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U.N. peacekeepers brace for war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah : NPR

Members of the Lebanese army and the Italian contingent of the UNIFIL peacekeeping force inspect a house destroyed by an Israeli attack during a patrol in Yarine on June 10, 2024.

Diego Ibarra Sánchez for NPR


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Diego Ibarra Sánchez for NPR

ALMA AL-CHAAB, Lebanon — United Nations vehicles rumble along a deserted road in south Lebanon, past abandoned villages, destroyed houses and burned and blackened farmland — remnants of daily attacks along the border with Israel that now threaten to escalate into all-out war.

For most of the past nine months since the war in Gaza began, Israel and Lebanon confined the border attacks mostly to military targets within a zone a few miles from either side of a historic cease-fire line. But recently, escalated attacks by both sides, which have reached farther into both Lebanon and Israel, have raised concerns about intensified fighting.

Literally in the middle of this confrontation is the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, created in 1978 after Israel invaded the neighboring country. Despite the name’s indication that it would be temporary, UNIFIL has become one the longest-serving peacekeeping missions in the world.

UNIFIL took NPR on a recent patrol along the blue line — the cease-fire line painstakingly delineated in 2000 after Israel withdrew following an invasion in 1982. Occasional thuds signaled the daily artillery and rocket attacks since Iran-backed Hezbollah began attacking Israel to support Hamas in the war in Gaza.

“Nowadays the situation is really quite volatile,” said Capt. Alessandro Crepy, an infantry company commander in the Italian contingent of UNIFIL, one of the biggest participants in the mission.

The view from a UNIFIL armored vehicle shows destruction from the conflict in Lebanon.

The view from a UNIFIL armored vehicle shows destruction from the conflict in Lebanon.

Diego Ibarra Sánchez for NPR


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Diego Ibarra Sánchez for NPR

The U.N. soldiers conduct regular patrols along the de facto border, both alone and with the Lebanese army monitoring the now regular violations of the 2006 U.N. cease-fire agreement. That accord, drawn up after a 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah, established a demilitarized zone along the blue line. Violations are reported to the U.N. Security Council.

The attacks on Israel are conducted by Hezbollah and its allies, rather than the Lebanese army. But under the U.N. plan — which envisioned Lebanese government forces securing Lebanon’s border rather than Iran-backed Hezbollah — UNIFIL deals only with Lebanese government forces.

The arrangement means that before the war started in October, when the peacekeepers were still hosting indirect talks at a UNIFIL base between Israeli and Lebanese military officials, the Lebanese army would relay Israeli messages to Hezbollah and vice versa. Lebanon and Israel have no diplomatic relations and officials do not speak to each other.

Those trilateral meetings around a U-shaped table — communicating only with UNIFIL officials who were sitting at the end — abruptly stopped with the beginning of the war. Lebanon has undergone a severe political, security and economic crisis for much of the past decades. Hezbollah, created to fight Israeli forces after their 1982 invasion of Lebanon, is much stronger and better equipped than the Lebanese army, according to military analysts.

“What we do is maintain relations with both parties,” said Lt. Col. Bruno Vio, a member of the UNIFIL contingent, referring to Lebanon and Israel. “We have to try to continue de-escalating the situation in order to avoid any kind of escalation and give diplomats the opportunity to arrive at a cease-fire.”

A UNIFIL member of the Italian contingent observes an Israeli position from a watchtower inside his base at the Blue L.

A UNIFIL member of the Italian contingent observes an Israeli position from a watchtower inside his base at the blue line between Lebanon and Israel.

Diego Ibarra Sánchez for NPR


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Diego Ibarra Sánchez for NPR

UNIFIL also conducts humanitarian missions, including supporting hospitals. But those interactions have been largely curtailed by the fighting at the border. Although Lebanon did not have mandatory evacuations and some civilians remain in their homes, more than 90,000 have been displaced by fighting and have left the border area to stay in makeshift shelters or with relatives. Tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced on the Israeli side after the government evacuated towns along the border.

Both sides say they are trying to avoid war. But the Israeli military has approved plans for an offensive into Lebanon while Hezbollah’s leader warns that if war breaks out, no targets will be off limits.

“We don’t want to go to all-out war because our battle is a battle of support,” Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a June 20 speech, referring to the group’s aim of helping Hamas in Gaza by diverting Israeli forces. “But everyone knows that things could slide,” he said in the address through an Iranian television interpreter.

The two countries sliding into war has long been UNIFIL’s fear.

“The possibility of an error or a mistake could trigger a wider conflict and that’s the main concern for all of us,” UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti said earlier this year. “There are so many things that could trigger a miscalculation.”

A Ghanaian battalion repairs UNIFIL vehicles inside the base.

A Ghanaian battalion repairs UNIFIL vehicles inside the base.

Diego Ibarra Sánchez for NPR


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Diego Ibarra Sánchez for NPR

UNIFIL has about 10,000 peacekeepers, with 47 countries participating. The United States is not part of the mission.

“Since 2006, the situation had been quite stable,” said Tenenti. “Seventeen years of stability was very much unprecedented. We were hoping to work towards a more lasting peace in the south of Lebanon.”

UNIFIL has not been directly targeted in the conflict. But since October, the mission has become more dangerous. Increased shelling means that peacekeepers regularly take cover on bases, and even in concrete bunkers. At the UNIFIL base closest to the blue line, just a few hundred feet from Israel, cracks radiate from holes in solar panels hit by shrapnel from missiles destroyed in the air by Israeli defenses. The mission’s rules of engagement allow it to use force only in self-defense or to be able to carry out its duties.

Just outside the base perimeter, near a tower where a U.N. soldier peers out with binoculars at the border, the trees are burned and blackened from incendiary attacks aimed at destroying cover for fighters. From the tower, the Israeli coastal city of Nahariya can be clearly seen.

A view shows a house destroyed by an Israeli attack in Alma al-Chaab, in southern Lebanon.

A view shows a house destroyed by an Israeli attack in Alma al-Chaab in southern Lebanon.

Diego Ibarra Sánchez for NPR


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Diego Ibarra Sánchez for NPR

In one of the abandoned Lebanese villages, Yarine, coolers with shattered glass fronts outside a café are still full of beer. A medical dispensary sign is pockmarked with shrapnel. One house has collapsed in on itself after being hit by an airstrike.

“It’s like a rollercoaster,” said Maj. Alfred Alhassan Issaka, the head of the Ghanaian contingent of UNIFIL, among the biggest contributors of personnel to the mission. “Being here for a very long time you get used to the situation. Now we have to change how we operate.”


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