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UN: Mission In Lebanon Prepares To Fill A Vacuum

  • Joe Lauria

Israel's announcement in March that it would withdraw its troops from southern Lebanon in July caused a flurry of activity among United Nations peacekeeping officials on how to fill the security vacuum. UN peacekeepers have been in the area since 1978 and, as correspondent Joe Lauria reports, mistrust is such in the region that it appears a strengthened UN presence will be needed.

United Nations, 5 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- New fighting between Israeli troops and Lebanese guerrillas in south Lebanon this week highlight the dangers facing an enhanced UN peacekeeping force that should replace the Israeli army when it returns home in July.

For 22 years, the 4,500-man United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, has had an observer mission in southern Lebanon, stuck in a volatile political standoff that appeared as though it would never change.

Only four UN peacekeeping operations are older and two of them are in the Middle East (UNTSO in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria since 1948, and UNDOF in the Golan Heights since 1974).

But with the announcement last month by Israel that it would withdraw its troops from Lebanon by July 7, the UN peacekeeping department was thrown into a frenzy. It was given just two months to come up with a plan to fill the security vacuum that Israel's departure would create. The politics involved have so far been messy.

The scramble to come up with a viable peacekeeping plan has been complicated by conflicting statements from the Lebanese government. It appears that the dream of ridding itself of an occupying army might actually be a nightmare in disguise.

The status quo, as bitter as it was for the Lebanese to take, has actually contributed to a tense, if intermittently violent, stability. The prospect of Israel withdrawing poses new dangers for the region.

Syria and Israel have been Lebanon's political power brokers since the 1978 Israeli invasion and occupation. Both countries have essentially been fighting a proxy war on Lebanese soil. Israel has fought this with 1,500 of its own troops and indirectly with 2,500 militia paid and armed by Israel, and Syria with 35,000 troops in Lebanon and with control over the Hezbollah.

Syria is nervous about a unilateral Israeli withdrawal as well because it weakens its attempts to force Israel to return the Golan Heights, taken in the 1967 Middle East war. Syria had wanted withdrawal from Lebanon to be accompanied by a pull-out from the heights, but talks with Israel on such a package collapsed in January.

Several scenarios for future peacekeeping arrangements were floated and then rejected. The Lebanese government at first wanted UN peacekeepers to disarm Palestinian militants. This would require a change of UNIFIL's mandate, but diplomats say there is little will in the Security Council to do this.

Then France floated the idea that it would lead a multinational force with more robust rules of engagement that would replace UNIFIL. The United States liked the idea, since it would cost Washington less, but Israel rejected it.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has sent a special envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, to the region. He has been focusing on the UN's two main tasks in connection with the withdrawal -- confirming the pull-out of troops, and helping to restore peace and security afterwards.

Larsen met with Israeli and Lebanese officials and is due in Damascus tomorrow (May 6). His round of talks in the area concludes on May 10.

UN spokeswoman Marie Okabe quoted Larsen on Thursday as saying there was some confusion among Lebanese officials about the UN role in demarcating borders after the Israeli pullout.

"The United Nations, (Larsen) said, is working with the parties in a technical exercise to identify the internationally recognized boundaries of Lebanon to determine whether a full withdrawal has occurred."

Yesterday (Thursday), Lebanon at last said it would accept a beefed-up UN force within the 15-kilometer security zone that Israel will vacate. Prime Minister Salim Hoss said it was important to consider that an international force would protect the area to be vacated by Israel.

But within hours, Hoss changed his mind and said Lebanon had yet to decide on the deployment of UN troops. His about-face came after remarks by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara that questioned whether UNIFIL would create stability or only secure Israel's frontier against Lebanese or Palestinian guerrillas.

Shara said Israel's withdrawal was "a way to trick the Arab states." But earlier (on April 18), Syria had said it would accept the UN troops.

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy told Israel Radio last week that "Syria is confused," and he added that Syria is "confusing the whole world."

When the Security Council created UNIFIL in 1978, it authorized 7,000 troops, but the full deployment was never made. The United Nations could increase its forces to 7,000 without any further Security Council action.

Diplomats say an increase above that number would require a new resolution. Resolution 425 -- which created UNIFIL -- requires that Israel withdraw to the 1923 colonial border between Lebanon and what was then Palestine. Last week, Israeli television reported that Israel would agree to that line, hoping to put Syrian and Lebanese fears to rest.

Even with a full withdrawal behind that border, the International Institute for Strategic Studies warned today (Friday) that Syria was unlikely to restrain the Hezbollah. The London-based think-tank said that could encourage the Hezbollah and radical Palestinian militias to continue their attacks across the Israeli border.