A history of the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon [Article]

The United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL) which was born out of the Middle East crisis is 40 years old today.

It was established by the UN Security Council resolution 425 of March 19, 1978.

The genesis of Israeli Invasion

In the early hours of 11th March 1978, an Israeli bus carrying Israeli Citizens and heading towards Tel Aviv was attacked near the Israeli coastal town of Hertzliya. A large number of the passengers were killed and several more wounded. Palestinians resident in South Lebanon were the immediate suspects of this heinous, murderous attack and, of course, the Israelis were expected to respond to this act of extreme brutality and provocation.

In the early morning hours of 15th March 1978, the much-awaited retaliation commenced with air strikes shelling from mortars and other artillery pieces and finally complemented by ground assault troops supported by other heavy weapons. A large number of the villages and houses of the South Lebanese was reduced to rubble and the farms infested with unexploded and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) mostly bombs and landmines, thereby depriving the local Lebanese of their means of livelihood since they could not go to farm. Water pumps and electric poles had equally been destroyed by the constant shelling from mortars, Artillery pieces and airstrikes

The retaliatory invasion code-named “Operation Litani” was a blitzkrieg attack also strategically aimed at driving the armed Palestinian fighter’s northwards from the Litani River, to ensure that the coastal Israeli towns including Haifa and Nahariya were outside the range of the Katyusia rockets which had become a regular source of menace to the Israeli residents.

Establishment of UNIFIL

To stop further loss of lives, destruction of homes and property and the immense suffering of the population of the region, the United Nations went into session and on the 19th March 1978, exactly 40 years today, passed its Resolution 425 (Res 425), setting up the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, a peace keeping mission with the acronym, UNIFIL.

Res 425 was unanimously approved by the 15-member council including its 5 permanent members.

Goals of Res 425 and approach towards attaining them

  1. To achieve its objective of stopping the onslaught of the South Lebanese, the following were passed as its mandate;
  2. To determine cessation of hostilities by Israel;
  3. To confirm Israeli withdrawal;
  4. To restore International peace and security;
  5. To assist the Lebanese Government to restore its authority in the area; and
  6. To establish and maintain itself in an area of operations to be defined through negotiations with the parties.

It should be noted that Security Council Resolution is the Mandate i.e. the authority for the Secretary General to set up the required Peacekeeping mission and execute the tasks detailed in the Mandate.

It should be noted further that for any Peacekeeping mission to succeed, the authorities will need the unalloyed support and cooperation of the parties concerned which, in the case of UNIFIL, were Israel, Lebanon and the Palestinian authorities, then chairman Yasser Arafat. This support and cooperation are the sine qua non for a successful mission and its absence is recipe for the mission’s failure. This requirement explains why our illustrious compatriot, highly admired and respected former SG, Dr. Kofi Annan, declined to continue his mediation efforts in the Syrian crises when he could not secure President Assad’s support for his mission.

In conformity with this principle, the Chief Coordinator for Peacekeeping operations. Lt. Gen. Ensio Siilasvuo and I set out the following day, after receiving the SG’s instructions to meet with the parties, with the principal objective of briefing them on the demands of Res 425 and the absolute need for their blessing for UNIFIL to succeed in its operation.

Gen Siilasvuo was my highly respected mentor in peacekeeping. He was my boss in UNEF then the Force Commander and I was his Deputy and Chief of Staff, then with our HQ in Heliopolis, Cairo and later in Ismailia. When I was posted from UNEF to Jerusalem to head UNTSO as the Chief of Staff, he was promoted, at a later stage posted to Jerusalem to head the newly created office of the Chief Coordinator, in contemporary UN parlance, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG). I replaced him in this office, albeit under a different title when I left UNIFIL and went back to UNTSO in 1981.

It is interesting to note that even though the responses by the Israelis and Palestinians were positive, their translation into action on the ground was extremely difficult and not always encouraging.

Major obstacle facing UNIFIL to fully execute its Mandate

Assisting the Lebanese Government to restore its authority in the area implied deploying the Lebanese army to the Southern border with Israeli. However, unlike the previous three withdrawals by the IDF on 11, 14 and 30 April when the evacuated areas were formally handed over to UNIFIL and I personally took them over and immediately deployed UNIFIL troops there, the final, areas evacuated on 13 June were handed over by the IDF to their Lebanese surrogate army headed by Major Saad Haddad. The areas controlled by Haddad and his men paid, clothed, fed and equipped by the IDF was a NO GO AREA for the officially recognized Lebanese military personnel. This was the so-called Christian enclave which the IDF controlled, thus giving them the free access to enter Lebanon with gross impunity.

The well-planned creation of this corridor in the South preventing UNIFIL to assist the Lebanese Government deploy its troops to the South was the major obstacle for UNIFIL to fully accomplish executing its obligations as demanded by Res 425.

However, after 28years of still pursuing fulfilling its tasks ie, the IDF finally, by Res 1701 of 11 August 2006, coming into effect on 14 August 2006 abandoned the Christian enclave concept and the Lebanese Army now has an effective presence on its Southern border with Israel. UNIFIL had thus fully supported the Secretary -General to fully satisfy the demands on him by Res 425 and attained fully, the goals and achieve the objectives of UNIFIL and his mandate.

UNIFIL is 40 years today-19 March 2018 Hurray!!!

On the 19th March, 1978, the United Nation Security Council unanimously passed its Resolution 425 authorising the UN Secretary-General, (SG) then Dr. Kurt Waldheim, to set up the Peacekeeping Mission, United Nations Interim force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

That very day, I received a copy of the Resolution together with the SG’s message (cable), appointing me as the Acting Force commander and instructing me to set up the force.

I was surprised, excited and overjoyed. I immediately dropped on the floor of my lounge in my residence located on the slopes of Mount Scopus in East Jerusalem, and in a prostrate and prayerful position, prayed. I thanked our very kind, gracious and merciful God and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ for giving me the very rare opportunity to serve war torn Lebanon, and more specifically the heavily war-ravaged South with its deprived south Lebanese, the women aged and children together with Palestinians expelled from their homes in Palestine as a result of the 1948 and 1967 wars and from Jordan in the Black September 1970 episode.

I also prayed for increase in knowledge and be imbued with Solomon’s wisdom to execute my functions professionally as expected by the SG in fully supporting him to execute his task to achieve the four thematic objectives demanded by Res 425 since the accomplishment of this mission hinged, to a large extent, on me as his representative on the ground. I asked for God’s protection from all dangers which are prevalent in all conflict theatres and finally, for common sense.

Important information about UNIFIL’S predecessors

All the preceding peacekeeping operations mounted by the United Nations in the Middle East are a byproduct of the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict. UNTSO-UN Truce Supervision Organisation is the first ever peacekeeping mission organized by the UN to supervise the Mixed-armies i.e. Ceasefire Agreements between Israel, on one hand and the four surrounding Arab countries – Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan – following Israel becoming a state in May 1948. UNTSO is an UN-armed mission and still in operation. Then came (UNEF One)¸ UN Emergency Force One, the first armed contingent mission established in 1956 to facilitate the withdrawal of invading Israel, British and French troops from the Suez Canal; UNEF Two was established following the Yom Kippur War of 6 October, 1973. UNEF Two, in my personal estimation is the most successful peacekeeping mission established by the World body; it successfully achieved its principal objective of bringing peace between Egypt and Israel following the Peace Treaty negotiated by President Jimmy Carter and signed by President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on 26 March 1979.

The establishment of UNDOF, similar to UNEF 2 was also born out of the Yom Kippur War but was set up in Syria with its troops deployed on the Golan Heights and on mount Hermon. Initially, UNDOF’s troops, Pollog and Canlog were drawn from UNEF; troops from Austria and Norway who were used to the extreme cold climate were provided by their Governments and deployed on the Hermon.

UNIFIL foremost preoccupation in South Lebanon

Resulting from the invasion of South Lebanon was the immense destruction of this Lebanon and the accompanying immense destruction of home and public utilities, the entire residents of this region, apart from the aged and infirm, all medical doctors, nurses and the technical hospital staff had fled northwards for fear of their lives.

Winning the hearts and minds of the people was vital for the restoration of normalcy and a major source of inspiration for the fleeing southerners to return home Consequently embarking on humanitarian activities became UNIFIL’s foremost preoccupation after taking control of the areas from the IDF.

Return of Southerners back home and the beginning of reconstruction

With the physical departure of the IDF from occupied areas and UNIFIL taking control of them, the inhabitants of south Lebanon who had become internally displaced person (IDPs)in other parts of the country commenced their return South but they were saddened, distraught and totally demoralized to realise that they had no homes.

UNIFIL’s presence was a major source of inspiration and inducement for the returnees. The presence of the international community now in reasonable control of their part of Lebanon gave them a lot of hope for eventual return to their normal lives. Consequently, embarking on humanitarian activities became UNIFIL’s foremost preoccupation on their arrival in South Lebanon. The people had come back because of our presence and we had to look after them, help them with reconstruction of their homes, clearing the IEDs from their farms to enable them go to their farms and grow their food to eat, units began caring for the sick and infirm in their medical clinics and supply them with water using their water tankers. The Irish contingent with their medical services in Tibnin where, like the rest of the South all the doctors, nurses and medical personnel had fled and hospitals destroyed deserve very high commendation. Also, worth commending is the Iranian company which was a detachment from UNDOF, who helped to remove the dead from the debris for fitting burial by the families, a humanitarian gesture immensely appreciated by the entire Lebanese community in the area.

However, the immense contribution by the French Engineers who arrived with the French contingent who were the very first UNIFIL troops to arrive on 23 March and I was extremely delighted to receive them at the Beirut International Airport, in working tirelessly to demine the farms, repair water pumps and electric poles for the restoration of urgent utilities necessary for daily lives deserves the highest commendation. Even though Ghanaian Engineers arrived late with the contingent in August 1979 and becoming operational a month later, they contributed immensely towards rehabilitation of roads and houses in some of the badly destroyed villages.

It should be noted that even though the medical centres in the Units were primarily intended for looking after the troops, they ended up taking care, most of the time, and expending their resources looking after the local people in their respective area of operations. The Swedish Medical company (Swedmedcoy) located at UNIFIL HQ in Naqoura was intended to serve as the mission’s main hospital to cater for cases beyond the capacity of unit medical resources. As expected, Swedmedcoy ended up taking care mostly of the inhabitants of the entire South Lebanon. We are most grateful to them.

A very special note is to be taken of the immense medical support given to UNIFIL by Rambam Hospital of Haifa for the various serious cases referred to it by Swedmedcoy. Whether the patient was a UNIFIL personnel, a Lebanese citizen or a Palestinian, he or she would be given the appropriate medical attention which would equally be given to an Israeli citizen. I have always respected Rambam and its medical staff-doctors, nurses and its technicians for their humanitarian services to UNIFIL and the South Lebanese inhabitants.

Norwegian contingents were the second UNIFIL troops to arrive and I was delighted to receive them, on 25th at Israel Ben Gurion International Airport. Canadian signal detachment from UNEF was among the initial troops to enter South Lebanon and their communication support was immensely helpful.

Unfortunately, UNIFIL growing up in its embryonic stages was not without some painful fatalities.

UNIFIL courageously defends its mandate in At Tiri at cost but wins admirations

In my 12 years of peacekeeping duties all in war-zones in the Middle-East and most of the period in command of the mission, I experienced that casualty rate was a highly sensitive issue with political consequences among the contributing government, with the consequent possibility of the withdrawal of their troops.

However, where the sustenance of the casualties is fully justifiable, the SG and mission will receive the total support of the concerned government.

In my peacekeeping experience, there are principally 3 situations where casualty sustenance can be fully justified;

  • Firstly, in self defense
  • Secondly, in defense of the mandate; and
  • Thirdly, in protection of property, with national and the sponsoring authority.

These constitute some of the BASIC MANDATORY RULES of ENGAGEMENT for peacekeepers and should be clearly spelt out in the mission’s Standing Operation Procedures (SOPs).

Between 6-11 April 1980, UNIFIL fought its mini-war in At Tiri to stop the loss of Hill 880, a dominating feature in the Dutch and Irish AOs, the consequence of its loss to the De facto force (DFF) of Major Haddad and the IDF would have seriously jeopardized the operations of both Irishbatt and Dutchbatt and ultimately call into question the credibility of UNIFIL to defend the mandate and itself.

This was the first time that the mission’s Force Mobile Reserve (FMR) with its heaviest weapons i.e. its TOW anti-tank weapons were deployed and fired.

UNIFIL won its major war at least during my command. In this armed confrontation, we sustained casualties – Fiji and Irish soldiers. DFF equally lost some of its men, apparently higher than UNIFIL’s.

However, the admiration expressed by contributing Governments, members of the Security Council and the SG for UNIFIL’s defence of its mandate was most appreciated and a major morale booster for the entire UNIFIL and its troops.

I could not help but to commend Lt Col Jack Kissane, the CO of Irishbatt, whose leadership visionary in establishing his unit’s presence on Hill 880 before the DFF could move its men and weapons there contributed immensely to our victory and I have always paid my highest respect to him. My deepest regrets were also extended to Governments whose courageous men were lost in action in the At Tiri armed confrontation.

Some harrowing moments in UNIFIL’s early life

Some Peacekeeping missions in the process of stabilizing the situation militarily in preparation for it complementary and umbilical peacemaking partner do sustain considerable casualties and UNIFIL is no exception.

On 18 April 1980, 2 of my Irish soldiers were kidnapped and murdered. This killing in cold blood in revenge of our victory in At Tiri shocked the entire world. The UN SG was outraged and summoned the contributing countries to a summit in Dublin, Ireland. This was a Psychological show of force and a morale booster for UNIFIL’s command and troops. The following countries were represented at the Summit. Fiji, France, Ghana, Ireland, Italy Nepal, The Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Senegal and Sweden. They met to express their disgust, abhorrence and outrage at the murder of their 2 defenseless peacekeepers of the international community.

At this stage, I wish to express my highest respect and appreciation to Sir Brian Urquhart and his highly professional Directors and staff of his noble Secretariat. This is the Office of the Under-Secretary-General for Special Political Affairs (OUSGSPA), the secretariat which handled matters going to and coming- from the SG. Sir Brian, a respectable war veteran, of World-War 2, was the boss of all peacekeeping missions and all Force Commanders held him very high for his astuteness, professionalism and sound judgement. Sir Brian’s expertise and professional conduct of the Summit and the handling of the entire murder episode was highly commendable. I have always respected and admired him and will always hold him in the highest esteem.

The death of the Swedish Master Warrant Officer on 29 March through a landmine accident was the very first UNIFIL accident. Deaths of French Corporal Alain Godiris on 23 April, Senegalese Corporal Victor Sina, Sergeant Roussa Fall and Sergeant Bocar Dealle all killed from landmines on 1 May within 24 hours of arriving in UNIFIL’s area of operations from Damascus – made it abundantly clear what difficulties both UNIFIL troops and South Lebanese civilians had to face from mines.

Initial difficulties facing UNIFIL

Difficulties that confronted UNIFIL in its initial establishment were political, operational and administrative.

Handing over the final stretch of Lebanese sovereign land by the invading IDF on 14 June to their surrogate DFF who consistently opposed the deployment of legitimate Lebanese army troops to their Southern border constituted the major challenge to UNIFIL in the executing of its mandate of 19 March 1978. This political obstacle persisted for 28 years i.e. until IDF finally abandoned the DFF and surrendered the Christian enclave to its rightful owners, the Lebanese Government. This enabled UNIFIL to assist the Lebanese Army deploy to the Southern border thereby fully executing its mandated obligations demanded by Res 425.

Frequent restrictions on UNIFIL movement through the Christian enclave by the DFF infiltration and encroachment attempts respectively by PLO and DFF/IDF, the landmines as observed above, firing on UNIFIL’s positions from time to time were the day to day operational challenges that faced UNIFIL in its embryonic years.

Since a peacekeeping mission has the basic duty to keep its AO peaceful and protect the inhabitants, Units were obligated to prevent or stop any from of infiltration and encroachment. Efforts to execute these functions very often resulted in armed clashes and confrontation, as was the case of At Tiri.

Non-standardisation of equipment, in particular, vehicles consequently, their third-line maintenance and repairs posed the major administrative difficulty for UNIFIL. However, the extremely hard working, the excellent, and highly trained and skilled in their technical profession as vehicle mechanical experts greatly helped the mission overcome these major administrative challenges. I have always respected our Norwegian technicians and mechanics of UNIFIL’s Normaintcoy.

UNIFIL – How Interim turns to be 40 years!!

Is it not intriguing to note that a peacekeeping mission not expected to go beyond its initial mandate of 6 months would be clocking 40years today, 19 March!

As has been the practice that became standard, at least commencing with me at the very inception of the mission, I was always invited to be present at the Security Council during preliminary discussion leading to the periodic extension of the mission’s mandate.

A few days prior to UNIFIL’s first extension, the SG, Dr. Kurt Waldheim invited me to his office on the 38th Floor to brief him and to respond to a few pertinent issues concerning UNIFIL’s operations. At a point in our meeting, he called the French President, then Mr. Giscard D’ Estaing, and appealed to him for his support for the full extension of the mission’s mandate.

After a prolonged discussion, the President would only agree to 4 months extensions, i.e. 19 September 78 to 18 January 79. The second mandate followed the same fate but was given 5 months extension. Subsequent requests by the SG for the full 6 months were readily agreed to by the entire 15 members, including the 5 Permanent Members and that has been the case for the rest of UNIFIL’s life.

I am therefore overjoyed, excited and am extremely happy to see UNIFIL at its Fourtieth, hurray!!! Whilst rejoicing, I wish the peace-loving nations of the world will join me and UNIFIL to remember all those who have given up their lives for the sake of peace to the South Lebanese.

On this very occasion of UNIFIL’s 4oth anniversary, I wish to express my deepest appreciation, thanks and gratitude to all the contributing Governments not only for providing troops but also for their solidarity and unwavering support for the mission. To all the troops who have served and continue to serve the cause of peace in Lebanon, I thank them for their commitment and dedication.

I was fortunate to have some highly committed and dedicated personal staff, both military and civilian, my principal staff officers, both military and civilian, Senior administrators all at the Headquarters, the mechanics, technicians, drivers, security personnel and all those who have contributed to UNIFIL’s survival, I say many, many thanks.

My profound thanks to the parties to the conflict for co-existing with us. UNIFIL has survived for 40years and may be there for some time to come; we need each other and the mission will continue to have their full cooperation, UNIFIL’s presence in the are is also for their own good.

To the South Lebanese, I say “a huge thank you” for warmly hosting me and my troops. Do please continue to be UNIFIL’s brother’s and sisters since we will continue to need each other.

The support I enjoyed from my home authorities was immensely encouraging and kept me going especially in those difficult and heat-breaking moments. To all my fellow Ghanaians, my profound thanks and appreciation.

Sir Brian and my friends in the OUSGSPA, I am immensely grateful to you for your guidance, support cooperation and friendship. Major-General Timothy Komla Dibuamah, my Ghanaian compatriot, who was the Military Adviser (MA) to the SG was also part of the Secretariat. His regular telephone calls to me from New York kept my spirits very high since I felt too lonesome in Naqoura, UNIFIL’s HQ. I am most grateful to him.

The support from my family was very special and I will always cherish their love and warmth. I am extremely grateful to them.

UNIFIL has grown in strength, both in size and capacity. With its naval capabilities, its growth has no bounds, may it continue to grow from strength to strength and support the peace process in the Middle East. It still remains my very firm belief and conviction that for as long as the Middle East conflict persists, UNIFIL’s services will continue to be required.

UNIFIL, Happy 40th Birthday.

By: Lieutenant General Emmanuel A. Erskine

First Force Commander

(19 march 1978 – 8 february 1981)