‘Knowing whether the Europeans would come meant knowing whether the war was going to stop.’ That is an opinion shared by much of the Lebanese population. Since the end of thirty-four days of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has been stationed in southern Lebanon. The force is comprised of Turks, French, Italians and Spaniards, and currently reaches 5,200. Their objective is to use force in the face of ‘hostile activity’, to carry out road controls and intercept arms’ traffickers if they slipped past the Lebanese army. The western forces have appeared in the streets of Beirut. What do the citizens of the capital think? Do they trust the Europeans efforts to re-establish peace?
Hussein, a thirty year-old Lebanese who works for an international NGO, describes himself as ‘more or less reassured’ since the UNIFIL arrived. ‘It will help the region economically. [Some experts say that the French contingent will bring in one million dollars in six months.] ‘There won’t be any problems with Hezbollah,’ he says, ‘as long as UNIFIL is there to help the Israeli army and not to protect Israel.’
Abou Nour, a seventy year-old Sunni grocer, was born in Beirut but lived in Germany and Greece for many years. He stresses the closeness of Euro-Lebanese relations, in comparison with those between America and Lebanon. Quoting a local proverb to describe the situation, he says: ‘I stand with my brother against my cousin, but I stand with my cousin against a stranger. The Europeans are like a benevolent cousin who brings security with them.’
Rima, a forty year-old Sunni administrative director in a Western subsidiary group in Beirut, is grateful for the troops ‘whom everyone was eagerly awaiting. Their power is the sole guarantee for security here.’ Having lived through the civil war of 1975-90 in Beirut, Rima refuses to draw a parallel between the current situation and the failed intervention of UNIFIL at the time: ‘the conflict in the eighties was an internal one. Today, UNIFIL must remain neutral. I am confident about the involvement of the Europeans, who are generally in favour of the Middle East, especially the French, the one true friend of Lebanon.’
Rabih, a twenty-seven year-old Druze engineer, actively participated in the 2005 protests that lead to the Syrian withdrawal. For him, ‘there is no other choice but to welcome UNIFIL. That way we will rid Hezbollah of their justification, and also avoid a return of the Syrians. The European troops are the most credible: the United States are on Israel’s side and the Arab military only give Damascus an excuse to intervene.’
Rami, twenty-four, openly supports Hezbollah despite being Christian, and does not hide his hostility towards UNIFIL. ‘I would prefer it if there was only the Lebanese army, integrated with Hezbollah, because the UN is controlled by the USA. Even though the Europeans are better accepted than the Americans, it’s never good to have foreign troops in a country because they are always looking after their own interests.’
Fuad, a twenty-five year-old Christian engineer and ex-student leader imprisoned by the Syrians, considers UNIFIL ‘a positive element which we have needed for a long time. But I worry that the troops will leave as soon as there are problems, just like every other western intervention since our independence.’