Robert Fisk: Conflict in the Middle East is Mission Implausible

The UN troops claim they are in Lebanon to protect the Shia. The Shia think they're there to protect Israel from Hizbollah. Is this because the peacekeepers are really a Nato army in disguise?
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The blue and white UN flag looks good in the morning over these soft, pale hills. For all of 28 years, it has flown beside Irish battalions, Nepalese battalions, Senegalese battalions, Finnish battalions, all kinds of battalions, from every worthy neutral nation you can imagine. But now the flag snaps over French battalions, Spanish battalions, Italian battalions, German naval units, over the offices of four Nato generals, two French, one Spanish and one Italian.

Unifil, the United Nations - wait for it - Interim Force in Lebanon, is now in effect a Nato force which has all this power and anti-aircraft missiles and tanks and artillery spread over these beautiful hills. It is a "buffer" force, so it claims to the Shia villages among whom it lives. It is there to "protect" them from the Israelis who bombarded them so savagely after the Lebanese Shia Hizbollah army captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three others last July - and then fought off the Israeli army for 34 devastating days in which almost a hundred Israeli civilians and well over a thousand Lebanese civilians were killed (10 to one being a normal casualty count around here).

But life has changed. The Unifil force is not the friendly, neutral, soft army it used to be, backed up by Indian troops (among the best) and Nepalese (among the worst) and Fijian (among the friendliest) and Ghanaian soldiers, but a "robust" army - to use Tony Blair's distinctive un-robust semantics - with Nato soldiers trained to fire back and to take no nonsense from the militias of southern Lebanon or from the Israeli army. To which one can only say: ho hum.

A few days ago, for example, French troops got to within "two seconds" of firing their anti-aircraft missiles at an Israeli pilot who was making mock attacks on their battalion headquarters at Bourj Qalawiyeh. This, at least, is what the French Defence Minister said when she objected to Israel's continued over-flights of Lebanon. The reality is somewhat different. Ever since they took casualties from a helicopter in Ivory Coast, the French government will not deploy troops without 155mm artillery, Leclerc tanks and anti-aircraft missiles. The rockets are programmed to fire when a non-transponder attack aircraft approaches French positions; French troops - desperately trying to prevent their own missiles from firing at an indisciplined Israeli pilot - were two seconds short of allowing their rocket to shoot at the Israeli when they managed to pull the computer disk out of the firing mechanism.

But these are incidents, not politics. The reality is that the people of southern Lebanon - Shia Muslims and a few Christians - know very well that the new force is there for Israel's protection, not for theirs. If it was to protect Lebanon as well as Israel, it would be on both sides of the border - in Israel as well as in Lebanon - which it is not. It is, in the words of one Lebanese landowner who stands to profit from the UN's presence, "placed here to do what Israel failed to do during its military operations - to keep the Hizbollah away from the frontier".

Only, of course, that is not the case. General Alain Pellegrini, the French commander of what the French like to call Finul Plus, makes it clear that it is not his job to disarm the Lebanese guerrilla army which fought off the Israelis last summer. UN Security Council Resolution 1701 requires him only to assist the Lebanese army in performing such a task. And since the Lebanese army - more than half of whose troops are themselves Shia - will not be doing this, the UN contingent will not be taking missiles off the Hizbollah. Indeed, the only weapons moving across Lebanon which the Lebanese army have come across were rockets being sent back to Syria from here for safe-keeping - which is not exactly the Israeli version of reality.

So what is Unifil here for? As a symbol of the West's earnest desire, no doubt, to bring "peace" to the Middle East (whatever that means). As an attempt to "defang" Iran by disarming its protégés in the Hizbollah. But it will not do that. "You mustn't have this fixation about asking all the time if Unifil is going to disarm the Hizbollah," Pellegrini snapped at a Lebanese reporter this week.

Hizbollah remains well-armed, south of the Litani river, and, according to its leadership, ready to fight the next war against Israel. Which is why Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah commander, is demanding more seats in the Lebanese government.

Pellegrini now talks about the dangers of "deterioration" in his UN zone, and he is right. One of the wisest owls in Lebanon, Timur Goksel - the Turkish former assistant to Unifil's force commander - once made a dangerous, accurate, prediction of UN mission capability. "If a UN mission begins well, it might work," he said. "If it begins badly, it will fail." He was talking about Unprofor in Bosnia, but he might have been talking about Unifil. And this mission is not beginning well. The Israelis are daily over-flying Lebanon because, they say, they want to know what Unifil is doing to prevent the flow of arms to Hizbollah. The French have asked George Bush to end the flights, but Mr Bush hasn't the political will to do this. So the Lebanese Shias are asking why Unifil does not protect them from the Israeli aircraft which killed so many of their loved ones this summer. But there are other, more dangerous signs for Unifil.

In the Sunni Lebanese cities to the north - in Sidon and in Tripoli - there are families who have sent their sons and cousins to Iraq to fight the Americans. They have videotapes of these young men as they set off to car-bomb - to suicide-bomb - the US occupation forces in Iraq. They have shown these videos to me. They, too, see the "new" Unifil as a Nato force. In the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el-Helweh, for example, there is now a rumour. That "if you can drive well, you are at the top of the list". In other words, if you can drive well, you are the next in the list for suicide bombing.

The French take this seriously. They should. Which is why they are using concrete stockades to surround their camps - Baghdad-style - from the bombers. Al-Qa'ida has already threatened Unifil's new army in southern Lebanon. "We are not occupiers," Pellegrini has repeatedly announced. But why did he have to say this?

With good fortune - something the UN should worship at a special altar in New York - its army in southern Lebanon might just survive. If it can prevent Italian troops from shoplifting in the village of Haris - the relevant soldiers have been sent home in disgrace - and stop Israeli troops from recrossing the Lebanese border, their "mission" might be accomplished. But the political barriers to success are high. The United States, for instance, is still keen to blame Syria for the murder of ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri last year, but the Syrians are insisting that President Bashar al-Assad had nothing to do with this.

The UN's inquiry into the assassination is slowly disintegrating. The latest judge - a Belgian - is tacking away from the Syrians. Assad is no longer mentioned in UN reports. The finger is being pointed at the late Syrian minister of the interior who mysteriously killed himself last year. His brother, according to anti-Assadists, has also now killed himself. Is the way being cleared for Syria's assistance to America in Iraq? Does Damascus have enough power over the resistance to US forces in Iraq to make it powerful again in Lebanon? Answer: probably, yes.

Down here in southern Lebanon, of course, there are other arguments. The French and the Spanish and the Italians and even the Irish, who have returned to their beloved southern Lebanon with 160 men, are creating a new economy, buying up the milk, souvenirs, camouflage jackets and cedar trees on sale - a good enough reason to maintain Unifil in the eyes of the Shias.

And the Hizbollah - here is a fact which will not sit happily with the John Boltons of this world at the UN - are watching every car that drives south of the Litani river. For they know that if a suicide bomber attacks the French, they - the Hizbollah - will be blamed. They will not be to blame. It will be the Sunni Muslim al-Qa'idists to the north who wish to attack Nato. So Hizbollah will be the most powerful defenders of the European armies in southern Lebanon. Now there's something to think about.

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