whom. Which gives you some idea about how much at sea we were at the beginning. And in the course of my investigation I discovered that there were no less than three “Arab Socialist Unions”—basically Lebanese gangs who hire out their services to any group willing to pay, which in those days basically meant the Palestinians. To show how surreal it was, one day I’m in Tyre and there’s this fellow behind a big anti-aircraft gun waving at me and he runs over and kisses me. It turns out he’s from Turkey, one of these guys from the southeast who come without passports to Lebanon to find work in construction or something. He’s just a kid and hasn’t even done his military service in Turkey and has never fired a gun in his life, but someone asks him if he knows how to fight and he says sure and the next thing you know he’s a gunner with some gang with a sexy name like Arab Socialist Union. I mean, is that real?
Butler: Tell me how these disarmaments—the difficult ones—might be carried out.
Göksel: Let me give you an example. There was a serious case in a place called Wadi Jilu, east of Tyre. The Fijians, who are good soldiers and take their mission seriously, were in charge of that area, which was on one of the main access routes to the Iron Triangle, which meant that there were always problems with the Palestinians. The Fijians see these guys placing heavy weapons, recoilless rifles, in the hills overlooking their area, and get nervous. They deploy their troops, the Palestinians bring in more fighters, and a serious confrontation develops. The UNIFIL force commander asked me to see if I could do anything. I said "Hey, I'm just the press officer," but he said I was the only one who could talk to the Palestinians without starting a war. So I went to Wadi Jilu, with the new deputy force commander, a general fresh from Europe, and some American officers from the UN Observer Group in Lebanon. These Americans were good military men, top notch professionals mostly—some had been combat officers in Vietnam and some even knew Arabic. We went there as a team.
The Fijians had tried to call the PLO liaison officer, but he was unavailable—they all become unavailable in these situations. The Palestinians involved turned out to be the Popular Front [for the Liberation of Palestine], George Habash's PLFP. They had a very tough commander there, Major Nur. He was a legendary fighter. Even the Israelis respected him. I don't know what became of him. Anyway, we had a kind of High Noon scene from an American Western in the middle of that three-road junction: I'm in the middle of the road, my guys behind me, and the Palestinians are on the other side, armed to the teeth and pretty ferocious looking, five-day beards and all—I think they hand pick these guys or keep them in reserve for these encounters, for intimidation. I'm waiting for Major Nur to come out so we can talk, and I tell my general, who is very nervous—this is his first day out—"Don't interfere. This is my show." Meanwhile I tell my Americans to get a fix on where the weapons were, so I can use the information to impress Major Nur at the right moment.
He comes out, very angry. So I act angry also. We're both talking tough because that's the way you do it, you don't back down at the outset. Things seem to escalate and my European general is nudging me, "Please, please, be polite!" I ignore him. The intimidation works on foreigners and newcomers, but I know the style: I'm a Turk, this is my part of the world, too. Nur knows and I know that we are not going harm each other, but we have to create this public show, right? I know that he can't lose face with his men so I will give him that. He's saying this is a Palestinian area and Lebanon has given them the right to operate freely there to recover their lost country, and so on. I escalate: "Major Nur, you are an experienced fighter, so obviously you know how to read maps." "Of course," he says. I say, "Habibi, this is Lebanon. Palestine is that way. You have no right to put your guns here." I thought our new deputy commander was going to faint, but the Americans knew the game. Meanwhile they had whispered to me where the weapons were and I said to Nur: "You have one recoilless rifle there and one machine gun there and another there, etc." He asks how I know and I reply, "Look, I am a simple Turk, but I did my military service and I can see those things. Why don't you just remove them?" For the face saving, I agreed to let them be removed the next morning. The Fijians were worried, but I said, in front of Nur and his men, "Relax. If Major Nur says he's going to get them out tomorrow morning, he will. He's a man of his word.” Our European general was quite shaken by the encounter and I told him, "Look, this is not Europe. We have a different lifestyle here, a different way at looking at problems. I'm not against your style, but this is the reality here. If you try to impose your ways, it won't work.”
That's why peacekeeping with all the nice civilized meetings doesn't always work. Outsiders just don’t get that this region has been here for thousands of years and has its own time-honored ways and you can't just impose your ways and expect it to work. Anyway, I ended up with a commendation for my conflict management at Wadi Jilu and possibly saving UN lives.
Butler: Is this kind of, shall we say, difference of approach pretty standard?
Göksel: Oh yes, in all kinds of situations. For example, let’s say a UN official kills somebody in a traffic accident. It happens. So what is the reaction from UN headquarters? “We’ll send our insurance adjuster and he’ll take care of it.” Uh, excuse me, you kill a nine-year-old boy and you think the family is going to wait around for your adjuster? If an honorable reconciliation process does not begin immediately, this kid’s family is going to take their guns, stop you on the road, hijack your vehicle, whatever. But the UN mindset is to send an adjuster who tries to put the blame on the victim to save his company money. One thing I succeeded in doing was to bring the sulha process [§] to UNIFIL. Sometimes I wished I hadn’t because I ended up spending most of my time doing what gets the fancy name of “conflict management.” I had no idea that I’d later be teaching it as a university course.
Actually, some of these cases can get pretty serious. I remember an incident in Haddatha village, which was in the area patrolled by the Irish. The Irish were very outgoing, probably the most beloved soldiers in the south, but a couple of them got into a quarrel with some Amal guys and two brothers were killed. This was in the late 1980s, when the Amal movement was the dominant force in the south, and these brothers were from a large militant family that would wipe out the whole Irish contingent if something wasn’t done. A nightmare situation. I immediately contacted Nabih Birri, the head of Amal. I said “Ustadh, I need you. This is a very serious case. We cannot have bloodshed. I know you don’t want that.” He says “Of course not.” So he sends me his deputy, the highly respected Dr. Ayoub Humayed, to take me to visit the family. On his advice I took the UNIFIL force commander, a Swede at the time, along. When we got to the house the other brothers and the relatives all grabbed their guns—if Humayed hadn’t been with us, who knows what would have happened? But because of his intervention, we were able to pay our condolences. All we could do was say how terribly sorry we were, that something had gone very wrong, that the Irish fellows had nothing against them, that there was nothing we could do or say that could make up for their loss. Things like that. But it started the reconciliation process, which continued the next day with the mediation of a local cleric chosen with Amal’s help.
Eventually it boiled down to compensation. I tried to explain to New York what a disaster something like this represents for the family in strictly material terms, the fact that these two young men can’t be the family’s breadwinners now. I emphasized that if the usual UN rules were applied there would be revenge. New York got back asking what payment I would recommend and I said about $25,000 for each brother. They wrote back that this was “above the going rate.” What? Was I supposed to go around collecting bids? I told them that if they didn’t pay up right now the family could kill ten Irish guys and with the UN rate of $80,000 per UN fatality, how much was that going to cost? Finally, after six months of painstaking negotiations, we paid up and the Irish added some money, too. Even a traffic accident in those days became a conflict issue because there was no law and order, but this is the kind of thing outsiders never notice. Today UNIFIL has a much easier role, because the Lebanese army is there. I mean, the UN is in a luxury position now, very robust with luxuries.
Butler: You really like that word “robust.”
Göksel: It kills me. I feel insulted by it and hope this new force never finds itself in our situations. At least nobody is shooting at them—I can’t even count the times I’ve come under fire myself. The original UNIFIL had a lot of shortcomings, but come on. What angers me is that the international community is not more grateful to the Indians and Ghanaians and others for staying the course during this thirty-three days war last summer. That was true peacekeeping. I mean these guys stood their ground under fire, they helped the people when they couldn’t even get their own food or supplies. And now you read in the papers that the UN troop contributing countries are on high alert because this unfortunate young cabinet member got assassinated in Beirut. Excuse me, what is the connection? The countries are calling for withdrawing their troops. Hey, what happened to the robustness? I mean, if they think of leaving because of a situation that is totally irrelevant to the UN, what’s going to happen if one single soldier of this robust force gets killed? We had tens of guys killed and nobody said a word, but now, I’m just dreading the day one of this new force gets killed. You have to wonder what all those ships are doing off the coast of Lebanon. You don’t need that armada to patrol Lebanese waters—four gunboats would be plenty. Obviously, they’re there to get their soldiers out fast, if need be.
Butler: Let’s talk more about UNIFIL’s early days. For example, its relations with the various parties on the ground.
Göksel: They all paid lip service to the UN, especially the Palestinians were very good at that. We had liaison arrangements with them, mainly through the UN Observer. We dealt with Yasir Arafat, not with the various factions. The PLO loved the recognition they got from the UN. Actually, at the beginning, even our dealings with the various Lebanese factions—the Lebanese National Movement groups [**]—went through Arafat. The force commander had been told that Arafat was the address not only for all the Palestinian groups but also for their Lebanese allies, and the UN went along—it was easy for us, and it made sense since these guys were being paid by the PLO anyway. But little by little it became clear that it wasn’t working all that well. Arafat had insisted that he could deliver but when things got tough he would disappear—on the one hand he said he controlled these guys but then all of a sudden he’d claim they were undisciplined elements he had nothing to do with. Make up your mind!
But besides that, there was the issue of dignity. The Lebanese groups wanted to speak for themselves. What really changed the situation was when Amal and the Palestinians began to clash seriously as of 1980, peaking in 1981. One day Amal came to us and said “Don’t approach us through the Palestinians anymore, or we won’t talk to you. Talk to us directly.” I said fine. So we start looking for a liaison officer and we found Daoud Daoud, a teacher in the Burj al-Shamali technical school, who spoke English, a very pleasant and ethical type. It turned out that we were from the same university in Turkey, and we became good friends. He became Amal’s liaison to UNIFIL. Amal really defended UNIFIL, I mean they actually fought for us. At first we didn’t understand, but it turned out that just before he disappeared in 1978, Imam Musa Sadr [††] made a statement saying that UNIFIL soldiers should be treated like Lebanese, like Amal. And they stuck to that. Amazing. Amal today is only a shadow of what it was in those days, when it was an incredible grassroots movement. Today Hizballah has taken over that role.
Butler: Did you have similarly good relations with Hizballah?
Göksel: First of all, Hizballah wasn’t even on the scene at that time—they emerged years later. In any case, relations with Hizballah were always tense. Most of the Hizballah guys weren’t from the south and had no idea who these UN guys with blue berets were or what we were doing in Jabal `Amil. [‡‡] They thought we were Zionist imperialist agents and couldn’t understand why we had such good relations with the people. Amal tried to help in the early days, but we just couldn’t reach these guys. I had to constantly seek them out in coffee shops, the village mosques, or Husayniyas [§§] just to keep the peace between us. Things got better when Shaykh Hasan Nasrallah took over in 1992, but that’s another story.
Butler: What about relations with the Israelis?
Göksel: We had a proper liaison system with them, which was easy because it’s a regular army, but relations were not all that good or friendly. The Israelis were always deeply distrustful of the UN and mostly they didn’t distinguish between the organization and the individuals connected with it. The relationship was based on common interest. We needed them to survive and we were useful to them not only because of the economic benefits but also because by talking to the UN guys crossing the border every day they got priceless information about south Lebanon.
I personally got on with most of them, but there were always problems with various UNIFIL contingents. UNIFIL officers tend to have very different notions of military protocol than the Israelis, who like to project this brash tough guy image and pretty much ignore courtesies taken for granted elsewhere. A lot of UN officers couldn’t handle that. Another problem was that some countries were treated with kid gloves, being offered tours and benefits in Israel, and others were treated with contempt. Some contingents felt abused and in some cases we intervened and tried to cut off the direct contact between them and the Israeli army.
It wasn’t only the courtesy issue. Israel’s proxy, the SLA, was a big problem. The UN forces hated the way the Israelis used these guys against the UN and the local population. Some of these SLA characters, especially ones who weren’t from the south, were real lowlifes and UN soldiers tended to equate the SLA with Israel. Israel always protested that and it’s true that the SLA behaved much worse than the Israelis. But the fact is the SLA was totally dependent on Israel, totally obedient, and Israel did not make any real effort to rein them in. This definitely affected attitudes toward Israel. For example, the Dutch were Israel’s best friends in Europe when they were first deployed in south Lebanon, but after six months the whole contingent had become thoroughly anti-Israeli, mainly because of Major Haddad and his merry men. Also the Norwegians, who are big on these social science surveys, used to have their soldiers fill out questionnaires before they arrived in the south. Coming in, it seems that their views about Israel were about 80 percent positive, but after six months it was down to 15 or 16 percent. I think this was pretty typical. The Israeli Foreign Ministry knew this was a problem and for that reason hadn’t wanted the Dutch to be part of the UN force in the first place. But in south Lebanon the Israel military ran the show—they basically had their own foreign policy.
Of course the Israelis couldn’t care less about what the Nepalese or Fijians or the third world contingents in general think, unless they’re buying Israeli weapons. But they do care about the Europeans. That’s why I was happy that the UN had the brains this time to include big European countries in the new UNIFIL. That’s the only thing that can put the brakes on the Israelis, even if it won’t stop them. Because the Europeans have the political clout that certainly the third world troop contributing countries don’t have and even the UN as an institution doesn’t have. Of course the Israelis will still try to “show who’s boss,” but they’ll have to think twice before taking on countries like France, Italy, or Spain.
Butler: You already talked about liaison relations with the Palestinians. But what about the personal interaction between them and the UN forces?
Göksel: Relations were very good with the Palestinian civilians, and friendly and correct with Fatah, especially at upper levels. Palestinians can be very charming—this is their big advantage—and they really won over the UN people. They had excellent relations with the American UN observers. As I said, some of these Palestinians were ex–army officers themselves, so they had a military background in common. The Americans all lived in Nahariya in Israel. They would work in the field for a week, and then they’d have a week off with their families. In their week in the field they had free access to the refugee camps, they saw the suffering of the people, they saw their schools, their charity work. At Christmas the UN guys would buy all their presents at the handicraft center of Burj al-Shamali refugee camp near Tyre. There was an instinctive sympathy for the Palestinians, no doubt about it. The Israelis couldn’t understand this sympathy or the close personal relationships between some of these officers and the Palestinians. Of course, contrary to what the Israelis kept saying, this sympathy never translated into active support of Palestinian armed struggle or anything like that. Israel always accused us of being pro-terrorist, first that we were pro-PLO, then we supposedly became pro-Amal, then pro-Hizballah. They always think you have to be on somebody’s side.
Butler: Picking up on your reference to the fallout between the Palestinians and Amal. What can you say about the deteriorating relations in the south and possible mistakes the Palestinians made?
Göksel: First of all, the Palestinians were such a diverse group that they were uncontrollable. As you know, Arafat liked to scatter power, conveniently claiming that the PLO was a democratic movement so you couldn’t dictate to anyone, but that meant lack of discipline. Apart from Habash’s PFLP, all the other groups violated every rule in the guerilla book about how to deal with the local people. The Habash people were the only ones that maintained dedicated local support, because they gave back. Long after Palestinians were kicked out of south Lebanon as a military force, the PFLP still paid the salaries of the Lebanese who had worked for them. Unbelievable. But more than that, they gave help, they provided medical services, they showed concern for the people, while in the end most of the others were just using their guns to push people around.
Of course there were good Fatah people, especially the former Jordanian officers I mentioned, who were disciplined, smart, ethical. We were very comfortable with them. There was one guy in particular, Colonel `Azmi al-Saghayer, commander of the whole Tyre region. He had a limp. If the war between the Palestinians and the Shi`a didn’t start sooner, it was largely because of him. A real disciplinarian and a very brave man—a legend, in fact. He was killed in the few days after Israel’s 1982 invasion; he never left his fighters. I thought highly of him. I’ll also never forget Colonel Abu Ahmad, the PLO’s top liaison to the UN. But a lot of them were pretty much good-for-nothings hanging around, making the rules as they went along, lying through their teeth to cover up for themselves, and doing everything to please the ra’is so he wouldn’t cut their salaries or rein them in.
So inevitably the local people began to react to the bullying, the protection rackets, the excesses. They were saying things like “How can you be so ungrateful? You fought your wars from here and our people have been driven to the slums of Beirut. And this is how you pay back?” Meanwhile, growing Shi`i politicization meant that Amal was growing, getting better armed. So it was inevitable that they would clash with the Palestinians. By 1981 the fighting had gotten serious. A few months before Israel’s 1982 invasion, we actually had to put a UN force in between the Palestinians and Amal in Hannawiya village, near Qana—that was a first in UNIFIL’s history. I should mention that most of the foot soldiers in the south, including in the Palestinian groups, were Shi`i—there weren’t enough Palestinians to go around—and as Amal became stronger the Shi`i fighters began defecting to Amal.
The real problem with the Palestinians was that there was just too much money coming in from the Arab countries in those days and absolutely no accountability. So they bought all kinds of useless weapons for millions and millions of dollars. When Hizballah buys something, you can be sure it will be 100 percent used. Because they have a plan, they know what they want and they buy their weapons accordingly, on a limited budget, because they also have to feed their people, give them medical help, run their schools. The Palestinians didn’t have those burdens because UNRWA provided for the refugees, so everything went for the guns. This is where they went wrong. And this encouraged the huge waste. I remember when my father, a retired air force pilot, came to visit me from Turkey. I picked him up in Beirut and on our way south we got stuck in Sidon, where the Palestinians were celebrating Fatah Day—3 January. We’re sitting in my UN car watching this long Fatah parade, hundreds of brand new Mercedes trucks all with anti-aircraft guns. My father’s saying “Wow, the Turkish army doesn’t have anything like this! What are these guys going to do with all this?” I said, “They go shopping with them, they pick up girls with them.”
Butler: How sad.
Göksel: Yeah, so much for show. Instead of bettering the lot of the refugees, they kept buying. In the hills of Aichiya in the east, they dug this huge tunnel under the mountain to use as their ammunitions depot. The only thing they didn’t do was put up a big neon sign saying “Here are our guns and ammunition.” When the Israelis invaded in 1982 the first thing they did was head straight for Aichiya. It was too risky to cart these explosives stuff away, so they blew it all up. I heard the explosion 60 kilometers away in Naqura. The whole mountain. After that the Israelis began to make off with the booty. From my office I could see the whole thing, these long convoys of Israeli flatbeds piled high with Mercedes cars, Nissan Patrols, much of it in the original packaging, anti-aircraft guns. They took everything to Israel. They financed some of that war with the booty.
Another problem with the Palestinians was they had no sense of security. They were always visible. Everybody knew where they were, because all these competing factions and their Lebanese extensions were all sitting in their clearly marked camps with the boss’s picture plastered all over and flags and checkpoints at the entrance and so on, so when the Israelis would wake up some morning and feel like going on a bombing raid, they didn’t have to hunt around. In contrast, look what happened in this summer’s war with Hizballah. The Israelis, with all their military intelligence, sophisticated technology, satellites, drones, spies, agents, didn’t know where to find them so they took out their frustration by bombing bridges near the Casino du Liban in Maronite territory north of Beirut. With the Palestinians they had it easy. You want to take out the Palestinian ammunition dump in Beirut? You go bomb the stadium near Fakhani, the PLO headquarters: you know the weapons are there because the whole world knows the weapons are there.
Now, the Palestinians of course had a serious, built in problem, and nobody knew it better than Arafat. He said, “I know that people from my organization are reporting to the Israelis, but this is the price we pay for occupation.” And it’s true—if a guy’s family is under occupation in Palestine it’s easy to turn him around. All you have to say is “That brother of yours in jail won’t get out for the next twenty years unless you provide us with such and such, but if you do he’ll be out next week.” Or your father ends up in jail. You want him to stay in jail? You get the message. You do this or your family will pay the price. The Israelis do that beautifully, of course, which is why they were able to infiltrate, and still do, the Palestinian structure.
Butler: Tell me about the June 1982 war, from what you saw. For starters, hadn’t there been a cease-fire?
Göksel: Yes, for almost a year. The Palestinians were not violating it at all—even the Israelis admit that. But Sharon was itching for a fight and already by spring had mobilized his troops and massed them in the north. Everyone knew something big was going to happen—the U.S. television networks had positioned their crews in Beirut by April. Even the brand new CNN sent someone. So when this Israeli ambassador got shot in London, [***] even though everyone knew the faction was anti-PLO, the Israelis jumped at the chance and sent in this massive force. The most serious resistance they got in the south was outside Tyre at the Burj al-Shamali camp. These were mostly young kids—the Israelis called them the RPG kids, because they kept popping up and firing these RPGs and that sort of thing. They did not fight like an army unit, which is why they gave the Israelis some trouble. The Palestinian leadership had these pretensions of having a regular army, which was a suicidal mistake. I mean, when your foe is the Israeli army, there’s no way you can match it, so why make this army structure? But Arafat loved being able to say “I have brigades, I have regiments.” Habibi, if you have brigades and regiments they can be wiped out in two hours! Guerillas are the ones who can escape and keep fighting.
Anyway, the Israelis ran into serious resistance at `Ayn al-Hilwa camp, near Sidon. But that was rather easy to bypass since it was on the side, so they simply shot their way through Sidon and pushed on to Beirut and took care of `Ayn al-Hilwa later, with much destruction. They had practically no further resistance until Khaldeh, south of the Beirut airport, where they were confronted by Palestinians backed by Amal. So it was a bit of a cakewalk, really. The Israelis said they were surprised at how easy it was. They shouldn’t have been surprised. I mean, they sent in more than 4,000 tanks and armored vehicles, the whole air force, navy, about 90,000 soldiers—against 3,000 or 4,000 Palestinians. It was unbelievable, a case of overkill if there ever was one.
Butler: What about UNIFIL? Didn’t it try to block the advance?
Göksel: Like everybody else, the UN knew the Israelis were going to invade or do something and the instructions from New York were: do as much as you can, but don’t sustain casualties—basically, you’re a peacekeeping force, you’re not equipped or mandated to resist an invasion. These were the typical kind of loose instructions you get from New York in a situation like this—that’s the way it works in the UN system.
The force commander at the time was William Callaghan, an Irishman. On 6 June he was called to a meeting with the chief of staff of the Israeli Army, General Rafael Eitan, at his Nazareth headquarters. When the location was changed to Safad, we knew there was going to be an invasion because Safad in those days was the forward headquarters of the Northern Command. Callaghan was supposed to call us at Naqura with the codeword “Rubicon” if the invasion was on. He called us at 1000 hours, and at 1035 the invasion began.
All the UN battalions had already been told to find some way to try to block the Israeli advance if and when they invaded. Everyone tried to do something. The Norwegians proposed blowing up the entry roads without engaging the Israelis. The force commander didn’t like that idea so instead they blocked the narrow roads in the village of Shaba` with their Land Rovers, but the Israelis simply bulldozed them out of the way. The Irish piled up concrete blocks at the entry roads in their area, but these were pulverized in short order by Israeli tank fire. The French had just arrived as a battalion, and there was a story going around at the time about a French sergeant blocking the way of an advancing tank near the village of Kantara, I think it was. The driver of the tank, who obviously was a nice guy, stopped. The sergeant climbs on the tank and says, “You cannot enter, this is a UN zone,” and the Israeli says “OK, you stopped me. But look what’s behind. How are you going to stop that with your pistol?” And the sergeant sees this whole column of 152 tanks and that was that. On the coastal road you had the Dutch—that was where the Israelis first entered, near the Hamra bridge. Six Dutch soldiers tried to stop the advance with their obstacles, but they ran out of obstacles after causing damage to the first two tanks.
So everybody did something, nothing very big, but something. Could we have done more? Perhaps, but at the end of the day, the most you could do as a peacekeeping force was maybe delay them ten or fifteen minutes. Because these guys, coming in with this unbelievable force, were determined to go to Beirut and certainly weren’t going to allow a tiny UN peacekeeping force to stand in their way. We could have done a little more to save more face for the UN, but the bottom line was that you couldn’t stop it.
Butler: Wasn’t there something about the Nepalese contingent resisting the invasion?
Göksel: That’s a famous story, but everyone has it wrong. There was a Nepalese position halfway across the Khardali bridge east of Marja’uyun [†††]—the bridge was blocked anyway, with minefields on both sides. The Israelis came and said we want to pass to encircle the Beaufort castle and reach Nabatiya through there. And the Nepalese said “No, no, you cannot pass.” The Israelis didn’t push too hard because the bridge was right under the Beaufort castle, so they would have come under fire from the Palestinians who were defending it. So when the Nepalese said they couldn’t pass, the Israelis said okay, we’ll come back tomorrow. The Israelis did come back the next day and the Nepalese again lined up across the road and wouldn’t let them pass, and again the Israelis didn’t insist because the Palestinians were still holding out in the castle. When it finally fell after three days and the Israelis needed the bridge, they just bulldozed the UN position out of the way, cleared the mines and that was the end of the UN resistance there. But we got a lot of mileage from a PR standpoint about the Nepalese heroically standing their ground. Of course we didn’t elaborate on the circumstances—the fact that the Israelis hadn’t pushed—and it became a kind of legend about the Nepalese standing up to the Israeli army. So that was a legend that the UN created, actually. Perhaps I am bit guilty in that one.
Butler: Without much resistance from the Palestinians and their allies, where did all these deaths come from? The figures are something like 18,000.
Göksel: If you follow Israeli warfare history, you understand why there were so many. The Israeli army is rich. They never skimp on ammunition. When in doubt, they bring in the air force and just bomb away, and in a densely populated place like Lebanon a lot of people die. Actually there was fierce resistance in a number of places. I just mentioned Beaufort castle. It took the Israeli army three days of fierce fighting to take it and then only after they called in their air force when they had lost a few men—six, I think. They bombed the place to rubble. A lot of Palestinians were killed in that battle. Large numbers of people were also killed in all those places where the Palestinians had bases, which were bombarded relentlessly. Around Beirut the Dahiya area in the southern suburbs, the Palestinian camps of Burj al-Barajneh, Sabra, and Shatila were hard hit. `Ayn al-Hilwa camp in the south suffered heavy casualties. In the eastern sector, the clashes were mainly with the Syrians. The Israelis had an easy run in the Biqa` valley at the beginning, but as they got closer to the Damascus highway, the Syrians began to stiffen up and stopped them.
By the time the Israelis laid siege to Beirut, it was clear that the aim was not to stop rocket fire into Israel, which in any case had stopped for almost a year, but to get the Palestinians out of Lebanon altogether and to change the map of the Middle East. They succeeded in part in the next months, but they couldn’t get out of Lebanon because things didn’t go as planned. “Their man” Bashir Gemayel was assassinated in September 1982—though already it was clear that once he was elected president of Lebanon he was not going to be an Israeli stooge—but then with U.S. help the Israelis pushed through the famous 17 May 1983 Israel-Lebanese “peace” accord. A capitulation agreement, actually—I don’t understand to this day how anyone who could claim to be an American diplomat could have negotiated such a thing and expected it to work. But some Lebanese went along with it, and for a moment the Israelis thought they had Lebanon wrapped up. Except, guess what? The Americans who brokered the deal forgot to consult with the Syrians! Amazing. Even at the time the mistake was obvious. But that’s another story. The upshot was that all Israel’s plans for Lebanon collapsed. They didn’t move out of Lebanon, but pulled back to the Awwali [River] line immediately north of Sidon. And south Lebanon became their prison.
Butler: Did the resistance in the south begin right away?
Göksel: No, not right away. For the first few months, the Shi`a were quite happy with the situation because the Israelis had broken the Palestinian military hold over the south. Except that the Israelis didn’t leave. Suddenly there were all these lines people were not allowed to cross and restrictions on movement. You began hearing things like: “The Palestinians are gone. So why are the Israelis still here? Why can’t we cross the Awwali River and go to Beirut?” The Israelis alienated more and more people, made more and more enemies, and the reaction set in. Already in the western sector there was Amal, and in the eastern sector the Lebanese Communist Party, and so on. But the resistance was slow getting organized—it wasn’t so easy because the Israelis came with all their intelligence apparatus, Shin Bet, and they had allies in the south. In addition to the SLA already there, they brought in the Lebanese Forces [‡‡‡] to open offices. They also had collaborators in the Shi`i community.
The turning point was Ashura day of 1983.[§§§] Nabatiya is the center of the Ashura commemorations, which are always very highly charged. And just as about 50,000 people are pouring out of the mosques, along comes this Israeli supply column right through the middle of the crowd. These soldiers had orders not to enter Nabatiya that day, but they were reservists not known for their discipline, they got lost and couldn’t care less. “Ashura day? So what?” So they drove into that crowd with six or seven armored vehicles and the people went crazy, attacking the convoy with chains and knives. The Israelis panicked, abandoned their vehicles, got up on the rooftops, and opened fire. They called for help and the Israeli army had to come in with a massive force to extract them. It could have been a lot worse: I think only two people got killed and fourteen or fifteen wounded—Lebanese, of course—but it changed everything. The Shi`i clerics had been advocating civil disobedience against the Israelis but until then it hadn’t gained momentum. But this incident pushed even the moderate clerics off the fence and the leading clerics of the region (Sunni as well as Shi`i, by the way) issued a fatwa proclaiming that the sanctity of Ashura day had been violated and calling for a defensive jihad against the Jewish occupiers. I told the Israelis, “Guys, you are in trouble.” I had told them early on that the Shi`a were going to turn against them, but they laughed it off. After all, the Israelis know best, and they knew that the Shi`a were their friends. It took them a while to begin to get the message.
Butler: Was Hizballah involved in the resistance from the outset?
Göksel: Hizballah was born in the Biqa`, the Baalbek area, and didn’t start moving into the south until late 1983. By that time there was already the makings of a strong local Islamic resistance there. Around Nabatiya, in the village of Jibshit, there was this charismatic, dynamic young shaykh, Raghib Harb, a firebrand type, who organized this amazing group of local kids called the Islamic Students Union. They were organized in five- or six-man cells in the villages and they were giving the Israelis a tough time. When Hizballah came south they wanted to assimilate the Union, but didn’t make much headway. For a long time Hizballah wasn’t accepted by the local people. Of course they were Shi`i and all that, but they were outsiders and people were suspicious. But after the Israelis killed Harb in February of 1984, most of his fighters joined Hizballah and that made Hizballah more acceptable locally.
Amal was still dominant and their relations with Hizballah, strained from the beginning, became worse and worse. One of the issues fueling the tensions was Amal’s siege of the Palestinian camps in Beirut and the south, which began in 1985 and lasted two years—the so-called “War of the Camps.” Most people think Amal was doing a proxy battle for the Syrians, who were not happy about the resurgence of Palestinian military power in Lebanon. In any case, many innocent people died in those useless battles, including poor Shi`a living in Palestinian shantytowns under attack. Hizballah was very much opposed to Amal actions and at times intervened on the Palestinian side, providing humanitarian support. Many in Amal were also unhappy about the battles and a number of them left the movement to join Hizballah. There’s no doubt that the two-year siege of the camps set the stage for the open hostilities between Amal and Hizbullah that broke out in 1988.
An important source of tension between the two concerned their differing attitudes to UNIFIL and the UN Observer Group. In fact, these tensions were at the heart of the incident that triggered the actual fighting: the kidnapping and subsequent killing in 1988 of U.S. Marine Colonel William Higgins, head of the UN Observer Group Lebanon. A couple of days before the kidnapping he had been with my friend Daoud Daoud, the Amal leader, who assured him that he was safe in Lebanon, that he was Amal’s guest, and so on. So Higgins’s kidnapping and killing by a murky outfit calling itself the “Revolutionary Justice Organization” was deeply embarrassing for Amal. There are a lot of unanswered questions about the perpetrators, but it was widely believed that some of those involved had ties to Hizballah, though Hizballah has officially denied it. Anyway, Amal and Hizballah eventually reached a peace agreement, the famous Damascus accord of 1990 sponsored by Iran and Syria. This was a milestone, because after that Hizballah suddenly began coming out of the woodwork: all these people that you never knew were Hizballah—lawyers, teachers, doctors, whatever—now declared themselves openly. Actually, there was a clause in the Damascus agreement—put in at Birri’s insistence—that UNIFIL was not to be touched. As a direct result Hizballah approached me and said, “Can we meet?” So we met in my office in Tyre. That was our first official contact.
Butler: It’s interesting to hear that as late as 1990 Hizballah was just coming out, that Amal was still so important.
Göksel: Actually, the real turning point for Hizballah was not until 1992, when Shaykh Hasan Nasrallah became leader of the movement after the Israelis killed his predecessor, Shaykh Abbas Musawi, along with his wife and 5-year-old boy. Nasrallah was only thirty-two at the time—unbelievable. He was from the south originally; in fact he had started out with Amal. Almost immediately after he took over radical changes began to be introduced. For example, Hizballah had tried hard to impose religious strictures on the people. In Tyre, for instance, they said no card playing in the cafés and no beaches for women—even the guys had to wear long shorts down past their knees. Now, the Shi`a in Tyre are pretty cosmopolitan. They may donate money to Shi`i charities but they like to play their cards and go to the beach and have their beer. So relations soured.
The minute Nasrallah took over, Hizballah relaxed the “rules.” The change was especially visible in Dahiya, Beirut’s southern suburbs. If you went there in the late 1980s what you mainly saw was chadors and black all over. There were rumors that you got $100 a month if you wore a chador. Whether or not that was true, pretty soon it was about what you see today—a mix. Few chadors, some hijab, but like any other part of Beirut. Nasrallah obviously said leave them alone, let them wear what they want. And it was also under Nasrallah that these powerful welfare services really took off. One of the important things he did was to mobilize Shi`i women as volunteers—many of the social services are run by women. He liberalized the movement and of course that brought more supporters, more donations.
Butler: So this is when Hizballah definitively surpassed Amal?
Göksel: Yes. Another factor was that this was the period when the 1989 Ta’if agreement that ended the civil war in Lebanon was being implemented, in bits and pieces. All the militias were supposed to disarm, including Amal. Birri was the speaker of parliament—he couldn’t be running a militia and parliament at the same time, right? So many young Amal cadres—at least the militant ones—moved to Hizballah. Now that Amal was in the domestic political game, its popularity plummeted. Birri monopolized patronage in the Shi`i community, so a lot of people got jobs through him, but it didn’t stop Amal’s decline. By the mid-1990s, Hizballah had reached the high level of popularity it has enjoyed ever since.
Butler: What would you say accounts for its popularity?
Göksel: To my mind, it’s basically about the communal identity they promoted—even though the south also has Sunnis, Christians, and Druze, it’s predominantly Shi`i. There’s also Hizballah’s image of incorruptibility in a country where corruption has become a respectable art form, and its resistance feeds into the Shi`i sense of dignity; if you don’t understand the link between their idea of dignity and resistance, you’ll never understand the Shi`a. So Hizballah gradually became an identity in the south. They have provided so much for the people over the years that even if you don’t support them politically, you need them for their medical services, their social services. Hizballah has created this image—and it’s not only an image, they deliver—that they care about the people. When something happens—a family goes bankrupt, falls on hard times, whatever—they’re the address. No doubt there are cases when they can’t do much, but if nothing else they listen, they show compassion, they come to visit, they follow up. So loyalty of the people is almost total.
Butler: Earlier you said that UNIFIL’s relations with Hizballah improved after Nasrallah took over.
Göksel: That’s right. As I said, he’s from the south and was originally with Amal, so he knew UNIFIL. I mean, we were in his village, Bazuriyah. After he became head of the movement, we met and I told him: “Look, we don’t have to like each other, but we don’t have to shoot at each other either. We can talk.” He says “Yes. That’s what I want also.” And he appointed an official liaison officer to UNIFIL for the first time. He said, “Any problem you have, find that guy.” What also helped was Hizballah’s changing composition, because increasingly the fighters were local guys who grew up with UNIFIL and so couldn’t be as negative toward us as those who came from the outside in the 1980s. Since then, the relationship has been correct, but you can’t say it’s very friendly. There is still a wariness about foreigners.
Butler: Let’s talk about this latest war, in July 2006. For example, how would you compare it to the other Israeli interventions you’ve witnessed?
Göksel: Well obviously, 1982 was a total, all-out invasion, with this massive force, the siege and occupation of Beirut, the goal of changing the political map of Lebanon and the Middle East. The July 2006 war was narrow in scope, primarily targeting Hizballah. It has a lot more in common with the 1993 Operation Accountability and the 1996 Operation Grapes of Wrath—all three were aimed at provoking the Lebanese against Hizballah—Israel said so openly in 1993 and 1996. Of course, this tactic has the opposite effect with the Shi`a, but that’s another matter. Certainly the 1993 and 1996 incursions were limited compared to what we had last year. Israel had a hard time justifying them. They were meant to punish the Shi`a for the casualties being inflicted on Israeli troops in Lebanon, but the obvious response was: if you don’t want your soldiers getting hurt, get out. In 2006, Israel got more international support for their actions not only because their best friend was in the White House, but also because there had been a border breach. That put them on more solid legal ground than in the 1993 and 1996 operations.
Butler: How would you compare the physical destruction of 1982 to 2006?
Göksel: It was much, much heavier in 2006. In 1982 the resistance was in the Palestinian camps: `Ayn al-Hilwa got pulverized, some damage in Burj al-Shameh. Most of the damage was in Beirut. There wasn’t that much destruction the Lebanese villages because the Lebanese were not fighting. In 2006 the destruction in the south, in the border villages, was staggering. Of course the massive destruction had nothing to do with military considerations per se. It was more indicative of Israeli intentions. They didn’t want the people to return to those villages, so they just wiped them out.
Butler: Do you think that decision to clear the border zone was made before the war?
Göksel: I don’t think so. I think it came up after the Israeli army realized that Hizballah was not going to just roll over and surrender. At first they thought that an air operation and heavy long-range shelling would do the job and they wouldn’t have to get their boots dirty. But it didn’t work out that way, and I think that’s when they came up with this idea of creating a cordon sanitaire.
The extent of the destruction also reflected the profound humiliation and embarrassment on the Israeli side—they just lost control and it became a kind of hysterical vengeance operation more than anything else. The fact that Hizballah had been building all these tunnels, bunkers, etc., for five or six years right under their noses—and this despite all their human intelligence, their balloons, their drones, their technical this and technical that—well, yes, this was humiliating. And the way Gal Hirsh, one of their star generals and the commander of the lead unit in the war, the Galilee Division—he’s the one who recently resigned under criticism—comes to Bint Jubayl and declares it a liberated town, and the next morning eight Israeli soldiers are killed there. . . Wow! All these announcements that Hizballah’s long-range rocketry is wiped out, that Bint Jubayl is liberated, that `Ayta al-Sha`b is cleared, and Katyushas keep falling in Israel all the while. These are all humiliations, making their reaction even more hysterical.
Of course all this is against the background of what many Israelis saw as the humiliating way they withdrew in 2000: for the first time, they left an Arab land under pressure without getting anything in return. And Hizballah kept that anger alive in various ways. Israel had hoped the border zone would be taken over by the UN and the Lebanese army, but instead they got Hizballah flags flying and taunting on a daily basis.
Also, even though Israeli intelligence was clearly not performing at its best, they still knew that Hizballah was building up a force. Historically the Israeli reaction to such a situation would have been to launch a preemptive strike, right? But they couldn’t, and Hizballah rightly was boasting about having created a “balance of terror” that prevented Israel from striking for fear of its response. This is an equation the Israelis couldn’t live with forever. I mean, Israel is a powerful military state and to have some nonstate resistance group telling you “Don’t do that or we will do this to you”—come on! Something was bound to give and when the July operation took place, that was it. Some people say the Israelis were waiting for this opportunity and it’s true that not long before the July war they had held military exercises premised on a clash with Hizballah. They had contingency plans like any army, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were gearing up for an operation.
Butler: On the other hand, Hizballah, from what they say, didn’t really expect the extent of the reaction.
Göksel: Yes, and that was unusually naïve of them. I usually think of the Hizballah leadership as being very smart, analytical, people who review developments, learn from their mistakes, are good students of their enemy, and so on. But here, they totally misjudged Israel’s “tipping point,” to use the cliché you keep hearing these days. Israel had just lost a soldier in embarrassing circumstances in Gaza, and now, two weeks later, you give them this blow on their northern front—a guerrilla outfit militia crossing the best guarded border in the world, killing a couple of their soldiers and kidnapping two others and getting away! Given Israel’s domestic audience, the army’s reputation, the billions in military spending, it could hardly sue for peace with an organization of 2,000 fighters. Despite all their analytical powers and sophistication, Hizballah just cannot understand the role of public opinion in a free society, because Israel is a free society for the Jewish people.
Butler: There was a lot of talk in this war about the failure to distinguish between military and civilian targets. What would you say about that, in terms of Hizballah and Israel?
Göksel: I would say look at the numbers. If you have 1,200 civilian and 200–300 military deaths on the Lebanese side (we don’t know the exact number of Hizballah dead), versus 35 civilian and 150 military deaths on the Israeli side, I think that says it all.
Butler: But you keep hearing that Hizballah intentionally fired from civilian areas, making civilian deaths inevitable.
Göksel: Do you know Tel Aviv? The Israeli Defense Ministry is smack in the middle of a posh residential area of the city. Most Israeli bases are also in civilian areas. Go visit Kiryat Shemona. Towns grow toward military bases. So I mean, their deployment is no different from Hizballah’s.
Look. This was a very asymmetrical war. Hizballah is not going to make Human Rights Watch happy. They’re not going to sit around in open fields waiting for the Israeli army and air force in order to please Amnesty International. They’re going to make use of the terrain, their own country, their own turf, to minimize their own casualties. Right? After they fire, they run into the nearest village. They don’t necessarily fire from the village, they fire from near the village, usually. But of course you can play with photographs—the Israelis show a videotape of what looks like a rocket coming from a village, but it’s coming from behind the village. That’s what happened with that house in Qana, where all those people were killed and where the IDF initially claimed there had been firing from the house. In the end, they admitted that it wasn’t true.
Butler: Actually, your mentioning Qana reminds me of the famous Qana incident in 1996, when the Israelis kept bombing a UN post and were later accused of having done so deliberately. And that makes me think of a similar incident in this last war, when a clearly marked UN post came under sustained fire. Didn’t the UN secretary-general make a similar accusation this year, too, and then back down?
Göksel: You’re talking about the shelling and air strikes against the UN observer post at Khiyam. Four UNIFIL soldiers were killed in those attacks. And yes, the secretary-general, under pressure, did back down somewhat from his initial statements. But I personally don’t think the attacks were deliberate in the sense of targeting the UN per se. In a way, it’s worse: the Israelis just didn’t care. I mean, they knew those UN guys were there. The base was very clearly marked and they’d been hitting close to it all day, they’d been repeatedly warned. But they had their own agenda and if a couple of UN guys get killed, tough. It’s the same mindset that led them to shell the Fijian battalion headquarters in April 1996, when more than 100 mostly women and children were killed.[****]
Butler: But I don’t see, in this latest war, what would be gained in pounding the Khiyam post.
Göksel: Simply that the UN post was about 100 meters from the famous Khiyam prison, which had become a museum of the Israeli occupation of the south. Hizballah had turned it into a kind of shrine of anti-Israelism and the Israelis wanted it gone. So they destroyed it, and because it was solidly built it took a while to completely level it, and a lot of what was around was leveled too. Also, Hizballah anti-tank units in Khiyam had made it impossible for the Israelis to advance toward the Biqa`. The reserve armored brigade the IDF had sent to clear the way performed dismally, by the way. One battalion left the battlefield without orders, another battalion commander resigned in the midst of battle, and the brigade commander was left alone in the field. Not a glorious chapter in the history of the IDF. So the Israelis, as usual, brought in the air force to do the job and if that means that some UN soldiers have to die, so be it.
Butler: Given the scale of the destruction, one would think that as time goes on there would be some impact on Hizballah’s popularity.
Göksel: It’s true that this is a risky time for Hizballah. People are expecting miracles from them again, and the scale of what is required is way beyond their capabilities. So far their support remains strong, but the longer reconstruction takes, the more questions will be raised: How did this happen? How are we going to get out of this? I think Hizballah is very aware of this.
Butler: So perhaps Israel’s tactic of bombing the people until they turn against Hizballah is not so ill conceived.
Göksel: I don’t see that happening. Asking questions, challenging, is one thing—actually turning against Hizballah is something else. To my understanding, the Shi`i community doesn’t operate that way.
It’s strange. The Israelis have an incredible amount of information about Lebanon: military, civilian, human, technical—in many cases they even know where individuals live. But with all this information, they don’t really understand the place. They certainly don’t get the Shi`a. These people have a very different sense of dignity that Israelis will never understand. Even the other Lebanese are just coming to understand it, slowly, from the Shi`i community’s behavior during this last war. I mean, a woman loses her son, loses her house, and she’s shouting, “We’re for Nasrallah!” And she’s not acting, they’re not acting, that’s the way they feel. They are not going to submit to that kind of pressure be it from the Israelis or internally here in Lebanon. There is a real communal identity now that wasn’t there before. They were a feudal society, they were serfs, nobody thought about them. All that’s over now and they have a political voice, which now is Hizballah. And guess what? They don’t want to be marginalized any more.
Butler: Looking back over your more than two decades with UNIFIL, what do you see as its main accomplishments?
Göksel: Well, of course it did not accomplish the mission it was established for, which was to supervise Israel’s withdrawal and assist the return of the Lebanese government, because Israel in effect stayed.
I think UNIFIL’s biggest success, if you want to call it that, was its relations with the people. When UNIFIL came in 1978, nobody else was coming to south Lebanon. It was totally abandoned, like a ghost town. There were maybe 10,000 or 15,000 people there. In those days you could almost say that those who remained needed UNIFIL to survive. We had zero budget for humanitarian affairs, but we helped them in every way we could. We helped them with their schools; we provided their medical services—and excellent ones at that. I mean, if it was an emergency we would send you a helicopter. Some of the UNIFIL contingents—the Norwegians and Finns, for example—got their countries to mobilize their own national resources to assist in the south, because they liked the place, the people, the way the people expressed their gratitude.
Sometimes it came to a point—I smile when I think of it—that the local people would intervene to protect UNIFIL soldiers from the UNIFIL command. For example, if a soldier commits a serious offense, the only punishment we had in UNIFIL was to send the guy home, because discipline in UN peacekeeping is a national affair. And it sometimes happened that we would get a local delegation to plead for the soldier: “Please don’t send him home, he’s a nice guy! He came all the way here. Why don’t you let him stay?” Sometimes the offense was against local customs, like getting a bit tipsy and behaving badly, having a traffic accident, getting into a fight, or whatever, and we would remind the delegation of this. But they would come back: “No, no. We forgive him, so why don’t you forgive him also?” And the people helped us, too. Sometimes they would warn us of danger. When Hizballah first came and things were bad, for example, villagers would warn us when something was going to happen and where.
But the most important thing we did, I think, was give the people a sense of normalcy. The Lebanese government could not return to the south because the civil war was still going on. But even in these conditions, UNIFIL brought a sense of security. I don’t think there’s any doubt that UNIFIL played a big role in the bringing the population back—after a few years it was up to a half million. I think UNIFIL can take real pride in that.
Butler: What about the economic impact of UNIFIL’s presence?
Göksel: Of course there were many economic benefits just by having us there and spending money. UNIFIL became the biggest employer in the south, and created a lot of opportunities for contractors and subcontractors. Our presence gave a big impetus to the famous Lebanese entrepreneurship: in any poor one-Mercedes village with a handful of dwellings, a laundry service and a market would suddenly spring up to cater to UN soldiers. I remember when the Norwegians were trying to put up a position on mountaintop, near Hibbariyah,which was inaccessible by road. They were tough guys and didn’t mind, but they wanted to know how we were going to keep them supplied. A helicopter would be okay temporarily, but you need ground connections in the long run and who was going to build a road? One day we were up on this mountaintop, pondering the problem, when all of a sudden this old Lebanese guy appears from nowhere with his mule loaded with cassettes, cigarettes, Coca-Cola, and so on for the Norwegian soldiers. We couldn’t believe it. We asked how he got there and he said: “I tell the mule that we are going to the mountaintop and he finds the way.” So we marked the path and built the road following it. Actually, that’s the way the Ottomans built roads in the mountains, they’d just follow the mule or donkey, who always find the easiest way. Anyway, that’s the Lebanese sense of business. The UN soldiers could always tell when it was payday by looking outside and seeing floating markets popping up along the road, these Mercedes cars with their trunks open displaying their goods. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that UNIFIL regenerated the economy, but it definitely helped.
Butler: So it seems that the first UNIFIL’s legacy is not so much peacekeeping, but what you did for the people. Will the new UNIFIL build on that?
Göksel: It’s too early to say. Certainly, in the beginning the mindset seemed pretty different. Somebody told them that they are a “robust” force, which means you get into big armored vehicles and drive up and down. When you go south now you see all these massive UN convoys and people say “Why do they need all this?” And it’s true: UNIFIL is not an occupation force and they’re not going to fight the Israelis or Hizballah, so why all this machinery? When I go to the villages and I ask what the problem is when people complain about “this new UNIFIL,” they say, “They don’t talk to us.” That is what the people really want—they want you to walk around the village and say “Hi, how are you? How’s the family? How’s life?” They want you to give them a shoulder to cry on, and they have plenty to cry about now. That’s what people expect of the new UNIFIL, because for twenty-eight years they got used to a different kind of UNIFIL, a friendly UNIFIL who shared their lives in tough times under very difficult circumstances. The new UNIFIL is not able to do that yet, but lately they do seem to be trying.
* When Sa`d Haddad died in 1984, Antoine Lahad became head of the SLA and remained so until it collapsed in the wake of Israel’s 2000 withdrawal.
† The term "Iron Triangle" was applied to this no-go area facetiously, having been borrowed from the original during the Vietnam war, and it stuck.
‡ Pierre Amin Gemayel (see introduction).
§ Sulha is the Arab tradition of conflict resolution through mediation and reconciliation.
** Coalition of leftist opposition parties, led by Kamal Jumblatt during the early phases (1975–1978) of the Lebanese civil war.
†† A charismatic Shi`i leader, founder of the Movement of the Disinherited and the Amal movement, who disappeared in 1978 while on a visit to Libya.
‡‡ The Shi`i heartland.
§§ Shi`i meeting halls for religious ceremonies, principally for commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Husayn.
*** Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom, was shot and seriously wounded on 3 June 1982 in an assassination attempt by three members of the Abu Nidal organization.
††† The position at Khardali bridge was not in Nepal's area of deployment (NEPBATT, see map), but one of sixteen positions that UNIFIL was permitted to maintain inside the occupied area—in effect, observation posts.
‡‡‡ Right wing Christian militias entirely separate from the SLA. Put together by Bashir Gemayel in 1976, the principal constituent of the Lebanese Forces was the Phalange party militia.
§§§ Ashura, the tenth day of the first month of the Muslim calendar, is the date of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn in 680 A.D. The day is commemorated annually with ritual reenactments of the martyrdom and mourning processions, sometimes involving chains and swords.
**** The UN Report by the secretary-general’s military advisor demonstrated that the shelling of the site was not accidental. See UNSC document S/1996/137, 17 May 1996.