France in Lebanon

A marksman at his surveillance post. In the background is the Drakkar building. 4 October 1983. © FX. Roch & P. Bideault/ECPAD

A civil and military mission set up by the United Nations to restore peace and stability in Lebanon, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, was established in 1978 and had its objectives redefined in 2006.

Corps 1

UNIFIL was set up to counter the destabilisation of Lebanon by armed groups belonging to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which were carrying out actions against Israel in the late 1970s. On 11 March 1978, an attack on a bus carrying Israeli civilians on the road to Tel Aviv by a Palestinian commando led to retaliation from the Israel Defence Force, which launched Operation Litani on 14 and 15 March. The aim of the Israeli command was to create a buffer zone in southern Lebanon, between the Israeli border and the River Litani, to prevent any further aggression.

The Israeli offensive prompted an immediate reaction from the United Nations. On 19 March 1978, it adopted Resolution 425, which called for respect for the ”territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence of Lebanon”. It also called upon Israel to ”cease its military action and withdraw its forces”. Finally, Resolution 425 established a United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, charged with enforcing these decisions on the ground. With its headquarters in Naqoura, UNIFIL was formed of contingents from 14 countries and initially consisted of a peacekeeping force of 4 000 Blue Helmets (including 730 French soldiers as part of Operation Hippocampe). But the size of the force rapidly proved inadequate. It was therefore progressively enlarged: Resolution 501 of 25 February 1982 increased it to 7 000 (with a presence of 1400 French troops by May). Modelled on past UN mandates, it soon became clear that the UNIFIL mandate was inappropriate. Unlike in previous operations, the UNIFIL forces found themselves on a territory where the Lebanese government had lost its authority and where militias of all persuasions held sway, frequently forming alliances of convenience. For instance, the Lebanese Forces and the Marada Movement defended the interests of Christians, the Amal Movement and Hezbollah those of the Shiites, while other groups supported the Druze minority, Syria, Iran or even Israel. Too lightly armed and restricted by a legal and technical framework that was either too limited or else inadequate, UNIFIL's foreign contingents, caught up in the Lebanese imbroglio, soon became targets and registered their first deaths.

For a time (1982-84), UNIFIL ”cohabited” with the Multinational Force (MNF), an organisation born out of a bilateral agreement, in which the troops acted under national command. More specifically, and true to a tradition of alliance, France helped the Lebanese government and its army regain their independence. With that in mind, part of the French contingent in UNIFIL was detached to the MNF. With the MNF's dissolution, in March 1984, following the bombing of the Drakkar barracks against the French forces and Beirut airport against the Americans, on 23 October 1983, the French contingent in UNIFIL once more attained 1400 troops. However, the apparent stabilisation of the situation in the region led to France's progressive disengagement, so that, by 2005, only 200 French troops remained in Lebanon.

The events of summer 2006 brought a change in the role of UNIFIL, soon to be renamed UNIFIL II. In July and August 2006, Israel, determined to eradicate Hezbollah, which threatened its interests and its citizens from Lebanon, invaded southern Lebanon once again and bombed Beirut as well as dozens of other targets across Lebanese territory. Resolution 1701 of 11 August 2006, which called for the withdrawal of Israeli troops, strengthened the power which Resolution 425 had given to UNIFIL I. The 5 000 troops (numbers soon exceeded, as by 2016 they totalled some 11 000) from 34 countries now had the power of ”enforcement”, in the event that they were attacked, including against the Israeli air force.

UNIFIL II's area of responsibility, which stretched from the River Litani to the Blue Line (delimiting the Lebanese-Israeli border and Lebanon's border with the Golan Heights), was divided into two large sectors, West and East. Each sector was itself divided into a number of zones placed under the responsibility of one country. France participated in UNIFIL II in the framework of Operation Daman. Its contingent, which consisted in autumn 2006 of 1 650 soldiers, was steadily reduced to 870 (end-2016). Most of them formed part of the intervention force. UNIFIL II also comprised a Maritime Task Force, responsible for the surveillance of Lebanese territorial waters and preventing the entry of weapons into Lebanon. Despite violations of the ceasefire, the role and responsibilities assigned to UNIFIL II by Resolution 1701, and the resources allocated to accomplish them, considerably reduced tensions in this part of the Near East. The French army's participation in UNIFIL cost it dear: 37 Blue Helmets were killed, in addition to the 58 French paratroopers serving in the MNF, who were killed in the attack on the Drakkar barracks.

Commander Ivan Cadeau - PhD in History, Service Historique de la Défense

Corps 2

Personal account

Major Omer M.

(French army, Lebanon)

”I was deployed three times to Lebanon between 1981 and 1983, and each mission was a different experience. In 1981 and 1982, I was assigned as a warrant officer to the companies responsible first and foremost for supplying the UNIFIL posts, then the Palestinian camps. Conditions were difficult, since many checkpoints held now by the Lebanese army, now by militias, slowed us down all along our route. Added to this, regular shots were fired to intimidate us. This feeling of impotence increased tenfold in 1982, when we were unable to contain the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon.

In 1983, my mission was brutally interrupted by the suicide bombings of 23 October. At dawn, a few minutes after the attack on the Americans, an attack was carried out against the French contingent, destroying the Drakkar barracks in which I was, so that nothing was left of this eight-storey building. I came out of the rubble alive, but in a pitiful state. A lasting mark was left on me after losing 58 of my comrades, but my engagement remained intact until 1999, when I left the army.”

Personal account

Corporal Sanélé I.

(French army, Lebanon)

”In 1984, I was in Beirut, where my comrades and I received orders to rescue a section that was under fire from militia, and to evacuate the son of a Lebanese officer in the same zone. The mixture of excitement and anxiety that I felt at the start soon gave way to pride at taking part in this mission. We managed to get them out safe and sound, and we hid the child under our rucksacks. On the way back, we were stopped at a checkpoint held by armed militia. They ordered us to open the doors of our VAB armoured personnel carrier. If they found the child, they would kill him, and us too. So we refused. But they insisted forcefully. The tension was palpable. The explosion of a shell nearby distracted them, and we were able to race back to base. When we arrived, we saw how many times our vehicle had been hit, and realised how lucky we were to have got through unharmed. Now brothers in arms, proud to have done our duty, we knew that this baptism of fire would bind us together forever.”

  • Tireur d'élite à son poste de surveillance. Au second plan, l?immeuble "Drakkar", 4 octobre 1983. © FX. Roch & P. Bideault/ECPAD