Timur Goksel is a former spokesman and senior advisor to UNIFIL who currently teaches at in the Department of Political Studies and Public Administration at the American University of Beirut.
He has kindly agreed to answer some questions about UNIFIL and the recent border flare-up between Israel and Lebanon.
HP: How did this border flare-up happen in the first place? Isn’t UNIFIL coordination supposed to make these sorts of incidents more avoidable?
TG: I think UNIFIL did its part. Israelis said they wanted to prune the tree that was beyond their fence on technically on Israeli territory. UNIFIL informed LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces]. LAF said NOT TODAY. NOT GIVEN ADEQUATE NOTICE AS PER RULES. UNIFIL informed IDF not to do it but IDF, as per their power play, is not inclined to take any instructions from UNIFIL and LAF. So they went ahead and started the operation. Lebanese officers in the region have been feeling humiliated by this IDF attitude for some time. LAF feels that they always have to back down, accommodate the Israelis. But they too have an audience, which has been getting increasingly critical of this what they see as a meek attitude. So, someone finally said ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. For me, this the background to the incident, which had some extremely naive analysts declaring the onset of a regional war.
HP: UNIFIL has come out to say that the Israelis were on their side of the blue line. Can you explain to us a little how the blue line relates to the security fence in the picture that we’ve all seen on television or online?
TG: When UN marked the Blue Line in 2000 to determine the Israeli withdrawal (it was not a border demarcation) with the participation and consent of the two parties, it was discovered that in certain locations, not many, the Israeli security fence erected according to the lay of the land, did not correspond to the Blue Line. During the occupation years, israel had built fences inside Lebanon, which they had to give up of course. They did not want to put up a new fence in those places. Lebanon did not want to put up a fence along a border that is not officially demarcated. So, UN painted some stones blue to say this is the border, while the fence was up to 200 metres to the south. The paint peeled away in couple of months.
The shepherds, farmers, etc. (including myself) always get confused because you instinctively think the fence is the border not a couple of stones with faded blue paint. Israel usually refrained from crossing the fence for safety reasons of course but became more aggressive in keeping intruders away after 2006 when they felt that especially Hizbullah operatives were operating in that what the IDF calls “the enclave.” I have been talking about the perils of this situation for many years, and I think the UN finally got around to starting a project to better mark the Blue Line, with the participation of both sides. I don’t know what happened to the project, but knowing the inevitable bickering of the parties for half a meter here, 2 meters there, it is bound to take a long time.
HP: A lot of people in Lebanon don’t seem to trust what UNIFIL says about the incident. Between that and recent tensions between southern villages and the peacekeepers, do you think it’s accurate to say that UNIFIL’s legitimacy has been suffering lately? If so, why?
TG: That is normal in this incident. Lots of people are so proud that their army at last stood up against the Israeli war machine, actually opened fire and inflicted casualties. Nobody wants UNIFIL to mar their joy. UNIFIL’s problem is not legitimacy but one of having created high expectations with all that 2006 talk how robust this UNIFIL will be, how it will be better armed, blah blah. Even the UN people seemed to have forgotten the realities of peacekeeping. People have never forgiven UNIFIL for not stopping the Israeli invasion of 1982 with six Dutch soldiers with rifles facing 1200 tanks and 90,000 soldiers. The true problem: This UNIFIL is cut off from the people for many reasons. Main contingents find it difficult to maintain friendly, informal contacts with local communities.
HP: How do Israel’s, Lebanon’s and Syria’s policies towards the legitimacy of the blue line differ?
TG: I don’t know what Syria has to say. Lebanon had reservations about Shebaa Farms. Both Israel and Lebanon had minor objections to the Blue Line but decided to live with it until the border is officially demarcated between the two countries.
HP: Why do you think Hezbollah didn’t intervene in the fighting?
TG: That was a smart decision by Hizbullah. It would have been suicidal for LAF to be identified in cohorts with Hizbullah.
HP: Do you think we’re likely to see another round of fighting in the south between Israel and Lebanon in the next few months to a year?
TG: I don’t expect to see a wide-scale flare up unless there is major casus belli. Never mind the rhetoric of both sides. There is mutual deterrence in place. The next war will be much more violent and destructive than 2006. Not an easy decision to start one.