Can the Peacekeepers Help?

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Lebanese wait to be evacuated by personnel from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon

As the conflict between Israel and Hizballah guerillas in South Lebanon has raged on for the last week, the calls have increased to put some kind of international peacekeeping force on the ground. But in fact, just such a force is already in place — and has been for nearly three decades — to help protect and provide for residents of this war-racked corner of the Middle East. However, the performance of UNIFIL (for United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon), has not inspired much confidence that a mediating force can do much to help.

So far UNIFIL, which has been in Lebanon since 1978, when Israel launched its first major incursion into Lebanon, and today numbers around 2,000 peacekeepers, has found itself almost powerless to intercede. "The situation is very serious and the fighting is continuing to intensify," says Milos Strugar, UNIFIL's senior adviser.

UNIFIL'S headquarters runs for half a mile along a broad stretch of rocky coastline in the village of Naqoura, one mile north of the border with Israel. From an old French mandate customs house in the center of the base, UNIFIL's top staff are assessing how to best protect and provide assistance to the beleaguered population of south Lebanon, but also how to keep running themselves.

Supplies — fuel and drinking water especially — are running short, and there seems little immediate prospect of resupply from Beirut. U.N. staff are negotiating with Israel to grant safe passage to a resupply column and also to allow APCs to rescue trapped villagers looking to leave and transport casualties to hospitals. The response from the Israeli military, according to Strugar, "was not forthcoming."

As Israel intensifies its air campaign, the casualty rate in the area is increasing, but the number of wounded arriving at the Jabel Amel hospital in this port town is declining. The reason is simple. "They can't get here," says Doctor Ahmad Mrowe, the hospital's director. All main roads and most minor routes have been severed in multiple places by massive air bombs that gouge out yawning craters, making for a lengthy and terrifying experience for anyone brave or desperate enough to travel; one new patient had spent eight hours on the road, shuttled by eight separate vehicles, to reach the hospital, a journey that under normal circumstances would take only 20 minutes.

When ambulances and civilian vehicles are unable to transport casualties safely, UNIFIL would normally step in. But on Wednesday, the one planned UNIFIL convoy from Tyre, intended to rotate some observers in a border outpost, was cancelled due to heavy fighting. Israeli troops crossed the border in three places south of Tyre, where they clashed with Hizballah guerrillas.

A day earlier, a UNIFIL convoy of armored personnel carriers had inched their way up a heavily cratered coastal road in an attempt to reach Tyre to provide relief supplies to the stranded families of the force's civilian staff. The troops, however, were forced to abandon their APCs halfway into their journey because of Israeli shelling of the road and instead spent the night in bomb shelters.

After arriving in the morning, exhausted French soldiers sat in the shade beside their APCs, sipping water or catnapping while awaiting orders for the perilous return journey.

The dangers on that route show no signs of abating. Despite facing the most powerful military offensive unleashed on Lebanon since Israel's 1982 invasion, Hizballah's fighters appear to have some fight left. Tuesday night witnessed Hizballah's most intense rocket barrage yet, with an estimated 150 missiles striking targets in Israel. The following morning, a series of loud bangs just north of Tyre signalled the launching of another barrage of Hizballah's long-range rockets, the smoke trails arcing southward. "We are acting in a calm way and our morale is high and you will see that we can fight for months if we have to," says Hizballah spokesman Hussein Naboulsi.

If the conflict drags on that long, neither UNIFIL nor local doctors will be able to help. With homes being destroyed in air strikes, killing the families living inside, Dr. Mrowe predicts a risk of disease from rotting corpses that remain beneath the rubble. As for the wounded trapped in the villages, he says, "I think they will die."