Lebanon
The Middle East’s Smouldering Cauldron
Article by Antonio Borrelli
Video by Antonio Borrelli, Marco Ferraro

Lebanon, the Middle East’s smouldering cauldron

Immense banana plantations stretch away for miles. The yellow clusters overlook the Mediterranean in a land that is a limbo. Between stretches of rock and what remains of the Mediterranean scrub, sumptuous villas emerge sporadically. Here in southern Lebanon, the Middle Eastern modernism of the capital, Beirut, is more than just 90 km away. At Naqura the contrasts leap to the eye, as in every part of the world. Along the coast, the owners of the villas kive side by side with small farmers or tradesmen with simple houses and the adjacent fields reveal the signs of a still rural yet dignified economy. A stone’s throw away is Israel, with which Lebanon has been at war for at least 16 years. “The neighbouring country,” they say here without even naming it.  A little further awy, however, is Syria, and it is here that history has been made for over forty years.

Stability at risk

In 1982, Israeli troops invaded the neighboring country reaching Beirut, after 300,000 Palestinians created a state within a state in southern Lebanon. The operation was also justified to allow the establishment of a stable leadership of the Christian population, which would have strengthened the Lebanese regular army and allowed to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Meanwhile, since 1978 Raʾs Nāqūra housed the headquarters of Unifil (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon), the UN Interposition Force in Lebanon. But it was in 2006 that the embers began to burn again, when the 34-day war broke out between the Lebanese militants of the Islamist paramilitary organization Hezbollah and the Israeli army.

 

Since then, the two countries have been at war with each other. In southern Lebanon the talk is of a situation that is stable but could explode at any moment. This is confirmed by the reports of raids at a distance. An example occurred in late April 2022, when a rocket launched from Lebanon  exploded in a deserted area of northern Israel. In response, the Israeli army fired artillery shells across the border. Yet despite raids and provocations in the last 16 years, the UNIFIL mission has managed to guarantee peace and stability. Thanks in part to the Italian contingent, (which has been a pillar of the mission fr over a decade, while Italy is also entrusted with the command of the West sector) UNIFIL has increasingly focused the spotlight on the area by training the Lebanese regular army, constantly monitoring the region and helping the local population. In 2022 the mission has 10,500 peacekeeping troops from 42 different countries.

The “Blue Line”

The area most at risk in the whole country remains the southern border. Since 2000, the boundary fixed and made public by the United Nations has been called the “Blue Line”. Here 450 checks conducted daily detect the least hint of tension. Patrolling the border in the wake of Italbatt’s Lodi Light Cavalry regiment you experience an atmosphere of apparent calm.  Apparent, because between the silence and the vegetation you get the impression of being constantly observed by someone. And sometimes drones also take flight.

 

In the recent past, this part of the Middle East has been the scene of clashes and raids and today it remains an area where the potential danger is high. General Massimiliano Stecca, commander of the West Sector, explains: “The situation in appearance is always calm but you can never tell whether fire is smouldering under the embers and ready to blaze up at any moment. My brigade has completed the largest number of missions in this theatre, but we approach it with the same prudence and attention as the first time.  I believe that this is the key to maintaining awareness and a knowledge of the territory and coping with any escalation, while always hoping it won’t happen.”

Tyre, between hope and weariness

On the facades of the houses we can still see the images of the Hezbollah martyrs who died in battle. Great saint-like images that commemorate and record the country’s recent history. Here the memories of the bombed buildings and family members killed are still open wounds.

Tyre, 90 km from Beirut in the north and 30 from the southern border, is the most important city of southern Lebanon. And its DNA is like its suq in the historic centre: a mix in which a poor society based on basic proximity trade encounters the ambitious striving for modernity, Lebanese-style.  Despite the economic crisis, the city is trying to function as a tourist resort again thanks to the important archaeological sites that in ancient times made it very important in the Mediterranean.

 

Outside the town hall we meet the mayor Hassan Dbouk, who explains how Tyre has managed to live in peace for almost 20 years. “There are two reasons why this area still remains stable. First of all the presence of UNIFIL and the Italians, which is the greatest help. But we must not forget Hezbollah’s military arm. As long as Hezbollah is so strong, no one will have the courage to start a war against us.” And it is precisely the relationship of the Islamist organisation with the institutions and communities that arouses interest. “People also support Hezbollah at a political level, just as in Italy there’s the right and the left,” explains Dbouk. “Have you seen anyone from Hezbollah armed here in the city? We don’t know where they are, but their armed wing exists only to defend us. As long as there’s no aggression from our neighbours we’re untroubled, thanks to Hezbollah.” More contradictions on the razor’s edge.

 

While the mayor explains the situation and proudly describes his city, curious Lebanese follow us, others smile and wave to the blue helmets calling out “Ciao!” But the harmony of social life and the oriental aromas that enter the lungs fail to veil that perception. Everything here creates a sense of precarious stability that only the international community seems able to guarantee, as Andrea Tenenti, a spokesperson of UNIFIL explains.  “The road is long. We are still monitoring the cessation of hostilities. We’re not even moving towards a permanent ceasefire.  It is important for the international community not only to assist Lebanon economically and financially, but also to ensure that the local armed forces succeed in taking full control of southern Lebanon.”