Anthropology and Sociology
24 April 2018

The UN Interim Force in Lebanon: Peacekeeping or Pacification?

Interview with Susann Kassem.   

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has been deployed in south Lebanon since Israel’s invasion and subsequent occupation of south Lebanon in 1978. In her PhD thesis, Susann Kassem describes a disjunction between UNIFIL policy and practice, largely resulting from a misguided conceptual framework that has limited operational effectiveness. More details with Dr Kassem on “The Global North in the South of Lebanon”.

How did you come to choose your research topic?      

My endeavour to pursue research in south Lebanon was not a coincidence. I was born in south Lebanon in 1985 and my parents left shortly after, due to the ongoing civil war in Lebanon and the Israeli occupation of our village, which began in 1978 and lasted until 2000. The research I conducted in Lebanon was a deeply personal experience, where I learned more about the circumstances of my parents’ decision to emigrate.

I began my research on UNIFIL back in 2009, when I started working on another researcher’s project analysing a wide spectrum of “peace” practices in Lebanon. When I commenced my research in south Lebanon, I realised the complexity of the situation in which UNIFIL was trying to implement its mission. UNIFIL’s mandate challenges the legitimacy, authority and military presence of Hizbullah in a region that is highly supportive of the organisation and where it is the dominant, elected political party. Moreover, its military functions are perceived as a necessary and legitimate resistance force responsible for liberating the area from the decades-long Israeli occupation, and for maintaining deterrence against possible future conflict. I understood immediately that there was a divide between how UNIFIL conceptualised the situation in south Lebanon and what the actual political landscape looked like.

Can you tell us about the purpose of your research and your major findings?

My dissertation examines UNIFIL from its conceptualisation in major western capitals to its implementation on the ground in south Lebanon. It seeks to clarify UNIFIL’s theoretical and practical presence and develop a more general argument about international peacekeeping interventions and how they are articulated and implemented in the current world order. Because UNIFIL is one of the oldest and largest peacekeeping forces today, it provides an excellent case for analysing how “peacekeeping operations” work to forward western (neo)liberal rule – by merging external military intervention with civilian practices of economic, civic and cultural engagement in an attempt to implement an idealised political order in countries of intervention. So, between 2009 and 2015 I conducted extensive research about everyday implementation of UNIFIL’s globally designed peacekeeping policies, primarily within south Lebanese rural frontier communities. My research closely analyses UNIFIL’s projects and activities that daily re-inscribe liberal theoretical preconceptions of humanitarian development and security – and, ultimately, how we may critically move beyond these assumptions to a more comprehensive understanding of what, politically, is at stake. Underlining the importance of the larger regional, political and historical contexts for understanding the conflict, my research offers a critique of short-sighted approaches to international peacekeeping in the post–Cold War era. It contributes to the anthropology of peacekeeping and brings insights to central themes in anthropology, such as colonialism, governance, the state, and sovereignty.

UNIFIL’s goal following UN Security Council resolution 1701 of 2006 is to assist the Government of Lebanon in exercising its authority in south Lebanon by replacing Hizbullah’s military dominance of the area with UNIFIL’s forces and the Lebanese Armed Forces. At the same time, Hizbullah presents a locally recognised, democratically elected political party that plays an official and powerful role in the present coalition government and whose military “resistance” activities are sanctioned officially – if controversially – by the Lebanese state. UNIFIL’s provision of short-term and small-scale humanitarian and development activities – what it calls “Quick Impact Projects” (QIPs) – serve as a primary instrument for institutionalising and legitimising UNIFIL’s mission among the local population, and as tangible evidence for its “success” to its international stakeholders. My fieldwork demonstrates the local municipalities’ tactical acceptance of development and humanitarian aid without facilitating an acceptance of the peacekeeping intervention’s political goals. UNIFIL’s actual implementation on the ground is marked by reoccurring confrontations. Local authorities and much of the population reject its mission as a one-sided attempt to implement an external project for “peace” that does not address the experience of the south Lebanese under Israeli occupation, and is in fact striving to reduce Lebanese political-military-economic organisation. UNIFIL’s provision of development and its accompanying practices, such as the organisation of celebrations after the provision of a QIP, thus does more to uphold the idea of the virtue of peacebuilding among its international stakeholders than to serve the local population. My thesis underlines how international peacekeeping practices serve to legitimise peacekeeping efforts through an external validation process, rather than by directly addressing the root causes of the conflict.

What are the wider policy implications of your research?

International peacekeeping missions are the costliest undertaking of the United Nations. Since the end of the Cold War, their budget increased from USD 3.6 billion in 1994 to USD 8.27 billion in 2016. Currently, there are 16 missions worldwide with 125,000 military, civilian and police personnel. While UN peacekeeping began as multinational military observer missions in the 1950s, today they often present robust military forces, increasingly accompanied by civilian components engaging local civil society. The combination of military and civilian components aims to facilitate the implementation of what ultimately constitute the political goals of peacekeeping operations. So-called “liberal peace” theories, which argued that violence or war were due to poverty and underdevelopment, lack of governance, and rule of law largely influenced peacekeeping implementation. Following the attacks of 9/11, peacekeeping underwent further changes and “security” became an increasingly “global” concern.

UNIFIL’s expanded implementation following the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon can be seen as a paradigmatic case study for this revised peacekeeping approach. UNIFIL’s mandate perceives a regional and international political conflict as narrowly caused by Hizbullah’s role in the weak Lebanese state. There is no consideration of what led to the emergence of Hizbullah, namely decades of Israeli invasions and occupation, which rendered civilian life extremely precarious in the area. UNIFIL’s mandate understands the conflict in south Lebanon mainly as an internal Lebanese problem, that can be solved by the external intervention of international peacekeeping troops. In line with the “liberal peace” framework, UNIFIL’s mission in Lebanon is based on the idea that sustainable peace can be achieved through advancements in democracy, rule of law, and economic development. My research challenges what I understand to be oversimplified explanations for war and peace. Instead, it places explanations of war and conflict into the specific local, regional and international context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Hizbullah’s ascendancy in south Lebanon cannot be singled out as an impediment to peace in the region, which can be handed to external peace experts to resolve. On the contrary, it must be understood as an outcome conditioned by the specific history and politics of the region.

South Lebanon’s current social reality has been shaped by decades of intense political contestation, involving numerous and diverse external and internal actors. Externally, south Lebanon’s history has been marked by shifts from Ottoman to British to French rule to independence to Israeli rule and back. Internally too, there were competing political projects, from the landed zuʿama (political bosses) to the socialist, communist and Arab nationalist movements on the left, Lebanese Christian nationalism on the right, Palestinian resistance movements, to Musa al-Sadr’s Shiʿa mobilisations, to the social and political environment today which is led by Hizbullah – the object of UNIFIL’s intervention. My research shows that not only are the people of south Lebanon, Hizbullah and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) struggling for local political power, but UNIFIL, its European contingents and Israel are all fighting for their respective spheres of influence as well.

What are you doing now?

At the moment I am working on publishing academic articles from my thesis and turning it into a book manuscript. I plan to continue conducting research in south Lebanon, specifically a historically informed ethnography about the (re)organisation of everyday life under the shifting borders and systems of rule in south Lebanese frontier villages.

For those interested in learning more about my research, my article “Peacekeeping, Development,
 and Counterinsurgency: The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon and ‘Quick Impact Projects’” was published in Land of Blue Helmets: The United Nations and the Arab World (edited by Karim Makdisi and Vijay Prashad, University of California Press, 2017) and is available on JSTOR.

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Susann Kassem defended “The Global North in the South of Lebanon: The Practices of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon”, her PhD thesis in Anthropology and Sociology of Development, on 21 November 2017. The jury was composed of Professor Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, president and internal reader, Professor Riccardo Bocco, thesis director, and Prof. Emeritus Gavin Smith, external reader from the University of Toronto, Canada.

Full citation of the thesis:
Kassem, Susann. “The Global North in the South of Lebanon: The Practices of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon”, PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, 2017.

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Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Front picture: Reverse side of a billboard for a Hizbullah martyr on UNIFIL’s Former Funding Board. South Lebanon. Arabic graffiti reads “Hizbullah”. Photo by Susann Kassem, 2016.