August 05, 2010

On UNIFIL (Updated)

Supporters of Israel are used to seeing that country get something decidedly less than a fair shake in the halls of the United Nations in New York, and I sympathize with them. But no organization has more selflessly served Israeli interests with so little appreciation as the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). On the one hand, and as I have written, UNIFIL has often failed to prevent hostilities from erupting along the border with southern Lebanon and northern Israel on account of, primarily, weak mandates from the Security Council as well as an inability to address the drivers of conflict. On the other hand, though, does anyone in Israel care to imagine how, exactly, the IDF would have extracted itself from southern Lebanon in August of 2006 without the face-saving announcement and deployment of a beefed-up UNIFIL? And does anyone remember the 258 U.N. peacekeepers who have died in southern Lebanon, most of them hailing from countries with no national interests in the Middle East, and several of them on the receving end of Israeli artillery barrages? This week, UNIFIL asked the IDF to delay tree-trimming operations along the border, the IDF refused, and people on both sides of the border were killed as a result. After the shooting stopped, though, UNIFIL backed up the IDF's claims with respect to the Blue Line, and U.S. pundits like Jeffrey Goldberg and Max Boot acted as if this was a once-in-a-lifetime event. I have spent a lot of time hanging out with the great men and women serving in UNIFIL in southern Lebanon and have particularly enjoyed visits to the long-serving Irish and Indian battalions. These guys don't get the credit they deserve for essentially putting their lives on the line in someone else's fight. And maybe if Israeli political leaders were not so quick to dismiss UNIFIL as a "joke" (Itamar Rabinovich) and "useless" (Ehud Olmert), IDF officers might pay a little more attention to UNIFIL's advice and fewer avoidable casualities would result.

[By the way, if any Israelis out there are looking to blame someone for the death of Dov Harari, they can start in, well, Tampa. In the annals of poorly timed press releases, this and this take the cake. (h/t Mitch and Josh)]

Update: A reader's objection.

I am not an expert on UNIFIL and its mandates. I will defer to your assessment of the utility of UNIFIL in allowing Israel to withdraw from Lebanon. I was certainly not a fan of the Israeli presence in Lebanon and am very happy that we are no longer there. Any role that UNIFIL may have played at the strategic/political level in this withdrawal is a good one in my book.

From the perspective of an Israeli infantry soldier who served a fair amount of time in the "security zone" and beyond, however, I would suggest that it is not difficult to see why many Israelis have a dim view of UNIFIL. On numerous occasions, UNIFIL soldiers allowed armed groups to approach our positions without offering fair warning, without trying to divert them, or disarm them. This cost us in blood. On the other hand, UNIFIL units regularly warned off armed groups in Southern Lebanon to the presence of our ambushes and patrols. This also cost us in blood. In other words, we had a very hard time regarding UNIFIL as neutral buffer forces. I can certainly understand that UNIFIL soldiers had a hard time staying neutral in this conflict. I can also certainly understand their lack of empathy for IDF soldiers operating on Lebanese soil. To us, however, the UNIFIL soldiers were not nearly as benign, neutral, and useful as your post makes them out to be. To us they were a serious operational liability, and their actions frequently cost us dearly. Given the (unfortunate) inability of senior Israeli politicians and officers to forget their glory days in the military and their tendency to think in the tactical terms of infantry NCOs or special forces operators it is also not surprising that they would view UNIFIL in this way.

Many thanks to the IDF veteran who wrote this. I can't defend or criticize UNIFIL's actions during the 1990s, though I am sure a response from an officer during that time would include a statement to the effect that it was not the job of UNIFIL to make Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon easier -- quite the opposite: one of UNIFIL's three core missions was to confirm an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, which they finally did in 2000. Also, I would point out that UNIFIL and Hizballah (less so Amal or other armed groups) had a pretty nasty relationship until the late 1990s. UNIFIL posts and convoys were frequently assaulted by Hizballah, so it's not as if the two were in cahoots with one another, even if it seemed that way to members of the IDF and SLA. Finally, in response to another comment, I am on the record as being very criticial of Israeli operations and strategy in southern Lebanon in the 1990s and in 2006. But that doesn't mean I have taken a "side". If anything, speaking as someone who rather likes Israel and Israelis, the incompetence of Israeli operations in southern Lebanon especially pains me because it has resulted in both the weakening of Israel and the suffering of the people of Lebanon, for whom I also have a well-documented soft spot in my heart. As far as UNIFIL is concerned, meanwhile, I have plenty of criticism for them elsewhere.