“Mr. UNIFIL” Reflects on a Quarter Century of Peacekeeping in South Lebanon
“Mr. UNIFIL” Reflects on a Quarter Century of Peacekeeping in
An Interview with Timur Göksel
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
While the boundaries of
With UNIFIL—the new UNIFIL—very much in the news following the summer 2006 war between
The interview took place at the end of November 2006 in one of Göksel’s favorite
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.
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
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
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
Göksel: It was a UN decision. Obviously, it was not possible for the headquarters to be in
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
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
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
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
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
Göksel: Well, there was the civil war “south
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.
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
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
Göksel: Let me give you an example. There was a serious case in a place called Wadi Jilu, east of
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 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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
It wasn’t only the courtesy issue.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Göksel: Yes, for almost a year. The Palestinians were not violating it at all—even the Israelis admit that. But
Anyway, the Israelis ran into serious resistance at `Ayn al-Hilwa camp, near
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Göksel: Hizballah was born in the Biqa`, the
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
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
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
The minute Nasrallah took over, Hizballah relaxed the “rules.” The change was especially visible in Dahiya,
Göksel: Yes. Another factor was that this was the period when the 1989 Ta’if agreement that ended the civil war in
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.
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.
Göksel: Well obviously, 1982 was a total, all-out invasion, with this massive force, the siege and occupation of
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.[****]
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.
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.
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
Göksel: Well, of course it did not accomplish the mission it was established for, which was to supervise
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
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.
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
[†] 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
[‡‡] 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
[†††] 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
[§§§] 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,