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July 7, 2007

Lebanon Crisis Persists Despite Beefed-Up Peacekeeping

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS - Despite a massive boost in its peacekeeping force in Lebanon – from about 2,200 in July last year to some 13,700 last week – the United Nations has little good news to report regarding the politically troubled country.

"I am deeply concerned that Lebanon remains in the midst of a debilitating political crisis and faces ongoing attacks aimed at destabilizing and undermining its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said in a report on the first anniversary of last summer's conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.

The dramatic increase in the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was prompted primarily by hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah in July last year following the killing and abduction of Israeli soldiers.

The 34-day war eventually led to the deaths of some 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis, as well as "the destruction of much of Lebanon's infrastructure and severe damage to the economies of both countries involved."

As his report to the Security Council was being finalized last month, six Spanish soldiers serving with UNIFIL died in a car bomb explosion. And in recent months, there have been a number of threats against UNIFIL by militant groups in Lebanon.

On July 12 last year, eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, were abducted, prompting the conflict in Lebanon. Both soldiers are still being held by Hezbollah.

After the hostilities ended, the Security Council decided to strengthen UNIFIL in order to establish "a new strategic military and security environment in southern Lebanon," Ban said in a report to mark the first anniversary of the conflict July 12.

The report also said that UNIFIL has reported "a significant increase in Israeli air violations, through jet and unmanned aerial vehicle overflights of Lebanese territory."

These violations, the report points out, "occur on an almost daily basis frequently numbering between 15 and 20, and have even reached 32 overflights on a single day."

The Israeli government, however, maintains that these overflights are necessary security measures that will continue until its two abducted soldiers are released.

"Such ongoing attacks, which involve stepped-up Israeli air violations on an almost daily basis, constitute the essence of this destabilization in Lebanon," says Naseer Aruri, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth in the United States.

While the secretary-general's characterization of the threat is accurate, he pointed out, "it understandably makes no reference to the root cause of the debilitating crisis."

"Even a hint would be terribly daring, if not utterly undiplomatic," Aruri told IPS.

Last year's Israeli attack and the subsequent devastation of Lebanon are "rooted in the projected regional order which Washington and Tel Aviv have been trying to impose and re-map," said Aruri, author of Dishonest Broker: America's Role in Israel and Palestine.

Samir Sanbar, a Lebanese national and a former UN assistant secretary-general, said that on certain specifics, the United Nations seems to be "doing fairly well in very difficult circumstances."

For example, he said, UNIFIL is getting along with the local population and the special representative of the secretary-general is doing his homework while keeping in touch with all factions.

"And the secretary-general during his recent visit to Lebanon made a positive impression as someone keen on listening, in the hope of making a difference – although mistaking the Mediterranean sea for the Atlantic Ocean was attributed to his jet lag," Sanbar told IPS.

But the problem, he argued, is in the big picture: the political framework, where the United Nations is generally perceived as having given up its role as the symbol of international legitimacy.

Sanbar said that frustration about the UN's lack of impact is compounded by confusion as to who precisely influences leadership decisions.

Some "envoys" or "advisers," he said, would like to give the impression that they influence or can "deliver" the secretary-general.

The recent U.S.-inspired appointment of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a Middle East envoy for the Quartet, comprising the United States, European Union, Russia, and the United Nations, has raised further questions on decision-making, Sanbar noted.

So was the recent appointment of Michael Williams as UN coordinator for the Middle East to succeed Alvaro de Soto.

"To be fair to Mr. Ban, the ponderous trend started with his predecessor Kofi Annan, who while beleaguered, agreed to initiate an unusual and merely ceremonial role without due institutional reference," he added.

Aruri said that a restoration of political stability in Lebanon requires a de-link from U.S. and Israeli strategic ambitions in the region, intended to polarize the region between Shia (defined as the major culprit) and non-Shia, as the major collaborators.

Moreover, he pointed out, the root cause of the Lebanese quagmire includes the festering problem of Palestine.

"An international settlement to resolve that issue based on international law, after 40 years of a failed peace process, would go a long way to bring order and stability to the Middle East region and remove Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine from the arenas of conflict," Aruri said.

Such a settlement would not only end one of the world's most vexing problems, but it would also remedy the derivative issues, of which Lebanon is one, he added.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Thalif Deen has been Inter Press Service's U.N. Bureau Chief since 1992. A
    former Information Officer at the U.N. Secretariat and a one-time member of
    the Sri Lanka delegation to the General Assembly sessions, he is currently
    editor of the Journal of the Group of 77, published in collaboration with
    IPS. A Fulbright-Hayes scholar, he holds a Master's degree in Journalism
    from Columbia University in New York.

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