Vanessa Newby, Peacekeeping in South Lebanon: Credibility and Local Cooperation (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Vanessa Newby (VN): I am a person who is fascinated by borders, which are such an artificial construction. I find it very strange looking out over a section of land that has been divided by a line. The land usually looks exactly the same on both sides of the border, but the political implications of crossing that line are huge. During the course of my research, I came across the Blue Line—the line of withdrawal that divides the territories of the states of Israel from Lebanon—and heard some of the stories about it: how one town is divided in half by it, how trimming a tree on the line has the potential to start a war, and how sheep and goats get kidnapped when they cross it. Who would not be interested in that?
Researching this part of the world as an outsider is hard. So I decided to research The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) mission, as I felt that would be doable in the scope of a PhD. As I got into the research, I learned a lot about the human suffering that occurred in Southern Lebanon. The people I interviewed had experienced five invasions and a twenty-two-year occupation. Their resilience and determination was very inspiring.
Having said all that, my book ended up being about the relationship between UNIFIL, the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping force in South Lebanon, and the local population.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
VN: The book examines the relationship between the UNIFIL peacekeepers and the local population, as well as the relationship(s) between other various “stakeholders” at the local, national, and international levels. The main issue I discuss is how UNIFIL builds credibility in a challenging political environment. In particular, I unpack what credibility is as a concept, both in international relations and in peacekeeping. Credibility is a term that is often used in both these contexts, but I argue it could be better understood and defined less arbitrarily than it is now. I argue that credibility is a contingent and conditional relationship based on material self-interest and that this is the relationship that UNIFIL has built with local stakeholders in Southern Lebanon. This kind of relationship wins peacekeepers limited cooperation and confidence, but not trust. If peacekeepers want to develop a trustful relationship with local stakeholders, they must obtain or acquire local legitimacy; unfortunately, this is much harder to win.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
VN: This is my first book. It is also the first book on the UNIFIL mission since the 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah, when the revised mandate for the mission—UNSC resolution 1701— came into place. It is also the first book to discuss what credibility is in peacekeeping. Credibility is listed as a factor for success by the United Nations, and yet, until now, no one has unpacked what it is in relation to peacekeeping, and how winning credibility can help the peacekeeping mission.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
VN: There are several target audiences for my book. Firstly, I hope it has value for practitioners, not only in the details it provides about this particular UN operation, but also in terms of helping UN staff deepen their understanding of what credibility is in peace operations. Secondly, I hope it is read by an academic audience for its theoretical contribution to our understanding of credibility in international relations, which has rarely been examined as a stand-alone concept, unlike for example, legitimacy. Thirdly, I hope scholars, students and former peacekeepers will enjoy the detail it provides on the daily practice of peacekeeping and for the details of the political situation in South Lebanon currently. As for impact, I really just want this book to start a conversation about credibility: a concept that has been under-researched and under-theorized in international relations.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
VN: Oh gosh, too many! I have two main projects starting now: one is on the strategic and tactical benefits of deploying female peacekeepers, and the second is on the effectiveness of informal institutions. This second project is based on the Tripartite Meetings, a unique institution that UNIFIL started that has made a significant contribution to peace in the area, and is a fascinating example of how informal institutions can have a powerful effect.
J: What did people say when you started to research the Middle East back in 2007?
VN: When I decided to learn Arabic, people told me that I would never succeed, as Arabic is too difficult. Then when I said I wanted to research the Middle East, they told me that it was a dead region politically and that nothing new was going to happen; then the Arab Spring happened. When I decided to study UNIFIL, everyone said it was a failed mission, there was nothing interesting to say about it. Thanks to this single case study, however, I have re-evaluated an important concept in international relations and discovered a unique informal institution that does not exist anywhere else in the world—the Tripartite Meetings, which I am now studying. I have also reached proficiency in both Formal Arabic and Levantine Arabic. These experiences have taught me to never listen to what anyone has to say about your future plans—if you are passionate, then you just have to go for it.
Excerpt from the Book:
“Writing about the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon is extremely problematic. Having lived and conducted research in Lebanon for more than six years, I find people who love to hate the mission, people who love it, and people who hate that they love it. Furthermore, their feelings toward UNIFIL appear deeply interconnected with their feelings toward peace in Lebanon:
But I tell you whenever any UNIFIL soldier wants to come into any house he will be welcome. . . . We get used that UNIFIL is here, and we relax and we feel that we are now the most secure area. The South is more secure than the North. That’s why, and we don’t feel the danger now.
So the confidence that people have in UNIFIL is a temporary confidence. But if something occurred, if an incident occurred, people know very well that UNIFIL will not be in the middle. They will escape; they will leave; they will not confront the Israelis. And who will confront Israel is the resistance. . . . Let us deal with them as tourists.
And then they know that UNIFIL are not going to make the peace, because even the politicians is not going to make the peace. So what they feel is if they are there, then it’s better than if they are not there. . . . So peace is not real peace; peace is just feeling peace.
Over the years I have heard many stories from civilians who for some reason or another had a fleeting encounter with UNIFIL that left them with a lasting impression of the mission that they retain to this day. No one is more aware of this phenomenon than UNIFIL, and so the money, time, and effort that go into ensuring positive civilian encounters are immense.
Lebanon is a highly politicized nation, still recovering from numerous foreign interventions and the trauma of a fifteen-year civil war that left Lebanese society deeply divided along sectarian lines. These conflicts affect their thinking about everything: politics, the economy, where they socialize, even whom they choose to marry. They have also affected societal perceptions of international politics and international political actors based on their foreign policy toward the region. When Lebanese people think about politics, they think nationally and internationally because international crises affect the Lebanese on a surprisingly regular basis. Therefore, as an international intervention mandated by the international community, the UNIFIL mission has to navigate both interstate and intrastate conflict and division.
Since 2006 UNIFIL has stationed up to fifteen thousand troops in South Lebanon to act as a buffer between the states of Israel and Lebanon, which remain technically at war. The security challenges that confront UNIFIL can at times seem almost farcical:
One day, a cow came from the Israeli side, found a gap in the Israeli technical fence, pushed the gap here and there and succeeded to come inside to come and drink water from the pond. On the first day it was one cow, the next day it was five cows, and so on, until it was sixty cows! Now you can’t say the cows were Israeli; they were just cows from the Israeli side. Now who got upset? The shepherds, the Lebanese shepherds! They keep the drinking water in the summer for their cattle, and with this big flood of cows from the Israeli side, they will lose water. So they complained to the LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces]; the LAF transferred the problem to UNIFIL. UNIFIL asked the Israelis to stop allowing the cows to come in. They said we cannot stop the cows—they are cows. Come on, they are not people. You ask the cow to stop going outside? If the Lebanese side doesn’t want the cows to come there, let them build a technical fence. But if the LAF builds a technical fence here, the Israelis will consider it as a border, and they will swallow about two kilometers [of land]. So the LAF said no, we are not going to build anything. It is Israel’s responsibility to prevent this violation; otherwise, we will let the shepherds kill the cows. The Israelis said if you kill the cows, this is aggression against us! There was rising tension.
One day it can be wandering cows, and on another, random rocket attacks from pro-Palestinian militias, violent civilian protests, or a confrontation between two militaries. These incidents always have the potential to trigger another regional war and highlight the sensitivity to territorial violations felt by both the named parties to the conflict—the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).
The UNIFIL area of operations in South Lebanon remains suspended largely in what is termed a “negative peace”: that is, the absence of conflict. The Blue Line that divides the territories of South Lebanon and northern Israel is merely a “line of withdrawal”; it does not constitute a border in international law, as neither side has agreed to a cease-fire. In the absence of a peace process at the political level, the two states remain locked in a permanent state of war, officially termed “a cessation of hostilities.” South Lebanon is also host to Hezbullah—one of the world’s most powerful substate militias—and its Shi’ite-dominated support base. While Hezbullah has given its tacit agreement to the presence of UNIFIL, it is not a named party to the mandate and as such is not answerable to its terms and conditions. Ultimately, Hezbullah’s raison d’être lies in resistance to Israel, not making peace with Israel.
The UNIFIL mission is one of the oldest UN peacekeeping missions in the world. It was created in response to the Israeli invasion of South Lebanon in 1978. Established by United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 425, the mission was tasked with “confirming the withdrawal of Israeli forces, restoring international peace and security and assisting the Government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area.” The mission remained in the area during subsequent Israeli invasions in 1982, 1994, and 1996 and during the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000. The most recent Israeli intervention—“Harb Tamooz” (the July War)—began on July 12, 2006, and ended on August 14, 2006. Since the implementation of a new mandate in 2006 (UNSC Resolution 1701) in the UNIFIL area of operations, peace has endured, and UNIFIL continues to monitor the Blue Line.
When I began researching UNIFIL, I assumed I would at some point need to think about the issue of the overall effectiveness of the mission. I also assumed that I would reach a conclusion that would become obvious, intuitive, and logical. This never happened. The UNIFIL mission continues to confound me today as much as it did when I stumbled upon it in early 2012. The reason for my conundrum is quite simple. The UNIFIL mission is a case that causes us to reevaluate what the terms success and failure mean in the context of peacekeeping and peacebuilding. Despite much of what has been said and written about it over the years, I found no use for terms like absolute success or absolute failure when describing UNIFIL. The answer to writing about the mission therefore lies not in evaluating the overall success or failure of UNIFIL, but rather in understanding the process of how UNIFIL has managed to get things done. It is not about counting stories of success or failure; it is about understanding how, in such a challenging environment, UNIFIL has negotiated the politics of peacekeeping in South Lebanon.
This book is about the concept of credibility in peace operations. The question it seeks to answer is one that has thus far not been addressed in the international relations literature or the literature on peacekeeping specifically: What is credibility in peacekeeping? Questions that follow on from this are as follows: How is credibility fungible? What does being credible in a peacekeeping operation actually mean on the ground? Finally, once credibility has been obtained, what benefits does it afford a peacekeeping mission?”