UNIFIL: an 'interim' force that has become a fixture

9th December 2011, Comments 0 comments

The five French soldiers who were injured in a southern Lebanon bomb attack on Friday, along with two civilians, were patrolling with a United Nations force sent to the country over three decades ago, supposedly on an "interim" basis.

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, was initially deployed in 1978 to oversee a withdrawal of Israeli forces from the south of the country.

Israel sent its forces over the border twice during Lebanon's protracted civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.

In 1978 Israeli forces entered the south to pursue militants of the Palestine Liberation Organisation who were firing shells and rockets into northern Israel.

The UN force was set up to monitor Israel's withdrawal and to help the weak Lebanese government assert its authority in the south. In the event, Israel maintained a buffer zone along the border, inside Lebanese territory.

Israel mounted a second and much bigger invasion in 1982, sending its forces all the way to Beirut.

In 1985, Israel once again pulled back, but kept its buffer zone. During this period, the UNIFIL force found itself mostly an onlooker, and in some cases a sitting duck for bullets and rockets being fired between the opposing sides.

The 1980s saw the rise in Lebanon of the mainly Shiite Muslim Hezbollah organisation, which harassed Israeli forces in the south and won their complete withdrawal in 2000.

UNIFIL then took on the role of a buffer force along the border, but in August 2006 a brief but deadly war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah forces, leaving some 1,200 people dead, most of them Lebanese civilians.

Following that conflict UNIFIL was given a strengthened mandate, under a UN resolution that also called for the regular Lebanese armed forces to be deployed along the border.

The force currently comprises some 12,000 troops from 35 different countries, with Indonesia, France and Italy supplying the largest contingents.

In the 33 years since it was first deployed, UNIFIL has suffered 293 fatalities, of whom 277 have been troops.

© 2011 AFP

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