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LEBANON: UNIFIL wins hearts and minds in south, but questions remain over security

BEIRUT, 4 March 2007 (IRIN) - Nepalese soldiers are teaching computing skills to the women of Houla, a Shia Muslim village 2km from Lebanon’s southern border with Israel.

At barracks across the south-east, Spanish troops meet their Lebanese counterparts to teach them Spanish.

And at 8am in the Christian valley town of Ebl Al Saqi, just south of the Litani River, a class of excited eight and nine-year-olds from Al Fardis School learn the basics of yoga from the Sikhs of the 15th Punjab Division.

“I like everything about it. I have pain in my knees and it takes that away,” said Hada’a Khafaja, a pupil at Al Fardis, who had just finished her morning workout with some of the Indian soldiers of the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

“I started when the first class began and now my older sister wants me to teach her how to do it,” said Hada’a.

Across the towns and villages of southern Lebanon - where communities continue to struggle six months after the end of Israel’s devastating bombardment of the area during its war with the armed wing of Shia political party Hezbollah - UNIFIL peacekeeping troops have launched a concerted effort to win the hearts and minds of the local people.

“Humanitarian assistance is a very important part of our work. For UNIFIL to work, we need solid relations with the people south of the Litani,” UNIFIL spokesman Liam McDowall told IRIN.

Humanitarian assistance

“The first need is security, to make sure the agents of the state are in charge. But there is an immediate need for humanitarian assistance. People want to see positive developments. Security with no development would mean no hope,” McDowall said.

UNIFIL began Quick Implementation Projects (QIPs) this month, said McDowall, with an overall budget of US $500,000 to spend on projects of up to US $25,000, such as digging wells, repairing electricity cables and providing street lighting.

Mobile health clinics treat up to 4,000 Lebanese a month, said McDowall, while hundreds of herds of livestock have benefited from the expertise of UNIFIL vets.

In Ebl Al Saqi, UNIFIL’s effort to reach out to local communities is paying off.

“The children have responded very well to the yoga. Their attention and enthusiasm have increased,” said Aida Slika, head teacher at Al Fardis School. “If there is no yoga class, they ask why not. They never ask that about any other class.”

Major Sumit Sharma, press officer of the 15th Punjab, said an agreement had been reached with Lebanese officials for the Indian battalion to provide Lebanese amputees with artificial limbs, produced at around a tenth of the average cost by a factory in the Indian city of Jaipur. Fifty people had already received artificial limbs imported from Jaipur, he said, while lists were being drawn up of the many hundreds of other Lebanese who also require them.

UNIFIL has monitored Lebanon’s southern border with Israel since 1978, but in the aftermath of last summer’s war, its troop numbers swelled to 10,000 armed soldiers deployed across southern Lebanon, in concordance with UN resolution 1701.

A further 10,000 Lebanese troops have been deployed to the area, tasked with preventing any militia groups, first among them Hezbollah, carrying weapons south of the Litani River. UNIFIL now make up to 400 patrols a day, said McDowall, accessing “all areas” of southern Lebanon, a region that was formerly tightly controlled by Hezbollah.

Hezbollah rockets and weapons

“We continue to turn up rockets and weapons,” said McDowall. “The Lebanese army are performing well and their activities are closely coordinated with us. But it is still a very delicate situation in the south.”

Though UNIFIL officials say no armed Hezbollah fighters have been seen moving weapons inside UNIFIL’s area of operation since last September, there was, reportedly, evidence that Hezbollah fighters were building a new line of defence just north of the Litani.

Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah said this month that his group was re-arming and that weapons were being sent to “the front” in southern Lebanon.

Last month, the Shia group demanded the return of a lorry loaded with rockets and mortars that had been seized by Lebanese officials, saying the weapons were intended for Hezbollah’s military wing.

Though welcoming of UNIFIL’s presence, some residents of southern Lebanon said they felt Hezbollah remains their best line of defence against any future Israeli attack.

“We are with UNIFIL and we thank them for their work here,” said Ahmed Hassan, mukhtar [local elder] of Khiyam, one of the towns worst hit by Israeli bombing.

“But UNIFIL are just observers, and if the Israelis decide to bomb us again the UN will be the first to be hit again,” he said, referring to the 25 July Israeli strike on a UN observation post just outside Khiyam, which killed three UN observers.

But if a lasting security solution for southern Lebanon remains elusive, UNIFIL’s battle for hearts and minds is, for now, reaping rewards.

“We have been received with open arms and we have excellent relations with the common man and the local administration,” said Sharma. “We have had no skirmishes and we have not noticed any hostile activity south of the Litani, so I feel that the mission is succeeding.”




Copyright © IRIN 2007
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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