The Magazine

UNDER A THATCHED ROOF, WITH WARREN CHRISTOPHER

May 6, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 33 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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What exactly were the Fijians doing there? Everyone knows about the Israeli shells that landed on the Fijian U.N. post in south Lebanon, hitting a crowd of refugees and killing over a hundred. And while the press was relentless in probing the reasons why Hezbollah was there, why the refugees were there, and why Israeli artillery ended up there -- the three deadly ingredients that led to this awful tragedy -- no one bothered to ask what the Fijians were doing there.


These Fijians, so very far from home, are part of a United Nations troop deployment that occurred not this year, not during the 1993 fighting, not during the raging battles between Israel and Hezbollah in the mid-1980s, not after Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, but as a result of a campaign so remote most Middle East experts cannot remember it: Menachem Begin's 1978 incursion into Lebanon to halt PLO attacks into Israel.


At the time, the U.N. exercised its reflex of expressing "grave concern" over Israel's act of self-defense and moved as swiftly as it could to undo it. It ordered Israel out and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in. The interim has turned out to be 18 years and counting. UNIFIEs mandate, according to the U.N., was "to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon, to restore international peace and security and to assist the Government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area."


It has accomplished none of the above. Indeed, like the U.N. presence in Bosnia, also established out of mindless good intentions, UNIFIL has proved worse than useless. First, U.N. personnel loose in a war zone provide hostages for murderers: Canadian and other U.N. soldiers chained to fences by Serbs during NATO bombing runs; U.S. colonel William Higgins kidnapped, then cold-bloodedly hanged by Hezbollah in Lebanon. Moreover, U.N. forces in a war zone provide false refuge for refugees: thousands deliberately slaughtered in the grotesquely named "safe haven" of Srebrenica; one hundred accidentally murdered in the thatched-roof refuge of the Fijian camp in south Lebanon.


Yes, thatched roof, the farce amid the tragedy. Most of the refugees were huddled in a recreation building covered with thatch -- not the best protection against artillery (and, as it turned out, terribly flammable). What on earth are thatched roofs doing in a war zone? The Fijians had built them to remind themselves of their island home so far away.


II

 

The U.N. presence in south Lebanon has absolutely no purpose. It does not protect. It does not keep the peace even in those rare times when there is peace in the area. That is kept by the balance of power between Israel and Syria and mutual deterrence between Israel and Hezbollah.


Nonetheless, the U.N. maintains a presence that is not trivial. UNIFIL has 169 (!) bases manned 24 hours a day by over 4,500 troops. Nor are these supposed to be merely binocular-toting observers with a side arm or two, like the observer force in Sinai. These are well-armed troops. They are supposed to be doing something.


What exactly were they doing during this round of fighting in south Lebanon? Taking cover. Their job is to cower during artillery barrages and to look the other way when Hezbollah violates cease-fire agreements with Israel.


It took long enough for the press to notice that the Israeli attack which killed the refugees at the Fijian camp had been provoked by Hezbollah rocket fire from 300 yards away. But no one asked the question: What are well-armed U.N. troops doing allowing guerrillas to fire rockets from within yards ofa U. N. camp? After all, the U.N. itself says that each UNIFIL post "is assigned responsibility for ensuring that hostile activities are not undertaken from the area surrounding it." If they cannot keep the general peace, they are at least supposed to keep the local peace.


The Fijians episode is only the most recent demonstration of the uselessness of the U.N.'s acting on its own as peacemaker. The most dramatic and tragic demonstration of this truth occurred not in Lebanon, nor even Bosnia, but Rwanda, from which the U.N. withdrew last April after ignominiously standing by while the worst mass murder since World War II occurred right before its eyes.


These operations are a direct consequence of the grandiosity of a U.N. apparatus that refuses to acknowledge its unsuitability to any kind of active warfare, its dearth of military expertise, its abject lack of independence, and its fractured command and troop structure. It is a disgrace that these forces are deployed around the world in places where they do more harm than good.