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Leaders call for a new force "beyond UN"

RANIA ABOUZEID / Houston Chronicle | July 29 2006

NAQOURA, LEBANON - The daily routine at the United Nations headquarters in southern Lebanon offers vivid proof of the difficulties any new international force will face if charged with keeping the peace on the contested border between Lebanon and Israel.

Thursday was typical: First, Hezbollah fired missiles in quick succession from a launcher just a few hundred yards from the U.N. base. They sliced through the air with an ominous whooshing sound.

The Israeli response was equally rapid. Within minutes, drones buzzed overhead, followed by the roar of jets closing in on the rocket launchers. Their approach sent the U.N. personnel scurrying for cover.

"The jets are coming now," a U.N. staffer said as he ushered several journalists into a bomb shelter on the base. A siren wailed and, from across the border, another siren could be clearly heard coming from Nahariya, Israel, as the Hezbollah missiles closed in on that town.


Picturesque but dangerous
The headquarters of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, is nestled near dense, leafy banana plantations next to the azure Mediterranean sea on one side and gentle green hills on the other.

But there was no time to enjoy the setting. On Thursday, as on most days since the conflict started on July 12 when Hezbollah raided an Israeli military unit, ferocious Israeli bombardments have rained down on this picturesque corner of southern Lebanon and Hezbollah rockets have streaked north.

"There's retaliation from Israeli aircraft," the U.N. staffer said. "It might be accurate, it may not. We may get a hit."

The events of recent days justified his concerns. Four unarmed U.N. monitors were killed Tuesday night when their station in the southern village of Khiam was repeatedly shelled by Israeli forces.

UNIFIL's position is difficult. It is a peacekeeping force charged since 1978 with monitoring the volatile border region. But its mandate does not give it the authority to stop Hezbollah guerrillas from operating near its outposts, nor can it prevent Israeli airstrikes in the region.

"The problem with UNIFIL is that we are a peacekeeping force, our weapons are only for self-defense, under Chapter 6 (of the U.N. mandate)," Gen. Alain Pellegrini, the UNIFIL force commander, said from inside Shelter 26, a stifling hot, square white bunker with a dusty concrete floor.


Need for authority
President Bush and Israel's leaders have demanded that a new peacekeeping force, possibly drawn from outside the United Nations, must be created with the firepower and authority to disarm Hezbollah and help the Beirut government keep the peace in southern Lebanon.

But the prospect of engaging Hezbollah comes with its own hazards. Hezbollah's military wing is not a ragtag militia, easily contained or crushed. Born in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 as an unruly armed band, the group evolved into a disciplined military force that drove Israel's army out of the country in May 2000.

Hezbollah is also operating in its power base. Its military wing is drawn from young men from the same southern Lebanon villages that Israel is currently bombarding. Its vast social welfare network in the impoverished, underdeveloped region strengthens its local support base.


Avoiding insurgency
There are concerns that a beefed-up international force hostile to the Shiite group could fuel an Iraq-like insurgency in majority-Shiite south Lebanon.

The current UNIFIL mission already has fueled local anger in some quarters, primarily from desperate people in besieged southern towns who have sought refuge at U.N. posts, only to be turned away.

"I feel really frustrated," a U.N. observer said on condition of anonymity. "We can do anything and everything for the people of the south if the Lebanese government requests our help, but it hasn't, and the people don't understand that."

 

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