Political impasse in Beirut, regrowth in the south (Lebanon)

Recently, I went to Lebanon for the first time since my visit last summer at the height of the conflict.


As well as meeting some of the senior leaders, such as PM [Fuad] Siniora and Speaker [Nabih] Berri to talk about the current political situation, I also went to south Lebanon to see the work of UNIFIL.

The pessimism of the current political impasse was sharply contrasted with the optimism of what is happening in the south. Whereas in Beirut politicians are at loggerheads, the parliament is not in session, and the Hariri tribunal is no yet taking place, in the south, people are beginning to get on with living their lives.

For the first time in over 30 years, parts of Southern Lebanon are being patrolled by soldiers of the Lebanese army. Backed by the UNIFIL forces, they are continuing to keep the peace and helping to improve the lives of all those in this region. This is a great step forward for Lebanon's sovereignty and I hope will help bring them the stability they need to tackle outstanding political questions, including the disarmament of militias.

There are other real changes happening on the ground in southern Lebanon.

The first of these is that 10 per cent of the cluster munitions dropped during the conflict has now been cleared from the most crucial areas, reducing the number of victims and enabling some farmers to get back to work and children to play on the hillsides and meadows. This vital but highly dangerous job has, regrettably, caused its injuries, including to British de-mining officers and I pay tribute to those brave individuals who are carrying out this important work.

An aspect of UNIFIL's presence that I did not previously know about is that jobs are being created in the south. UNIFIL now has a force of some 12,000 people. To sustain such a large number of people requires support from the local communities. This, in turn, creates opportunities and jobs. So young people are starting to move from Beirut to take up interesting and well-paid work in the south. The UNIFIL commander, Major General [Claudio] Graziano, told me that local people trusted the UN peacekeepers and now felt more secure in the region. Construction work was under way everywhere as families now have the confidence to rebuild their homes, shops, roads and bridges that were destroyed in last summer's terrible conflict.

Another side effect of the expanded UNIFIL is that in engaging with local communities, the military staff is sometimes able to give something back to the local people in their daily lives. One such example is that one of the Indian members of UNIFIL is a veterinary surgeon. He was, until recently, the only vet in South Lebanon, and has tended thousands of animals from the local farms since he has been there. He is apparently one of the most popular people in the region.

So, it seems to be a good news story: jobs, peace, cooperation, and the Lebanese armed forces in control. What a contrast to when I visited last July! The question is whether or not this will last.

For this to happen, it seems to me that two things need to happen. The first is that the politicians in Beirut need to make dialogue their top priority: both at the highest levels, but also in Parliament. A sustainable political solution is a must if Lebanon is going to remain peaceful, and if it is to start recovering economically: international investment simply won't happen and hotels will remain empty until people are convinced that Lebanese politics have become less mercurial.

Part of this political solution should include an agreement on the Hariri tribunal which is essential not just for the Lebanese to see justice being done, but for international confidence in Lebanon. Such a solution should not be so difficult to achieve if the politicians really have Lebanon's best interests at heart.

The other thing that needs to happen is for foreign countries to cease their meddling in Lebanon's internal affairs. All Lebanon's neighbours in the region, especially Syria, and Iran, need to help stabilise the country if we are to avoid the violence and destruction we witnessed last year. This will also require Israel to do its part to promote peace on the border.

I stood on the ancient fortress of Beaufort Castle. From there I was able to look out across huge swathes of this beautiful, hilly landscape. In each direction the signs of past conflicts litter the ridges and highways: abandoned watchtowers, ruined fortifications, political and military headquarters smashed and overgrown. Evidence of present tensions are never far away: The UN helicopters monitoring the frontiers, hilltops bristling with communications antennae, the flashing lights of military vehicles moving in the darkness.

While the zone south of the Litani River has been transformed since the cessation of violence last summer, problems remain. A deal has to be forged with the help of the international community to resolve the Sheba'a Farms issue. It will require skilful negotiation and the provision of guarantees but it must be part of the process of healing the dreadful wounds that have scarred this region. Most urgently of all, the frontiers that divide Lebanon and Syria, frontiers that are not within the UNIFIL's remit, have to be secured so that the democratically elected Lebanese government can extend law and order to every part of its sovereign territory.

This will mean winning cooperation from Syria, a neighbour that continues to exert its influence unhelpfully in Lebanon. If the Syrian security forces were willing to cooperate with those of Lebanon, the process could begin of choking off the illegal supplies of weapons and money to Hizbollah's military wing and to other militias in Lebanon.

The Lebanese have the right to a peaceful future so that they can turn Lebanon into the prosperous place that it should be. The UK, for its part, will help in any way it can. But Lebanese politicians also need to do their bit, as does Syria. That is what all who cherish peace in this region want, and what we urge all those involved to deliver.

The writer is UK secretary of state for foreign and Commonwealth affairs for the Middle East. This article is printed with permission from the British embassy in Amman.

Von: 02.04.2007 by Dr Kim Howells www.menafn.com

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