“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.

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