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Page last updated at 08:16 GMT, Monday, 30 November 2009

India peace role in south Lebanon

By Shahzeb Jillani
BBC World Service, South Lebanon

Indian peacekeepers in Lebanon (File photo)
Indian peacekeepers first came to Lebanon in 1998

In a remote corner of south-eastern Lebanon, Maj PPS Chauhan is commanding a UN check post near the strategically significant Sheba Farms area.

"The mountain you see on the other side of the Blue Line is part of the Golan Heights," he tells me.

"And over there is the Israeli check post," he says pointing to a small structure with satellite antennas on top of the mountain.

Like many Indian troops, before coming here Maj Chauhan served along the Line of Control - the de facto border between India and Pakistan in Kashmir.

He says his role as UN peacekeeper is very different from what he's used to as an Indian army officer back home.

"In Kashmir, we are tasked with fighting the insurgents and cross-border militants," he says.

"But here, we are not fighting anyone in particular. In fact, our job here is to make sure there is no fighting at all."

Keeping peace

Maj Chauhan recently arrived in south Lebanon as part of India's latest peace contingent.

India first sent peacekeeping troops to the troubled country 11 years ago, in November 1998.

Chauhan
Major Chauhan commands a UN check post near Sheba Farms area

Since then, soldiers from various sections of the Indian army have been coming here on rolling assignments.

The current Indian contingent, 3/11 Gorkha Rifle Battalion, consists of about 900 soldiers mainly drawn from eastern Nepal, and the north-eastern Indian areas of Sikkim and Darjeeling.

They form part of the 12,400-strong UN peacekeeping force from 30 countries - all here to ensure there isn't another armed conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

A big part of their peacekeeping effort involves gaining the trust and respect of the local people.

In the town of Al-Fardis, scores of men and women have gathered at a local government building.

The mainly Druze town doesn't have a health facility.

So, many people have eagerly waited for the day when free weekly clinic is organised by the Indian battalion.

Hearts and minds

"Our main job here is to hold peace in this volatile area," says Lt-Col Jasmeet Khanna, senior doctor in charge of the medical camp.

"These humanitarian services are all in addition to that."

According to local villagers, the nearest medical facilities in the area are located in Hasbaya, a city about 12km (7.5 miles) away, where treatment is often expensive.

Blue Line
The peace in the area is fragile at best

"You can't imagine what a relief it is to have the UN doctors here and get free medical treatment," says Anis Slika, a prominent local representative.

There is no doubt that most people in south Lebanon look up to the UN troops.

At the same time, they don't really rely on the peacekeepers for protection from future attacks from the other side of the boundary.

In case of another bloody conflict with Israel, many would tell you, it is Hezbollah they depend on to face up to Israeli power.

According to the UN Security Council's 2006 Resolution 1701, Hezbollah is supposed to have stopped its militant activities in this area south of the Litani river.

Israel says that hasn't happened and that the UN is partly to blame.

Careful line

Israel points to instances of rocket firing from the Lebanese side as evidence of continued armed activity in the area.

Just this month, Israel claimed to have seized an Iranian weapons shipment allegedly destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah denied the accusation.

When quizzed about Hezbollah's alleged militant activity in the region, Indian peacekeepers told me that they hadn't seen much of it in their area of operation.

Silka
Anis Slika says it is a relief to have the UN doctors in the area

Given Hezbollah's ever-present influence in the area, the troops are expected to tread a careful line.

Privately, though, officials admit to having adopted a policy of sorts.

"If we see any armed activity in the region, we will surely act to stop it. But if we do not see anything, we can't act against it," one official told me.

"There may very well be Katyusha rockets and arms in many households. But it is not our mandate to go on a house-to-house search in an area like this," said another.

If true, the approach seems to be based on a pragmatic assessment of the situation on the ground.

Many people in the area feel that if Hezbollah decides for some reason that it cannot tolerate the UN's and the Lebanese army's joint presence in the area, it would be impossible for the UN to continue its peace mission.

Paying off

Hence, the unavoidable need for the UN to perform its role in some kind of co-ordination with the biggest and the most powerful player in their area of operation.

So far, the UN's peacekeeping efforts seem to be paying off.

In a presentation at the Security Council last week, UN special co-ordinator for Lebanon Michael Williams concluded that despite the repeated violations of the ceasefire agreement by both sides, the cessation of hostilities "has actually held remarkably well".

Lt-Col Jasmeet Khanna
Lt-Col Khanna says their main job is to maintain peace in the area

From 1978 to 2000, these villages in southern Lebanon experienced the Israeli occupation.

During the July 2006 war, many of these towns bore the brunt of the Israeli attacks. The conflict killed 160 Israelis and left 1,187 Lebanese, mainly civilians, dead.

While many analysts feel that both Israel and Hezbollah do not seem to have an appetite for another armed conflict any time soon, villagers in southern Lebanon can never be too sure.

The people here seem grateful to the UN for helping them get on with their lives through its humanitarian efforts.

But they get jittery every time rockets are launched into Israel and threats are exchanged between the Israeli leadership and Hezbollah.

For many, it remains a question of "when" not "if" the next conflict with Israel will break out.



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