BEIRUT: The fatal shooting on the Lebanon-Israel border at Ras Naqoura last week in which an Israeli soldier was killed apparently by a Lebanese soldier was the latest incident in which UNIFIL was required to step in and mediate between the two sides to prevent an unwanted escalation along a frontier that remains fragile despite more than seven years of calm.
It is a role that Milos Strugar, who stepped down Friday as UNIFIL’s deputy head of mission, has come to know well after 10 years of service with the peacekeeping force.
“This incident, like previous incidents, shows the importance and usefulness of the structure built around UNIFIL ... which is liaison and coordination and the tripartite mechanism, open lines of communication between UNIFIL and both sides,” Strugar said.
“It was tested on many occasions. This year two times,” he added, referring to last week’s shooting and the Hezbollah ambush against an Israeli commando unit that crossed the Blue Line into Lebanese territory in August. “And it has proved to be very solid.”
In his last media interview as deputy UNIFIL chief on the eve of his departure from Lebanon, Strugar, a Serb who has worked with the U.N. since 1993, presented a broad assessment of UNIFIL’s achievements, the challenges that remain and the lessons learned for peacekeeping more generally.
By the time Strugar arrived in south Lebanon to take up the role of UNIFIL’s senior adviser in June 2003, the peacekeeping force was more than halved from an average 4,500 peacekeepers in the mid-to-late 1990s to 2,000. They were deployed along the Blue Line, the U.N.-delineated boundary that corresponds to Lebanon’s southern border. The mission had also changed from peacekeeping to one of an armed observer force monitoring breaches of the Blue Line.
While its manpower and the scope of its mandate had reduced in scale, UNIFIL came to play a critical role between 2000 and 2006 in mediating between Israel and Hezbollah to prevent the periodic clashes in the Shebaa Farms from flaring into something worse. The success of such mediation efforts, which continue today between the Lebanese and Israeli militaries, is down to trust, Strugar said.
“We would like to have a reputation that we are open and transparent and even-handed and that we want to help,” he said. “This is the reputation I think we have. When you have this reputation and level of trust, then when you have an incident that is what helps you address it.”
In July 2006, south Lebanon turned into a bloody war zone overnight, leaving UNIFIL’s 2,000 armed observers largely helpless. Most of the peacekeepers rode out the war in bomb shelters. UNIFIL headquarters in Naqoura dispatched relief convoys when possible to distribute supplies to trapped villagers and peacekeepers. But the relief operation was at UNIFIL’s own initiative and subject to ebb and flow of the fighting.
The war ended in mid-August with the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701.
Included in paragraph 12 of the resolution is a requirement that UNIFIL “protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence.”
Should another war break out in south Lebanon, therefore, UNIFIL is obliged under 1701 to actively seek to protect civilians regardless of the dangers involved.
“If the Lebanese government is incapable of providing assistance, we have a responsibility to do so,” Strugar said, adding that contingency plans are in place for such an eventuality. “Now if you don’t do it, you fail in your mandate ... Protection of civilians is very important. Not all peacekeeping operations have this in their mandate, but we do.”
Following the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, there was a clear international mood that the Lebanese state should take control of the southern border district and deploy the army up to the Blue Line thus fulfilling a requirement of Resolution 425 and allowing for the gradual phasing out of UNIFIL. But the Lebanese government at the time was unwilling to commit to a full deployment of the Lebanese Army on the pretext that it would not serve as “border guards” for the security of Israel. Instead, a token 1,000-strong force of ISF and military police was sent to the border district.
The gradual reduction in UNIFIL’s size between 2000 and early 2003 was in part a message to Lebanon that the peacekeeping force could not stay in Lebanon forever. But in retrospect, Strugar argues that reducing the size of the force was probably a mistake.
“Now when I look back on this, I think it was premature because one of the basic principles of peacekeeping operations is that generally when you are downsizing any segment of your activities, you have to be sure that there is a national alternative, that there is someone to take over,” he said. “In that period, there was not that readiness. There was no clear government decision to deploy.”
That is why, Strugar said, the “most important achievement of this  resolution is the deployment of the Lebanese Army up to the Blue Line.”
Resolution 1701 also saw a significant increase in the size of UNIFIL along with a much broader and greatly strengthened mandate.
Today, the force stands at some 11,000 peacekeepers which raises the question that given more than seven years of calm along the Blue Line and pressure on the U.N.’s peacekeeping budget in light of possible new missions arising elsewhere around the world, can such numbers still be justified.
“This is a question we ask ourselves all the time,” Strugar said.
“Almost every year we are doing a review of the requirements, the strengths of the troops, what we need. For the moment, we think [11,000 peacekeepers] is the right figure but it is a constant process.”
One of the factors weighing against a reduction in troop numbers is the downsizing over the past two years of the Lebanese Army in the border district. Is this a concern for UNIFIL?
“Definitely,” Strugar said. “This is the [core] of 1701 – the Lebanese Army working with UNIFIL and gradually assuming more and more responsibilities. Now because of other issues inside the country they had to withdraw [some troops].”
However, Strugar noted that one brigade that was withdrawn from the south redeployed in Sidon. Sidon, lying midway between Beirut and UNIFIL’s area of operations is a critical transport node for the peacekeeping force which relies exclusively on the coastal highway to move between the south and the capital.
“A brigade that is deployed in Sidon to ensure security in that area directly impacts the implementation of 1701. We should not measure Lebanese contribution to implementation [of 1701] only to troops deployed south of the Litani. Maybe those that are just north of the Litani are even more important, controlling what comes down the highway [to the south].”
Strugar left Lebanon Friday to return to his family and home in Belgrade. He departed taking with him some satisfaction at initiatives undertaken by UNIFIL outside the mandate of 1701 that has helped maintain calm in the south.
One example is the monthly tripartite meetings between Lebanese and Israeli military delegations at Ras Naqoura hosted by the UNIFIL commander where both sides can air and resolve grievances.
Another is the slow but steady process of visible demarcating the Blue Line with barrels to prevent the numerous, potentially dangerous, misunderstandings, such as when farmers unwittingly stray across the invisible boundary to tend their fields.
He expressed regret that Israeli troops remained in northern Ghajar, the village that in 2000 found itself bisected by the Blue Line. The northern two thirds lies in Lebanese territory while the remainder is in Israeli-occupied Syria. The residents are Syrian nationals but hold Israeli citizenship. During the 2006 war, Israeli troops deployed into the northern – Lebanese – part of Ghajar and have remained there ever since despite exhaustive negotiations.
“I think northern Ghajar was a missed opportunity,” Strugar said. “It’s an extremely complicated issue with nationals of one country living on the territory of another country and with the papers of a third country. It is not easy, but it is solvable I believe.”
Despite UNIFIL’s achievements, Strugar warned that not enough effort is being paid to address the root causes of the conflict, such as the fate of the Shebaa Farms and the delineation of the maritime boundary between Lebanon and Israel, concerns that lie outside UNIFIL’s mandate but are critical to the overall success of the mission.
“We have had almost eight years of quiet in south Lebanon, but the root causes of the conflict are not addressed. This is the main problem,” he said.
“We are not moving toward some kind of permanent cease-fire arrangements. No matter what we do, UNIFIL’s success depends on this.”