NAQOURA, Lebanon: Israel’s military response last month to a rocket attack launched from Lebanese soil was a form of “balance,” the force commander of the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Lebanon said Thursday, saying his force had worked tirelessly to mitigate the potential fallout.
“We worked all night long in order to deter a retaliation, and the retaliation that happened ... was really some kind of a, shall we say, balance,” Maj. Gen. Paolo Serra told The Daily Star in an interview, pointing out there were no casualties.
Serra, who has served as commander of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon since January 2012, was referring to the Israeli army’s Aug. 23 airstrike on a missile base south of Beirut belonging to a Palestinian faction. The strike came in response to a rocket fired into Israel from Tyre the previous day. No casualties resulted from either aggression.
The attacks followed an incident earlier in the month in which four Israeli soldiers were injured in an explosion some 400 meters across the Lebanese side of the Blue Line, which was set down in the wake of Israel’s 2000 withdrawal. Serra said the reasons for this Israeli incursion are still “unknown.”
Describing the role UNIFIL played in the hours between the rocket attack and Israel’s retaliation, Serra said he was in contact through a formalized structure with the relevant area officers on either side of the border. Beyond this, the force commander said he utilized his position’s “political and military” capability to “engage at a higher level of authority.”
Asked if Israel’s retaliation would have been different without UNIFIL’s involvement, Serra said he was not in a position to make that assessment. He emphasized that UNIFIL’s request was that Israel not retaliate, noting that “[retaliation] is really something that can create tension.”
Yet whatever increased tension was risked when the Israeli air force struck the Palestinian base in Naameh seems not to have materialized.
Of the most recent tripartite meeting among Lebanon, UNIFIL and Israel, which took place on Aug. 28, Serra reported that both countries expressed their commitment to “maintain the cessation of hostilities” and “respect Resolution 1701.”
Resolution 1701, signed to resolve the July 2006 War, mandates UNIFIL to keep the peace south of the Litani River and assist and support the Lebanese Army in this task. The U.N. Security Council renewed the mandate on Aug. 29.
For now, however, even on the eve of probable Western intervention in Syria, Serra described the situation in UNIFIL’s area of operation as “normal”: There have been no changes in the peacekeepers’ work and patrols and checkpoints are being conducted and manned as usual.
“We are outside, we are doing our job,” he said, adding the territory could not be monitored “from the barracks.”
Serra did acknowledge that extra precautions had been taken in light of bomb attacks in Lebanon and since an alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus on Aug. 23 made Western military action against President Bashar Assad’s regime almost inevitable.
As of 10 days ago, force protection has been increased. For example, Serra said, peacekeepers manning the entrances to the force’s headquarters at Naqoura now wear helmets and flack jackets while on duty.
An evacuation order for the dependents of UNIFIL’s civilian staff members has also been prepared, but, Serra emphasized, it has not yet been signed. The families of staff are still here, he said, but “plans are in place in case of an emergency.”
UNIFIL, which includes contingents whose nations are likely to back U.S. intervention next door, operates in Hezbollah’s southern stronghold. Hezbollah is fighting alongside Assad’s forces in Syria, and some believe the Shiite group or other Assad allies may make certain contingents of the international force a target.
France, whose government supports moves to strike Syria, provides one of the largest UNIFIL deployments, with more than 800 troops in south Lebanon.
Its UNIFIL contingent was the victim of two roadside bomb attacks in 2011. A third such attack that year hit the Italian contingent.
Although altercations are occasionally reported between UNIFIL and local residents, the force has not been directly hit in more than 18 months.
Asked if he was concerned this would change, Serra said although troops “have two shoulders with two flags” – a reference to the U.N. flag and individual country flag uniforms carry – UNIFIL should be perceived as a “unique endeavor by the international community to support Lebanon” and not as a representation of its contributing countries.
But, he conceded, this was not always the case.
The force has no formal communication with Hezbollah, Serra said, explaining that the main channel through which it can promote its desired perception is through engagement with local communities.
“We are not in direct contact with the Hezbollah group, but we are entitled to talk with the representative authorities,” such as the mayor in each area, he said.
Serra added that when he speaks with these authorities he does not know or care what party they are from, he simply gives them what he can offer: assistance with security, help with community-benefiting projects, and institutional support.
“I think what we can offer to any ... area is what we can have back as a perception,” he said.
Serra appears to harbor no anxieties that contingents will abandon the mission in light of increased tensions, clarifying that Turkey’s recent withdrawal of some, not all, of its forces fell in line with the completion of the deployment’s term.
He also noted that “when a country is going out, we normally have another that is offering to come in.”
UNIFIL presently comprises fewer than 12,000 peacekeepers, but Serra said there was a ceiling of 15,000 and supplementary forces could be requested from the U.N. if required.