U.N. Bulks Up to Protect Lebanon

Defense Tech's David Axe was in Lebanon in December, reporting on the U.N. force there. His story has been embargoed. Until now ...

The weird thing about Beirut is all the bullet holes in buildings, road signs and overpasses. Its not the bullet-riddled stuff, per se, thats so strange, but the contrast with all the shiny new stuff. Fifteen years after the end of a decades-long and bloody civil war, Beirut is booming. This despite the interruption of last summers war with Israel.

rocco_rapuno_axe.jpgAir raids during that conflict knocked out power, felled bridges, took out the airport for a couple months and blew the top off the lighthouse on the beach near the Jnah neighborhood. Some parts of the Shiite southern suburbs took a beating, but Beirut proper escaped mostly unscathed. No, most of the war damage in Beirut is left over from the civil war and testifies to the scale of the destruction in that conflict.

On December 14th near downtown Beirut, Im in a battered silver BMW with my chummy fixer Hasham, a former police detective who has, in retirement, exploited his connections to become the citys go-to man for international media. This guy knows everybody. Traffic is heavy this morning Everybody going to work, Hasham says and in the gridlock he waves to friends in nearby cars and passes notes through his rolled-down window. He greets hotel bellhops, government bureaucrats, passing policemen and street-corner baristas in the uniquely Lebanese mixture of English, French and Arabic.

Hasham says the war with Israel was like cold water on Lebanons hot tourism industry. In the year before the war, millions of tourists passed their holidays in Beirut and the picturesque south. Now the stream of tourists is just a trickle, and hotels are so desperate for lodgers that theyre giving away upgrades like candy. Still, this little slump is nothing like the prolonged misery of the old days. Most of the recent war damage has been repaired, international investment is flowing in, people are working and Hasham is quietly optimistic.

Even the mass demonstrations and occasional rioting by hundreds of thousands of super-religious Shiites and their Christian allies dont get Hasham, a secular Sunni, too worked up nor does the prospect of a second round with Israel. The pro-Hez demonstrations peaked in December with nearly a million people in downtown Beirut, all demanding that Iran-backed Hezbollah have more power in government. The crowds are smaller and usually quieter now. Even so, American pundits are calling the protests a harbinger of a violent coup. Hasham just shrugs. Since 1973 we had shit, he says. But even at the height of the civil war, he got up every day and went to work with the polices counter-drug department. He got shot three times but kept on going.

There are a lot people both Lebanese and foreigners working on behalf of this storied little country, doing their best to make sure all those scars of war remain just that: fading signs of old wounds. Western and regional investment is pouring in. And 10,000 heavily-armed U.N. peacekeepers in the south swear theyre doing their best to keep the peace. Thats the subject of a news feature in the February issue of DTI:

Since the summer war, UNIFIL has added 8,000 soldiers and sailors to its original contingent of 3,000, and has quietly integrated artillery, heavy tanks, tank destroyers and patrol boats to its main body of light infantry, medics and engineers, while also boosting daily patrols from just a handful to around 200. The result, in the final days of 2006, is a new UNIFIL, one with an apparent growing will to fightand the means to do so.

Check out my Lebanon pics here. And go on patrol with the UN below:

--David Axe, cross-posted at War Is Boring

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