SHAQRA, Lebanon (Reuters) - French soldiers take off their body armor but keep their FAMAS rifles slung over their backs before moving off on a leisurely foot patrol through this pro-Hezbollah Shi‘ite Muslim village in south Lebanon.
The troops, wearing the blue berets of U.N. peacekeepers, chat with shopkeepers in Shaqra, trying to win local friends without abandoning military muscle to deter would-be assailants.
“What I hope to do here is instill confidence,” Lieutenant Colonel Marc Ollier, commander of the French contingent in the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), told Reuters.
Without firing a shot in anger, U.N. troops have imparted a degree of stability that has enabled rebuilding and revival in a region wrecked by Israel’s war with Hezbollah two years ago.
The 13,000-strong force, whose mandate is up for renewal by the Security Council on Wednesday, says it has kept the area south of the Litani river free of any visible armed Hezbollah activity and helped the Lebanese army establish itself there.
But the calm in UNIFIL’s 2,500 square km (965 square mile) zone also owes much to decisions by Israel and its Shi‘ite guerrilla foes not to renew hostilities which ceased on August 14, 2006 after a 34-day war seen by most Israelis as a failure.
Tensions still simmer in a region festooned with yellow Hezbollah flags and posters of Imad Moughniyah, an undercover leader of the group assassinated in Syria in February -- Hezbollah has blamed Israel and promised “earthshaking” revenge.
Many Lebanese reproach UNIFIL for failing to secure an Israeli pullout from the Lebanese side of the divided village of Ghajar or a halt to daily Israeli military overflights.
Israel chides the peacekeepers for not stopping weapons it says are flowing to Hezbollah guerrillas who might again shower northern Israel with rockets as they did during the 2006 war.
“I don’t believe Hezbollah’s weapons figure in Resolution 1701,” said Ollier, citing the Security Council measure that expanded UNIFIL in 2006 and gave it tougher rules of engagement.
The resolution speaks of keeping armed men and illicit weapons out of the UNIFIL zone. “So we monitor that, but disarming an armed militia is not in 1701,” Ollier added.
UNIFIL has no mandate to interfere north of the Litani or control the border with Syria, the main transit route for Hezbollah weaponry. It does, however, patrol Lebanese waters.
The French, with 13 Leclerc battle tanks and 1,400 troops, operate alongside Spanish and Italian units that have injected a strong European element into UNIFIL, while Germany has played a significant role in a U.N. naval force of about a dozen ships.
Their political value outweighs their military prowess, according to former UNIFIL spokesman Timor Goksel.
“The participation of some main European countries in UNIFIL gave this robust atmosphere,” he said. “It gives UNIFIL today much more political clout than the United Nations itself.”
”They (Israel and Hezbollah) can all challenge the UN, but they are not going to challenge the French, the Germans, the Italians, the Spanish -- this is the strength of UNIFIL.
Conversely, Goksel argued, if serious trouble did erupt, UNIFIL’s diverse contingents would be unable to act together and could do nothing without Lebanon’s consent under 1701.
So far, no major crisis has tested UNIFIL’s mettle.
“We’ve been able to restore peace and stability,” said its deputy spokesman, Andrea Tenenti. “We’ve been a huge deterrent for the restarting of any kind of hostilities. We haven’t witnessed any rearming of armed elements here in the south.”
Nevertheless, at least three bomb attacks have targeted UNIFIL since 2006, including one that killed six soldiers in the Spanish contingent last year -- the main suspects are Sunni Islamist militants inspired by al Qaeda, not Hezbollah.
Such dangers complicate the task of Ollier and other UNIFIL commanders who must balance the safety of their troops against the importance of cultivating good relations with local people.
“I have to protect my soldiers and fulfill my mission,” Ollier said. “That is the big difficulty for e here.”
Excessive security measures can doom any peacekeeping mission, especially one in such a sensitive, suspicious region.
“When you go behind your walls, your barbed wire and just move in aggressive mechanized convoys, you lose contact with the people,” Goksel said. “In the long run that’s very dangerous because in south Lebanon, that contact is your best security.”
UNIFIL troops stage more than 400 patrols a day, sometimes jointly with the Lebanese army -- which deployed up to 12,000 troops in the south after the war, but then shrank the number to 6,500 to tackle violence elsewhere, a security source said.
To bolster local support, the peacekeepers also carry out humanitarian work ranging from cluster bomb clearance and small reconstruction projects to medical, dental and veterinary care.
In the Shi‘ite village of Qabrikha, Staff Sergeant Herve Fleury, head of a French civil-military affairs team, delivered a final check to the mayor for repair of a water cistern, now marked out with a volleyball court for the dry summer months.
“This reservoir will benefit 150 families who grow olives and tobacco,” responded the mayor, a surgeon named Hassan Hijazi. “It means a lot for Qabrikha, the economy and sport.”
Hijazi said UNIFIL had achieved “80 percent success” with local people and there was no enmity, noting that French troops will play volleyball against Qabrikha youngsters this week.
Then, reflecting Hezbollah’s line, he reiterated complaints about UNIFIL’s efficacy. “People don’t understand why they can’t stop the Israeli violations by land, sea and air,” he said.
The Lebanese government, which has requested renewal of the peacekeepers’ mandate, shares this frustration, but Tenenti, the deputy spokesman, said UNIFIL could only use diplomatic means.
The U.N. troops have at least created a buffer in south Lebanon that all sides have found useful since the 2006 war.
“UNIFIL is managing the conflict, preventing violence from continuing,” Goksel said. “That’s important, but the solution is not going to come from UNIFIL. Someone has to work on a solution because all the causes of the conflict are still there.”
Editing by Sami Aboudi