BEIRUT: Speaking at a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of UNIFIL held in Naqoura Monday, veteran Irish peacekeeper John O’Mahony reflected on the value of the service for which he so nearly gave his life. O’Mahony returned to Tiri Sunday, the village where he was kidnapped along with four other UNIFIL soldiers and two journalists on April 18, 1980, by the South Lebanon Army, an Israeli-backed Christian-majority militia during the Lebanese Civil War that was disbanded in 2000.
“I was pleased to see new shops and businesses having opened up, children going to school, farmers in their field – normal life,” he said.
Two of O’Mahony’s colleagues were killed by the SLA during the kidnapping, but he said that the deaths had not been for nothing.
“The resilience of the communities here and the sacrifices that U.N. peacekeepers have made throughout the years have helped further stability and prosperity,” O’Mahony said.
The U.N. Security Council established UNIFIL on March 19, 1978, with a mandate to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from south Lebanon, restore order and reassert government control in the area.
The force has at times found itself between a rock and a hard place, trying to keep the peace between often hostile groups in south Lebanon on the one hand, and an Israeli state that publicly disputes its authority on the other.
Steve Hindy, who was a reporter for the Associated Press in Lebanon at the time of the Tiri incident and has since co-founded the successful U.S.-based Brooklyn Brewery, was kidnapped along with O’Mahony.
Hindy told The Daily Star that UNIFIL “did the best they could under the circumstances.” While kidnappings like the one he and O’Mahony survived were “not common,” there was frequent harassment of UNIFIL by the SLA, which “made it even more difficult for UNIFIL to do their primary job, which was basically to keep the Palestinians from infiltrating into Israel.”
The sentiment was echoed by Timur Goksel, a former UNIFIL spokesman who served with the force from 1979 to 2003.
“Sometimes people have unfair expectations of a peacekeeping force,” Goksel, now the Turkish editor of the Al-Monitor news website, told The Daily Star.
“The main thing was to prevent the breaking out of another war and I think given that, UNIFIL did quite a good job.”
The obvious exception to this is the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, in which there were over 1,000 Lebanese casualties, the majority of whom were civilians.
Goksel said UNIFIL lacked the capacity to prevent the conflict.
“UNIFIL was reduced to 2,000 men [before 2006] ... and had just become sort of an observation force along the border,” Goksel said.
“There was nothing UNIFIL could do about it really. They just didn’t have the manpower and the political power.”
The aftermath of the war saw the force increased and it now stands at 10,460 personnel.
Since the time Goksel worked with UNIFIL, he has seen many other changes. The force now has a naval component of six vessels, and now brings its troops from 41 countries.
Such a large number of nationalities, Goksel said, can be a problem – there were 11 in his time.
“Even that was a problem given the different training, background, languages, etc. ... If something goes wrong, [the high number of] countries will be a liability, not an asset.”
One of the force’s most successful functions is in facilitating communication between the sides through the tripartite meetings. Israel, despite its public criticism of the peacekeepers, doesn’t “expect UNIFIL to fight Hezbollah, but the fact UNIFIL can provide communication with Hezbollah is good enough for Israel,” Goksel said.
Goksel believes that the peacekeepers provision of this service has prevented several escalations and potential wars throughout the force’s history, but he cautioned, “I’m not saying [a war] won’t happen again.”
Nonetheless, UNIFIL head Maj. Gen. Michael Beary said during Monday’s ceremony that he hopes UNIFIL can help create a lasting peace. “UNIFIL’s peacekeeping operations have provided the space for the parties to the conflict to begin [moving] towards a permanent ceasefire,” he said.