Posted by: sean | August 7, 2010

Talking to Timur Goksel: UNIFIL, Lebanon and Israel

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.



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Matt Duss and Sean Lee, christoph sydow. christoph sydow said: RT @humanprovince Interview with Timur Goksel, former UNIFIL adviser, about recent #Israel / #Lebanon border clash: […]

  2. Good stuff. Can we call you ‘scoop’ now?

    “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.”

    Exactly. This is precisely the idea in my head when reading this week’s analysis.

    I have one question, though. What does TG envision for UNIFIL if Israel intends a major ground invasion of southern Lebanon? UNIFIL is at something like 10k, I believe it was only a couple of thousand back in 1982. Would there be an evacuation? Would that require UNSC action? How would that play itself out?

  3. Only if I start writing for the Beast about Ishamaelia. ;)

    Good question. I’ve sent Timur the link, so hopefully he’ll have time to respond, although I can’t guarantee anything…

  4. So glad you managed to find someone who could blame Israel despite all the facts on the ground. “Tired of backing down?” Backing down from Israeli soldiers being on Israeli soil? “As per their power play?” Again, how is trimming a tree on your own land a humiliating power play and what right do the Lebanese have to bar them from doing so? Not shocked to find that you didn’t challenge any of these views and actually condemn that the Lebanese army, unprovoked, opened fire on Israeli forces operating in sovereign Israeli territory, needlessly killing a father and husband and risking the start of a war. I thought that since the facts didn’t end up fitting your narrative, you’d at least end up staying quiet on this one, but you’ve somehow managed to still make Israel the aggressor. Kudos!

  5. Since when does one country need another country’s permission to do what it wants on its own sovereign soil? This is the issue with UNIFIL and why it has been a complete waste of time for over 30 years and that is that it is completely in thrall of whatever thugs du jour are running South Lebanon, be it the PLO or Hizbollah.

    Surely it would be better to end the pretence and simply end UNIFIL’s mandate. After all the only people who will be sad to see them go are the drug dealers, prostitutes and terrorists.

  6. […] 3: An interview with ex-UNIFIL spokesman Timur Goksel on the indicdent was published here – he has this to say over the ‘blue line’ issue (but the entire interview is well worth […]

  7. So I can paint my room blue and tell my sister or mom not to come in? “Mom, the UN does it!”

  8. informative – thanks

  9. i actually heard some interesting stuff about what triggered the tree cut.. all i can say is that it was nothing of significance.. no major event.. nothing military related.. but i can understand why the tree was being cut down and understand why the cutting down would alarm the lebanese..

    i think its sad that things are that explosive between lebanon and israel..

    i believe that if things were better between our countries that this would assist relevant parties to make progress on other arab israeli angles of the conflict and lead to a spedier resolution.. primarily through trust building which is by far our weakest point to date and by far the most widely identified as a major perpetuating agent of protracted conflicts..

    anyway – just my thoughts

    שנה טובה

  10. […] Goksel, head of Turkish translations for Al-Monitor, previously served as the longtime spokesman and senior advisor for the United Nations UNIFIL mission in Lebanon. Goksel writes: Wissam Hasan […]

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