BINT JBEIL, Lebanon: “In 1984, I was a teenager selling boxers and T-shirts out of a car. One windy day, I used some stones I found nearby as weights for the clothes,” Ahmad Noureddine recalled. “Some Finnish [UNIFIL] guys came and asked me how much the stones cost so I told them $5 each. That was when I knew I was onto something.”Today, Noureddine owns a shop a stone’s throw away from a major UNIFIL base in South Lebanon’s Hanin. He is one of many who has profited from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon’s presence in the country.
“There are maybe about 700 to 800 guys in there,” Noureddine told The Daily Star. “Every day, I have around 200 customers come in. All of [my clients] are guys from the [UNIFIL] camp, I don’t really have any Lebanese customers.”
Laughing about the humble beginnings of his now lucrative business scheme, Noureddine shows off the variety of goods he sells, ranging from protein powder to Hezbollah paraphernalia and his original business endeavor – boxers.
A quick glance around the shop and one can see he’s not looking to appeal to a local market. The range of football jerseys and Lebanese souvenirs reflect the interests of his foreign customers.
“They buy everything: clothes, shoes, women’s bags. They’re buying things for themselves but also bringing things home as gifts. And of course, they buy tons of Hezbollah paraphernalia,” he said, laughing and holding up a faux uniform of the group.
Noureddine’s is a family business, built to benefit from the presence of UNIFIL. His two brothers also own stores, located strategically next to the eastern and western UNIFIL sector headquarters, run by the Spanish and Italian country contingents respectively. They’ve learned the languages of the nearby bases so as to communicate more easily with their customers.
“I opened my first shop in 1982 in Burj Qalaway near a French UNIFIL battalion. At the time, I was alone,” Noureddine said. “Nobody knows about this business better than I do, nobody knows what they want more than me.”
The first UNIFIL troops were deployed to South Lebanon in March 1978 following U.N. Security Resolutions 425 and 426. Initially, the peacekeepers were mandated to assist the Lebanese government in the “return of its effective authority in the area,” confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces and “restore international peace and security.”
“There were about 4,000 peacekeepers at first, and then it reached up to 6,000 in the months thereafter,” Timor Goksel, a former spokesperson for UNIFIL who worked with the force for over 20 years, told The Daily Star.
Just prior to the 2006 War between Hezbollah and Israel, the number of UNIFIL peacekeepers was reduced to about 2,000. The end of the conflict led to the enhancement of the foreign presence to 15,000 troops after United Nations Resolution 1701.
For south Lebanon, a rural agricultural region that was heavily targeted throughout conflicts with Israeli, UNIFIL has brought economic opportunities to local residents.
“There was an increase in pubs, restaurants, more supermarkets. All of these were created to cater to this new market,” Makram Rabah, a history lecturer at the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University, told The Daily Star.
Andrea Tenenti, UNIFIL’s spokesperson, added separately that many of UNIFIL’s economic contributions go beyond the expenditure of peacekeepers themselves.
“Much of the economic impact is unquantifiable,” Tenenti said.
“There are around 700 national staff mainly from South Lebanon and of course an international staff based in Tyre and Beirut. Many [internationals] come with families, enroll their children in schools and rent out apartments,” he added.
Noting the ongoing stability the country has enjoyed for a decade, Tenenti said this peace was conducive to investment and tourism, further boosting the economy.
Mere meters away from UNIFIL bases there are pockets of small supermarkets, restaurants and stores catering to peacekeepers with money to spend. In Hanin, a group of Lebanese businesses are situated between two UNIFIL checkpoints – buttressing the base’s perimeter.
“This is a main base, there are several nationalities here,” Charlie Kattoura said. “When people go, others are usually guaranteed to [fill their places].”
Kattoura’s restaurant, Chicken Charlie’s, sits behind Noureddine’s store and offers a range of Western comfort foods along with Lebanese fast food.
“If the base is offering good food, not many people come. If it’s bad, I get lots of business,” he said.
Similar to Noureddine, Kattoura caters solely to UNIFIL soldiers.
He even goes to the extreme of turning away Lebanese diners.
“In the few times Lebanese try to enter, I tell them that they need authorization to get inside. I don’t want any issues to arise between Lebanese and UNIFIL guys. I don’t even allow my friends or relatives to come eat here,” he said.
One Wednesday afternoon, three UNIFIL peacekeepers from the Irish battalion sat chatting over lunch at the eatery. Speaking under the condition of anonymity, they agreed that the restaurants surrounding the base were a break from the canteens.
“We come to Chicken Charlie’s a lot when the food in the camp is bad. They’re making food en masse, so sometimes it’s just not that good,” one said.
Yet, for the Irish battalion, traveling a bit further into the town was not a common endeavor.
“The French and Italians have good range, they go out a lot,” another soldier said. “The Fijians mainly stay here though.”
“It all really depends on your boss. If he likes going out, then chances are you’ll get to leave more. Mostly, they’re afraid of something going wrong. They’re afraid to take chances of things happening, so they’re cautious.”
Mohammad Akil, an owner of a convenience store in Haris, about 12 kilometers away, lost business when a UNIFIL post that was adjacent to his shop moved away.
“When the post used to be here, it was a big source of business,” Akil said. “They weren’t my only customers, but yes, they provided a significant source of income. Now, only a few locals come by each day to pick up water from a nearby tank,” he added, nodding his head to a group of soldiers exiting the shop.
Akil’s experience is shared by many small-store owners in neighboring towns. When asked if UNIFIL provided a source of income, many answered that they contributed, but marginally.
Still, for Noureddine, UNIFIL’s presence is fundamental to his livelihood. “If the base moves, I’ll surely move with them,” he said, laughing.