Interview with Timur Goksel
Timur Goksel is Former Spokesperson and Senior Advisor for UNIFIL.
WSN: How did you arrive in Lebanon?
TIMUR GOKSEL: I came for six months but it has now been 24 years.
WSN: You came originally for a specific period of time?
TG: Initially for 6 months. In those days with the war, it was different. UNIFIL now has a good time, although some complain about the old UNIFIL. Back in those days, UNIFIL was surrounded by wars – 3 or 4 at a time. Not surprisingly there weren’t many people in the UN who wanted to come to Lebanon. It was difficult because we could not move around.
WSN: Where were you located?
TG: In Aqoura, which is 3 kilometers from the borders. There was Major Haddad, who was part of a Christian militia and Israel controlled the borders. It was their part of the country. It took us some time to realize that this is an open space used by all sorts of militias, but how do you get out? In 1982 it was the Israeli invasion and we said that we have to go, there was no reason to stay. We started to pack our office. The Security Council met and said that we have to stay. When I asked about the budget, they said no budget.
WSN: Why did UNIFIL stay?
TG: They said - and maybe it was a smart idea - that since the Israelis will leave one day and there will be a need for another UN force, why dismantle what we have only to send a new force later on? It costs too much. We were told to keep quiet, stay put and when Israel is out, we would take over again. It was an unusual situation. We were a peacekeeping force in an area that was totally occupied by a country that was not very friendly toward us. Very uncomfortable situation. We could not move around freely. We always had to be escorted by the Israelis. I refused to go anywhere escorted by the Israelis. If I wanted to go to Beirut I needed Israel's permission so I said that the day I do it, I would leave the country. It became a problem. They became a problem and I made it a problem. Then the Israelis started to get into trouble, not because of me so they forgot about us.
WSN: When did you hear first of Hizbollah?
TG: In 1982 or 1983, the name Hizbollah first appeared and the rest is history.
WSN: Did you have contacts with Hizbollah from the very beginning?
TG: At first no one knew who these people were. They came from the North, from Bekaa. It was a small, yet effective resistance. However, the resistance against Israel started with the cells of the Islamic Student Association in and around Nabatyeh. This is how it began. Few talk about those days. Nowadays everyone talks about Hizbollah. They were well organized, based on family relationship. The Israelis killed the Sheikh in 1984 because he became a nightmare for them. Going back to Hizbollah. The moment Hizbollah came to Southern Lebanon we had problems with them. They fought foreigners and we were foreigners, and they just could not understand why we were so friendly with the people of the South. There were casualties on both sides. We became a target for them. Southern Lebanese were always hospitable toward us and we had a good relationship with Amal, but these new guys did not know what to make of us. I decided that it was time to have a talk with them and find out more.
I went to Amal and asked them to introduce me to these people. Amal said that they were not important – only Amal was important. I told them, fine, you are, but they are killing us. It was serious and I had to do something. I started to go to the villages where these people hang out. I went to the coffee shops. In Lebanon if you go to the right coffee shop, you're in business. They knew me from newspapers, from people. Being a Muslim made me more acceptable in their minds. I said, look I want to meet you guys. Why are you shooting at us? It was very dangerous. In mosques they were preaching against us, to kill us. I talked to a few of them and explained that we are peacekeepers. They asked, what's a peacekeeping force? This was a good question to ask. They wanted to know why in the middle of the war an international force came to the South? Why would you give up a comfortable life to come here and get shot at? For what, they asked? There must be something you want. They just could not understand that we wanted peace. They said we are Zionists - imperialist agents. I asked, am I a Zionist? They responded: Not you personally, but the force you are with. I told the commanding officers in New York that these guys were here to stay and would become a big problem if we didn’t talk to them.
The UN is a very official organization. It is only now after decades that the UN is slowly realizing that not only is there a conflict between states in the region, but also there are non-state actors involved in this conflict and if you marginalize them, you are in trouble. Then the Embassy in Beirut was blown up, the marines were killed and New York said that we could not engage Hizbollah. This would give them recognition. I was told to go and talk to the people in Beirut. I went to Beirut to the foreign ministry and asked about Hizbollah. They asked, what is Hizbollah? They had never heard of it. They did not care about the rest and anyway they did not control anything outside the capital. The ministry had good coffee, but there was no government, no nothing.
WSN: What did you do afterwards?
TG: Finally, I talked to Hizbollah. New York said that if something went wrong, they wouldn’t acknowledge they knew me. The first contact between the UN and Hizbollah was not a very happy experience as we did not agree on anything, but at least we were talking.
In 1988, an American officer was kidnapped and found killed. He was a good friend of Amal. Amal took pride in the fact that it protected the Americans and now this officer was killed. It was a big problem between Amal and Hizbollah at the time. The clashes ended with the accord. There was one stipulation regarding UNIFIL. Musa Sadr always said that UNIFIL was most welcome and we should be treated as guests. In 1992, the Israelis kill Musawi and Nasrallah was designated as the new leader at a young age. And what a smart choice the Iranians made.
After the agreement there was an almost immediate relaxation. We got a message from Hizbollah saying that they wanted to establish contact with my office. They sent a delegation. We agreed to forget the past problems. I told them that we don't have to like each other, we don't have to agree but we don't have to shoot at each other, either. I knew some of them personally and I was surprised to see them there. Personal relationships are very important and can open doors that otherwise would stay closed. If there is a problem, don't shoot, I said; come to me. They appointed a liaison officer to keep in contact. Again the UN said that I am on my own. I met Nasrallah. I explained that we wanted to help the people of Southern Lebanon. We didn’t care about ideology. He could not give us an official blessing but there were other ways he that showed we were welcome there. It was never a warm relation, but it was a civil one.
There were very few incidents after 1992 and at that time Hizbollah become really strong in the South. They kept their promise. One thing changed in the South and the people don't realize it. This new generation of fighters grew up with UNIFIL. UNIFIL was not a foreign force for them. It was part of the landscape. The Lebanese, no matter what ideology they follow find it difficult to shoot their guests.
WSN: Has the UN admitted that there is dialog?
TG: No. Did you see my latest piece? I was in Germany last week and in the foreign ministry they seem to have memorized it. Some complained it was not positive. It is positive all right. As long as you are talking with these guys, then why don't you make it official?
What happens here is, if you don't admit that you talk to them and contacts are anyway as headquarters you don't know what they are talking about; the peacekeeping force is a strange thing. It’s like humanitarian work with a gun in your hands. It’s nothing else. So the countries don't want to have their soldiers killed. They want a quiet mission, get the money and go home.
Like with the Palestinians in the beginning. We made contacts with the local chiefs. The headquarters had no idea of what was going on. So you came one day and want to go to a place and you are told that you can't. Why? We agreed with this or that person to stay away from their area and in return they help us out. Who made the deal? It’s tricky.
This is why I insisted that at all meetings, a civilian from the UNIFIL headquarters would be present. The military did not like it, but we did it anyway. They wanted to feel they are in control and the generals think that there is this military code from one army man to another. But imagine you come from Ghana or Fiji and you talk with an Israeli general. To be generals, they have to be political animals first of all. Who are you to deal with these guys? They are masters of the game. The Israeli foreign ministry is a protocol agency. They deal with consular affairs and countries you never hear about. In all these years I did not go to the Israeli foreign ministry except for courtesy visits when I was invited. I always went to the army. They are the ones who can make life easy or impossible. The army has a very big say in how the country is run.
WSN: But it is still a democracy.
TG: It is a democracy for the Jews. I lived there 20 years, I know. But when it comes to security, army is first, no argument. Even in the press all guys are army men, reserve. Everyone important has some kind of tie with the army.
WSN: How do you see the mission of the new UNIFIL?
TG: UNIFIL today is in a very comfortable position because there is no war going on. All they have to do is to be nice to people. Initially an idiot came with the idea that this must be a robust force. So they came with guns and beautiful tanks. I like that. But for what? The main parties decided that they are not going to fight. So what are you there for? This is the US idea. To fight Hizbollah? Excuse me, but you cannot do it. You don't have the mandate and did you ask the Lebanese if they want you do to it? Now you are working in cooperation with the Lebanese authorities and army. Do they want to disarm Hizbollah?
WSN: There are many somewhat bombastic speeches about the new UNIFIL.
TG: They decided to come with heavy weapons and tanks and I kept asking if they were planning to use them. The French painted the tanks in white so they can be seen 10 kilometers away. There are 13 of them and they need permission from Paris to fire a gun. You are not going to fight Hizbollah or the Israelis. UNIFIL started to patrol the small villages with tanks. Many said and I said, don't do it. What are you doing with tanks on the streets? They look aggressive and funny and scare the children. Many reacted and the French put the tanks to the parking lot. This is unrealistic. It is important that the UN is here, just that they cannot do anything. A weak mandate, too many of them and too many countries involved.
WSN: Would a small force have been a better choice?
TG: You could easily cut it to half. Now it’s peaceful and it’s OK. You have ceremonies, special days, flags, parades and good food. This is what it should be. The trouble is that this is Lebanon and this is the Middle East. It can blow up. If it does how do you control 30 countries? This is dangerous.
They can't even talk to each other because of the language.
WSN: There is this barrier as well?
TG: They have cultural, religious and all kinds of other barriers and language is one of them. No two countries are the same. If you give them an order, each will understand it differently. Some may fight, some will ask their countries what to do and some will go back to the base and wait.
WSN: What is UNIFIL doing right now?
TG: They are building a peaceful environment for the people. The Lebanese are usually much faster than this. They faced many disasters and recovered fast. Now it’s much slower than before. They fear that the conflict is not finished yet. All the UNIFIL countries understood that the most important thing is to do small projects for the people. Now they are organizing computer courses, football tournaments, playgrounds, they are teaching yoga in the villages.
WSN: Even yoga? Very nice.
TG: The countries that have little or no financial resources do this, while Spain, Italy and others are actually making projects. In the past we had zero dollars, but we helped them anyway from our own resources. We also tried to mobilize the embassies here. For example, we bought paint for UNIFIL. We did not use it and we donated it to paint a school. We repaired our computers and sent them to schools.
WSN: What happened with UNIFIL after the attack on Spain's forces?
TG: UNIFIL got very nervous, and rightly so. I understand it. It was the normal reaction. They withdrew their soldiers to the bases and they became very protective of themselves. But they cut relations with the people. That was risky. Now UNIFIL is starting to open up again. They need to understand contact with the locals is actually their protection.
Most information comes from the people. On the other hand, UNIFIL could be attacked again and there is nothing that they would be able to do militarily against being attacked. I keep telling them to keep in touch with the people.
WSN: Do you see a conflict emerging soon between Hizbollah and Israel?
TG: Neither Hizbollah nor Israel has a desire for a new conflict, not yet anyway. Hizbollah was wrong to attack Israel last year. How can Hizbollah challenge Israel militarily? There is no challenge; there is no match. Yes, you can make trouble and they did. But if the full Israeli military might comes down on Lebanon, Lebanon will cease to exist in days. Hizbollah has a very developed sense of dignity. They are obsessed with it. If the Israelis do something, they'll do it back. If the Israelis say something, they too will come with bold statements. However, on the battleground there is no match. Yes, you can protect the Southerners and lose the country. I know these guys, what are they going to start? And as a consequence lose their own people, villages and houses? I don't think so.
They learned something in July. They won't do it now. Not in their name or in the name of others. I doubt they like it. I was surprised last year, and I bet the Israelis were surprised, too. It was amazing. The organization, the resilience. However, surprise is one time. The Israelis are seriously investigating what they did wrong, so I can assure you that they are not going to make the same mistake twice. Next time will be much more dangerous, and expensive.
WSN: How did you perceive the relationship between the people and the Lebanese army?
TG: The army is important for people. Government lacks credibility. It is a weak, poor army but the people like it. The army might actually buy some time with UNIFIL being here. The conflict will not go away. If nothing is done, it will come back.
WSN: Might UNIFIL get stuck in the middle?
TG: If you are caught in something like this, you either must leave the country or stay and wait. They cannot fight.
WSN: Do you think the tensions might escalate?
TG: There is no armed conflict at the moment. The whole idea of a state is not very well settled in the social fabric. People are not very happy with Beirut. If anything gets done in the South it is because of Amal and Hizbollah and their lobby for the South. It took ten years and many audiences - including to the prime minister - for the government of Lebanon to do something on the ground. I know it because I tried. They do not bring government services to Southern Lebanon; they don't feel the pain of the people there. They like to asphalt the roads in the mountains every year. Look at Beirut. They are spending millions fixing the sidewalks. Some are perfectly fine, so why are you doing it? Half of the country does not have walls, and you put money in sidewalks and borders.
WSN: You were talking about UNIFIL being robust. Is it?
TG: There was too much talk about it politically. This is always the case especially in democratic countries, because you have to create a certain background, to attract attention on the subject. The problem was that during this time the UN kept quiet. People asked, they shared our trouble since 1978 and now they will fight us? The idea of a strong, multinational force and not a UN force came out at the Saint Petersburg G8 summit in 2006. The Israelis loved it. I know many people in Israel; I have friends there so I told them that they should be careful that the UN is all they're going to get. Be nice to UNIFIL because nobody else is coming, I said. Why would any country send soldiers to Lebanon? To do what? What the Israelis could not do themselves so send in a multinational force or the UN to do it? It does not work like that. I remember the first day when this idea came out. I was on CNN or the BBC and they asked what I thought of it. Excuse me, who is coming? Look at Afghanistan. NATO is a military alliance that costs billions of dollars, the best armies in the world. They can hardly function as a military alliance on the ground. What should one expect then from the UN? Let me be clear. National interest comes first. Always. We have Turkish soldiers in Afghanistan. It is a big, expensive and good army but they are not involved in security. Why? Turkey said that it couldn’t take part in it, that it has historical ties and other interests in the country. Twenty other countries are saying that, so what does one do? Compared with NATO, the UN is a Mickey Mouse organization when it comes to military missions. The men and women who are leading the forces are not from military. Some of them have never carried a gun in their lives. They are bureaucrats who have an army of hundreds of thousands under their control. Peacekeeping is not military. It’s a hybrid. Until they find someone willing to come here and fight, nothing will change. And when they have found someone I want to know.
WSN: The impression right after the political speeches was that UNIFIL's mandate would be dramatically changed.
TG: They need the permission of the Lebanese army and government for whatever they want to do on the ground. They cannot do a simple security operation, not a single checkpoint without approval. The old UNIFIL had checkpoints where it wanted, since there was no one to ask. Of course there were dangerous times. It is important that now there is this strong European participation. Politically it is very important. Basically the mandate that is pages long states that UNIFIL cannot do anything without the express approval of the Lebanese government.
WSN: Can UNIFIL go to the Syrian border?
TG: Not with this mandate. And of course the Lebanese government has to invite the UN to do so. The Syrians said they don't want foreign forces at the borders with a country they have brotherly relations with. Hizbollah has also said that it doesn’t want this. It is good that UNIFIL is here and that it is doing nice things on the ground for the people. That matters.
WSN: Thank you.