Four years after a devastating war between Israel and Hezbollah, the UN forces keeping them apart in southern Lebanon are under mounting strain amid fears of a fresh conflict and hostility from villagers.
The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, is in a delicate position "between two armed parties preparing for a possible new conflict," Paul Salem, who heads the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre, told AFP.
"It is feeling somewhat trapped," he said ahead of the July 12 anniversary of the start of the war.
History of UNIFIL in Lebanon
The 2006 conflict was triggered by the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah in a cross-border raid. About 1,200 Lebanese were killed, the majority of them civilians, while 160 Israelis died, mostly soldiers.
UNIFIL, established in 1978 after the first Israeli invasion of Lebanon, was beefed up following the 34-day war. The 12,000-strong force is entrusted with overseeing a ceasefire between the Jewish state and the Shiite militant party.
For decades UNIFIL has maintained good relations with the people of southern Lebanon, offering them education and health services in addition to their peacekeeping duties.
Rising tensions against UNIFIL in southern Lebanon
But in a rare string of events this month, villagers attacked the multinational force after taking to the streets to protest a 36-hour maximum deployment exercise by UNIFIL.
In the most notable confrontation, residents of the southern town of Tulin disarmed a French patrol and attacked them with sticks, rocks and eggs before the Lebanese army intervened.
Michael Williams, the UN special coordinator for Lebanon, described some of the protests as "clearly organized," singling out one encounter he said involved about 100 villagers.
The UN Security Council on Friday unanimously approved a statement of support for its peacekeeping mission in Lebanon and called on all parties in the country to allow the forces to move freely.
The rising tensions also prompted UNIFIL commander Alberto Asarta Cuevas to urge villagers to continue to work with his troops for peace.
"Whereas we take all possible measures to mitigate inconveniences to the people, there may still be problems you may face," Asarta said in an open letter on Thursday.
"The way to deal with those problems is to discuss them directly with UNIFIL, as we have always done in order to find amicable solutions, not by obstructing the work of peacekeepers or by beating them."
But some southerners told AFP they were far from happy with the troops.
"For three months we feel that the behavior of French soldiers in particular has changed. They watch us all day," said Ali Ahmad Zahwa of the municipality of the town of Kabrikha.
Abu Imad, a butcher in the town of Sawana, said: "We are not against UNIFIL, but the soldiers began to inspect our houses, take pictures and use sniffer dogs."
A UNIFIL spokesman contacted by AFP denied the soldiers had entered any civilian homes.
We are not against UNIFIL, but the soldiers began to inspect our houses, take pictures and use sniffer dogs
Abu Iman, a butcher in the town of Sawana
Lebanon’s army chief: UNIFIL is to stay
Lebanon's president, government and army chief -- General Jean Kahwaji, who rarely makes public statements -- have all voiced their support for the peacekeepers.
"We commit ourselves 100 percent to protecting the UN Interim Force in Lebanon against any attack," Kahwaji was quoted on Friday as telling the mass-circulation An-Nahar newspaper.
But Hezbollah, which controls large swathes of southern Lebanon, has shown growing distrust of the blue-helmeted troops, with deputy chief Naim Qassem saying UNIFIL should "pay attention to what it does."
"Their behavior is incomprehensible," Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hassan, a member of Hezbollah, told local television on Thursday. "One wonders what they want."
Tension on the Lebanese-Israeli border has been on the rise since April when Israel accused Damascus, Hezbollah's main backer along with Iran, of smuggling Scud missiles to the Shiite party.
The Israeli military this month published a series of aerial photographs of what it says is evidence of Hezbollah stockpiling weapons in towns and villages near the frontier.
The Israeli army also accuses Hezbollah of having stockpiled 40,000 rockets since the end of the 2006 war.
Salem for his part says UNIFIL may well be the only factor keeping war at bay.
"Although UNIFIL is acting in good faith, its image has blurred," Salem said. "But nobody wants to see them go, certainly.
"There presence is preventing the outbreak of new conflict for the moment."
We commit ourselves 100 percent to protecting the UN Interim Force in Lebanon against any attack
General Jean Kahwaji, Lebanon\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\'s president, government and army chief