'Miscalculation is key word': UN force tries to keep peace as Israel and Hezbollah fight

On Sunday, a stray Israeli rocket landed on the UN peacekeepers' headquarters in southern Lebanon

Israel shells Lebanon after Hezbollah attack

Israel shells Lebanon after Hezbollah attack
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The peacekeepers of Unifil's Spain contingent sit around a television, watching a Spanish language network cover the result of the Ecuadorean general election.

Outside, the Mediterranean Sea gently ebbs and flows, as some members of the roughly 10,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon run in the late afternoon sun at their headquarters in Naqoura, minutes from the heavily militarised Blue Line that separates Lebanon and Israel, two countries that are technically at war with each other.

The calm belies the grim reality. The day before, a stray Israeli missile landed on Unifil's headquarters, forcing peacekeepers to run to their bunkers, as the war in Gaza risks spilling into Lebanon. No one was injured and no material damage was done, but it highlights the risk of a so-called second-front opening up in the Israel-Gaza war.

Lebanese armed group Hezbollah and its Lebanon-based Palestinian allies have engaged in repeated armed exchanges with Israel over the last week under their informal rules of engagement. And with Israel's expected ground invasion of Gaza looming, tensions are high in the region.

“It shows how volatile the situation is, how important it is for the parties to use restraint,” said Andrea Tenenti, Unifil's long-serving spokesman, said, referring to the heavy exchange of fire on Sunday.

It is up to Unifil to liaise with Israeli forces and the Lebanese Army, in a bid to defuse tensions. They do not deal with Hezbollah.

“The main concern is miscalculation. The risk of miscalculation is very much present, and we are trying to make sure there is no space for it,” Mr Tenenti told The National, from Naqoura.

Mr Tenenti, who normally commutes daily from Beirut but this past week has been staying in Naqoura, arrived in Lebanon in 2006.

It was that year that Hezbollah and Israel last engaged in a full-on, deadly war. Skirmishes are common, but the exchanges of fire of the last week between Israeli forces and factions based in Lebanon are the most serious flare-up along the border since, Mr Tenenti said.

“Now, it seems that despite what we're seeing on a daily basis, I don't think there is a real appetite for a wider conflict.

“But miscalculation is the key word at the moment. Miscalculation can trigger a wider conflict and change the situation in this region that has been stable for the last 17 years,” he said.

The road – which hugs the coastline – running towards the Blue Line next to Naqoura is now all but empty. The several 100 Lebanese civilian staff are now working from home, while Unifil has increased its security measures for the peacekeepers patrolling the Blue Line.

It is impossible to predict what could happen next, and if Hezbollah will raise the ante. As Mr Tententi said, it is difficult to know what could even constitute a miscalculation and usher in a new intensity.

“That's the difficult part to predict. Where is the miscalculation for both? No one will tell us,” he said.

“What could be the point when miscalculation will really be considered miscalculation, and of course, both sides, they have a different reading or miscalculation.

“So, until now, for the last eight days, despite these exchanges of fire, and both sides have been sending very strong warnings … through the dialogue that we are having, there is a feeling that no wants to escalate.”

The Lebanese authorities, while announcing their solidarity for the Palestinian people, have made it clear that a conflict would not be in the interest of Lebanon.

Entrenched in one of the worse economic crisis in modern history with one of the most powerful army's in the world on the other side of the border, Lebanon can ill afford a conflict. Hospitals are already in short supply, inflation is skyrocketing and basic essentials are in short supply.

Mr Tenenti praised the commitment of the Lebanese Army, even as their soldiers see their salaries slashed to a fraction of what they were worth before the 2019 economic crises.

The National visited the Unifil base on Monday in the late afternoon, on a day where unusually there had been no exchanges of fire.

“The situation in Unifil's area of operations in the south of Lebanon, today has been stable but volatile. The previous days the situation was very tense, there has been heavy exchanges of fire throughout the area of operations from sector east to sector west, and even a rocket hit the Naqoura headquarters here,” Mr Tenenti said.

“It's a sign that things can go out of control, and it's a sign that it's important for the mission to de-escalate the situation by communicating to both sides.”

After spending around two hours on the base, as The National was ready to leave, in the distance there was an unmistakable sound. One of bombs, rockets and explosions, as Hezbollah and Israel engaged in yet another round.

Updated: October 17, 2023, 7:09 AM