Indian-UN peacekeepers in Lebanon keep crisis at bay

Indian-UN peacekeepers in Lebanon keep crisis at bay


The headquarters of the Indian battalion of UN peacekeepers in southern Lebanon basks in the sun atop a windy hill near the village of Ibl al-Saqi. The armed camp is a peaceful place, home to 780 officers and men of the current Indian contingent from 3-11 Gorka Rifles.

Another 70 members of the Indian contingent are based at the headquarters of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL.

Since the UN force was dispatched after Israel’s first invasion of the area in 1978, it is clear that ‘interim’ does not mean short-term deployment. It instead means transitional. UNIFIL’s job is to provide stability until the border between southern Lebanon and northern Israel is finalised and recognised.

UNIFIL’s military mission is to keep the peace, ensure the integrity of the ‘Blue Line,’ a provisional border delineated by the world organisation, and provide security for the inhabitants of the force’s area of operations south of the Litani River.
Major Har Kanwar Singh Narula, press and civil affairs officer of Indbatt, said that it mounts regular foot and vehicle patrols of its area of responsibility (AOR). Indbatt maintains 12 positions in its 107.6 km square AOR, which is divided into four parts.
UN troops complement but do not take over the tasks of Lebanon’s own army and police. The Indians do not don helmets and bullet-proof vests or carry weapons while circulating but have these items in their vehicles. “We can react forcefully to a situation, we have the inherent right of self-defence,” he stated.

When asked about overflights of Lebanese territory by Israeli drones and planes, Major Har Kanwar said, “These happen infrequently in our AOR. We take all violations very seriously. Transparency is important. The UN Security Council is informed through the department of peacekeeping.” The deployment has, so far, been without violent incident.
This was not always the case. When Deccan Herald correspondent first visited Indbatt in January 1999, following the deployment of the initial Indian contingent, south Lebanon was a war zone. The Indians were given the ‘hottest zone’ in the eastern area of UNIFIL’s deployment because the UNIFIL’s commander believed Indian troops could handle the job. At that time, the Shia Hizbollah movement’s irregulars were conducting a war of attrition against Israel’s occupying army, staging hit-and-run assaults on convoys of troops and military posts.

The Hizbollah campaign escalated until April 2000 when Israel unexpectedly announced it would pull out of Lebanon by July. The Israeli pull-out began on May 16 and was nearly completed on May 25 when Israeli forces evacuated all but a few tiny enclaves of Lebanese territory. These enclaves, however, left Hizbollah with the task of liberating them.

On Oct 12, 2000, three Israeli soldiers were seized in a cross-border raid staged from Indbatt’s AOR by Hizbollah forces driving a white vehicle and disguised as UN personnel. This raid created serious problems for Indbatt and UNIFIL which were accused by Israel of failing to prevent the raid.

The next challenge was all-out war in the UNIFIL area. In response to another Hizbollah cross-border snatch of two Israeli soldiers on June 12, 2006, Israel launched a 34-day full-scale air, land and sea offensive against Lebanon. Although, UN peacekeepers were caught between the warring sides, the troops did their best to assist local people by providing trapped villagers with food and water and evacuating the wounded.

UN observers killed
Four UN observers were killed when Israel bombed their post but Indbatt’s troops emerged without fatalities. This conflict ended with Israel’s withdrawal after more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians had been killed and half a million driven from the area.
The pull-out was mandated by UNSC resolution 1701 which expanded UNIFIL from about 2,000 troops — from India and Ghana — to 15,000 military personnel, including more than 11,000 uniformed personnel from 28 countries. Among the new contributors were Italy, France, Spain and Turkey. Greater UNIFIL also operates alongside units of the Lebanese army and police which have been deployed to the Blue Line for the first time in decades.

Indbatt continues to carry out civilian projects and good works which have, over the years, become a major focus for peace-keepers. The current battalion is building on 12 years of good works and relies on warm relations cultivated with local people. “We have 13 language assistants from the area who keep in close contact with the people,” the major stated.

Indian officers regularly meet mayors, mukhtars and shaikhs in the 11 villages in the battalion’s AOR. While the battalion does not interact with Hizbollah, which shares power on the ground with the secular Shia Amal movement, Indbatt does not examine the political affiliations of its interlocutors.

Indbatt carries out small-scale development projects, operates general medical and dental clinics, and conducts regular entertainment camps for children. The battalion’s veterinary surgeon, on hand to care for its explosives-sniffer dogs, cares for 17,000 animals, treating wounds, birthing cows, and de-worming herds.

Major Har Kanwar observed, “We recently conducted a medical camp involving eight doctors with eight specialities under one roof. We hired buses to bring patients for free treatment and fee medicine.” Indbatt has arranged for blood typing and tests for anaemia for all residents of its area. Indian officers and men also donate blood to local hospitals.

Indbatt delivers water to shepherds and provides tinned food and kitchen utensils for the needy. The battalion holds yoga classes and trains locals on computers. It has provided schools with computers and a computer lab, helped widen agricultural roads, cleared snow from roads, installed electrical wiring in homes in villages, and aided the local fire department putting out forest blazes.
Indbatt has transported to hospitals ailing or injured people in its own ambulances and has supplied a couple of villages with their own ambulances. Finance for larger projects comes from a general UNIFIL fund of $5,00,000 while the Indian government provides funding for other work.

Occasionally, UNIFIL’s military and civil roles merge. For instance, the force has fenced a pool in the super-sensitive Kafr Shouba area where Israeli cattle used to cross the Blue Line to drink at a Lebanese pond. This upset local shepherds whose sheep and goats depend on the water. To prevent friction, the Spanish battalion, Indbatt’s neighbour, fenced the pond and installed three gates to give access to Lebanese livestock. Anticipating trouble is part of the job of the peacekeepers.
Two weeks ago, the Lebanese government lodged an official protest to the UNSC because 187 goats that had strayed into Israel had been detained. The goats were soon returned: crisis averted.

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