Troops from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) have limited their activity to main roads in southern Lebanon, raising questions among the locals about whether they have been ordered to restrict their movement in wake of recent attacks against them.
Members of UNIFIL have been attacked on two separate occasions in December and January.
Asharq Al-Awsat toured the areas of operation of UNIFIL in the South where the locals have expressed their support for the international force and fears that it may withdraw from the area.
They believe UNIFIL is the last remaining international cover provided to Lebanon amid its successive crises.
The international troops are seen as a source of stability and financial support in the South, but the recent lack of interaction between them and the locals has raised concerns.
In the past, international troops dining at restaurants, shopping at grocers, visiting clinics and other public places was a common and welcome sight. Now, as they remain in their vehicles and avoid contact with the people, concerns have started to mount.
Locals who have spoken to Asharq Al-Awsat stressed that relations with UNIFIL cannot be undermined by any random incident.
The soldiers "have become our friends. They are no strangers to us."
In fact, they expressed their disappointment with the latest attacks against the troops, saying the perpetrators are of the minority that oppose the force and their affiliations are known.
They are only carrying out orders aimed at forcing the troops to restrict their movement, they explained.
UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti told Asharq Al-Awsat that the attacks have not deterred the troops from carrying out their duties.
They continue to communicate and coordinate with the Lebanese army, he stressed.
He said the peacekeepers will continue to implement UN Security Council resolution 1701.
UNIFIL carries out over 400 patrols and operations per day. It also contributes to small development projects, amounting to 7 million dollars annually, and provides job opportunities to over 600 Lebanese people.
Now, the soldiers are avoiding interacting with the locals so that their actions will not be exploited by some political powers - Hezbollah - to deliver a political message to the international force.
A field source told Asharq Al-Awsat that the opponents of UNIFIL make up no more than 3 percent of the local population.
"We know who they are. They are carrying out the orders aimed at restricting the troops' movement," he said.
The first attack against UNIFIL took place in the town of Shakra on December 22 when locals accused the forces of taking photos of the area. The second took place in Bint Jbeil last week when people assaulted a UNIFIL patrol.
Tenenti told Asharq Al-Awsat that UNIFIL was coordinating closely with the Lebanese army in its areas of operation.
On claims that the troops were avoiding interacting with the locals, he said that the peacekeeping force has not changed its policies.
UNIFIL values that longstanding and fruitful relationship with the local population, he added.
Its priority lies in fulfilling its mandate, he stressed. UNIFIL is still committed to Lebanon and the people of the South and to preserving lasting peace.
The two recent attacks have raised a number of questions over their motives and the political messages that were being directed at the international mission.
In a rare firm tone, the UN had urged the Lebanese authorities to probe the attacks and bring the perpetrators to justice.
"The denial of UNIFIL's freedom of movement and any aggression against those serving the cause of peace is unacceptable," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said after last week's attack.
"UNIFIL condemns attacks on men and women serving the cause of peace, which are violations of both Lebanese and international law," Kandice Ardiel, a UNIFIL press official, had also said last week.
She added that UNIFIL also condemns those who manipulate local residents to serve their purposes.
Lebanese political analyst Dr. Nassib Hoteit said the problems between the locals and UNIFIL stem from the former's questioning of some of the security roles played by some members of the force, not the entire mission.
In remarks to Asharq Al-Awsat, he said that "locals" refers to the actual residents themselves and to the unregulated popular resistance.
He acknowledged that problems between the people and UNIFIL are not uncommon, but they have grown in frequency in recent weeks.
Some people believe UNIFIL is veering away from its mission and is not coordinating its movement with the army. Such allegations are due to the security tensions in the South, he said.
The people are tense because the mounting crises and international pressure against Lebanon, he explained.
Moreover, Hoteit warned that problems will only increase if an international decision was taken to pull UNIFIL out of the South.
That will mean the removal of international cover over Lebanon. "UNIFIL is an important factor of stability in the country and it is an important symbol of international presence and recognition of Lebanon," he stressed.
Despite the tensions and concerns, the southerners don't believe that these incidents will impact the fate of UNIFIL.
Some have described them as "incidental" and not reflective of the people of the South.
Lebanese sources said the two recent attacks are "rare" and are usually resolved through the military.
This does not however, eliminate concerns. Hoteit, who hails from the South, said the withdrawal of UNIFIL would leave the region vulnerable to Israeli attacks that the country can do without as it grapples with major internal economic and political crises.
Projects worth millions
The security problems have not harmed the relations between the locals and the peacekeeping force.
In the town of Maarake in the Tyre province, the Malaysian contingent was invited to attend a wake to commemorate the victims of recent floods in the Asian country.
Such incidents reflect the unique ties that bind the locals to UNIFIL.
The southerners also benefit from projects carried out by UNIFIL that top 7 million dollars annually.
UNIFIL Commander Major General Stefano Del Col said last week that the soldiers had carried out over 180,000 field operation and over 400 projects and grants.
It has also offered support to the Lebanese army that is the foundation to the international force achieving its goal of providing lasting peace in southern Lebanon, he added.
Residents in Tyre have cited major development projects that were carried out by UNIFIL, such a sewage network in the border town of Naqoura. They have also offered health, agricultural and veterinary services.
In Marjeyoun, the locals credited the international force with installing solar panels to light up street lamps.
The international troops also contribute to the local economy. Over 10,000 soldiers make up UNIFIL and they shop for their daily needs at local markets. Furthermore, the international force has provided jobs to 630 Lebanese people, while 300 foreign workers and their families are also employed with it.
In Marjeyoun, two locals look at the solar-powered street lamps and say that without UNIFIL such an initiative would never have been implemented.
"Harming soldiers who have left behind their families to provide us with peace of mind and stability is totally unacceptable," they said.