French Wary of a Lebanese Sandwich

PARIS – Military experts are warning of dangers for the new peacekeeping force in the south of Lebanon, sandwiched as it will be between Israeli forces on one side and Hezbollah on the other.

"We are going there only to take blows," a French general who wished not to be named told IPS. "I really do not envy my men going in there."

The mission of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has been the "most dangerous of all UN assignments. Since UNIFIL was established in 1978, 257 soldiers, officers, and civil members of the force have been killed, with almost no success at all," he said.

"What are [the UNIFIL soldiers] going to do in the event of a confrontation with Israeli soldiers? Nothing, we will get out of their way," he said. "And Hezbollah are not chopped liver either."

The general said: "The following questions remain unanswered. When and at whom can I shoot? In such missions, more often than not you have to shoot first and ask questions later. And so far, UNIFIL troops can only shoot in legitimate defense. But then, it is usually too late."

Alain Pellegrini, the French general commanding UNIFIL, has described the situation in Lebanon after the cease-fire agreed two weeks ago as "extremely fragile."

In an interview with the French daily Le Monde, Pellegrini said, "I see the general situation with enormous apprehension. The war can start again for no reason at all."

Pellegrini pointed out that Hezbollah has not been disarmed. "Everybody is keeping his weapons, for the time being they are just not using them."

France, together with the U.S. government, co-authored the resolution to strengthen UNIFIL, but the French government at first only offered to increase its military contingent in UNIFIL to 400 from 200, instead of the 5,000 expected.

At a meeting in Brussels Aug. 25, European Union members agreed to reinforce UNIFIL with up to 7,000 soldiers. It earlier had a strength of 2,000. The United Nations has approved increasing its numbers to 15,000.

In addition to 2,000 French soldiers, the force will be complemented by up to 3,000 Italian, 1,200 Spanish, and 1,200 German troops.

Military experts say the French reluctance to participate in UNIFIL arose from past experience, particularly the killing of 58 French soldiers in Lebanon Oct. 23, 1983, in an attack for which Hezbollah was blamed.

"The French army never forgot those killings," Frédéric Charillon, head of the French Center for Military Social Research told IPS. "Soldiers participating in the UNIFIL mission at the time came back traumatized."

French soldiers have had other disastrous experiences in UN missions. More than 80 French soldiers died in the course of a UN peacekeeping mission in former Yugoslavia.

"This UNIFIL mission will be as difficult as those assignments," Charillon said. "You have to send experienced personnel to Lebanon. But the French army has its limits, it is not a superpower’s army."

Bruno Tertrais, researcher at the Institute for Strategic Studies, a Paris-based military think tank, also expressed misgivings.

"The French army needs to rotate its soldiers in the most demanding missions every four months," he said. "That means that you need 6,000 soldiers for a one-year commitment of 2,000 soldiers. With the new contingent, the French army is overstretching its resources."

The French have insisted that UNIFIL should not be mandated with disarming Hezbollah. France also asked for a short chain of command in order to avoid standoffs in urgent situations, with French general Alain Pellegrini continuing as commander of the force.

Despite such guarantees, military experts consider the mission highly dangerous for French soldiers.

"Under the terms of resolution 1701, UNIFIL is condemned to become a hostage of the warring parties," said Serge Sur, researcher at the Thucydides Institute for Strategic Studies at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

UNIFIL was created by UN Security Council resolution 425 in 1978 to confirm Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and to assist the Lebanese government in restoring its authority in the southern border region.

But in the face of continuing attacks by Lebanese militia groups, Israel did not completely withdraw from Lebanese territory. Its army invaded Lebanon in June 1982, and created a "security zone" on the Lebanese side of border. It remained there until June 2000.

"Under these circumstances, UNIFIL could not fulfill its responsibilities under [Resolution] 425," an internal UN paper said.

Resolution 1701, adopted Aug. 11, extended the UNIFIL mission to monitoring the cessation of hostilities, accompanying and supporting Lebanese armed forces in their deployment in the south of the country, and ensuring humanitarian access to the civilian population and the safe and voluntary return of refugees.