TIBNINE â€” “UN welcome” reads a faded sign on an old tailor’s shop in the south Lebanese town of Tibnine. In a nearby village, Ghanaian soldiers peruse the shelves of a shop selling everything from rugs to radios.
Across south Lebanon, English shop signs beckon UN peacekeepers who have been deployed in the border area for 28 years but locals hope plans to expand the force from 2,000 to 15,000 soldiers will boost business in the rural south as well.
“This is the best thing. They have been with us for 20 years here,” said Ali Fawaz, who runs a toy shop in Tibnine, where Polish troops are now based.
“You know the people around here are all farmers. They can’t afford to spend much but the United Nations has money.” Once numbering almost 6,000 well-paid troops with money to spend, UNIFIL was downsized to around 2,000 after Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon six years ago, robbing the local economy of income it had come to rely on.
After a 34-day war between Israel and Hizbollah that ended this month, the United Nations is boosting the force again.
“This is great because we want stability and peace of mind.
â€œWe are happy.Â Also, business might improve after this war,” said Souad Beydoun, who runs three shops near a UN base in Hariss.
“At the moment, virtually all my business is with the Ghanaian troops. I have got used to them coming here.” During Israel’s 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon, trade in goods from the Jewish state and cash spent by UN peacekeepers was essential to the local economy.
Some villages virtually grew up around the UN peacekeepers, who arrived in 1978 to restore the Lebanese government’s authority after an Israeli invasion aimed at crushing Palestinian fighters there.
Towns like Naqoura, where UNIFIL is headquartered, thrive on business from peacekeepers, providing them with restaurants, bars and shops that sold electrical goods, music or videos. Even now UNIFIL employs over 300 Lebanese, making it one of the top job-providers in south Lebanon. Locals hope the expanded “UNIFIL II” will provide more jobs as well as customers. Some were unhappy when well-paid European, particularly Scandinavian, troops left. They said that not only was UNIFIL downsized, but the remaining contingents were relatively less-well paid soldiers from Ghana or India.
With France and Italy expected to contribute a third of the beefed-up force, southerners hope the good times will be back.
“From the economic point of view, we are glad they are sending more UN troops and we are glad they are Europeans because they spend,” said Hussein Asseily, who runs a shop across from a UNIFIL base in Hariss. “When the Irish were here, business was good. We used to sell computer games, jewellery. Now we have African troops, we sell cheaper stuff. It varies according to the income.” But despite the welcome, few believe they can really stop Israel and Hizbollah fighters from fighting again.
“They brought jobs and money but they also brought death because they could not keep the Israelis away. We hope this time they can bring peace,” said Abu Mohammed, a former UNIFIL employee who now runs a shop near a peacekeepers base.