How a thirsty cow nearly caused a war in the Middle East

13 July 2018

A new book into the United Nations Peacekeeping mission on the border between Lebanon and Israel has shown how tensions in the region can be so high, even a cow crossing the border can nearly spark an international conflict.

The book, by Dr Vanessa Newby of The Australian National University (ANU), National Security College looks at how the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has managed to become one of the longest running and most successful peacekeeping missions whilst operating in a highly volatile environment.

The force was established in 1978 to restore peace and security following an Israeli invasion into Lebanon.

Dr Newby said the achievements of the mission are well illustrated by an incident involving a thirsty cow that made its way from the Israeli side of the border to drink from a Lebanese lake.

"In Lebanon it doesn't rain in summer. So the lakes are very important for the livestock," Dr Newby said.

"One day a cow from the Israeli side of the border managed to find its way through a fence and made its way down to a Lebanese lake for a drink.

"At first it was one cow, then it was three cows, then very quickly there was about 60 cows crossing the border to drink from the Lebanese lake."

This incident angered the Lebanese farmers who complained to the Lebanese armed forces.

"They said look, we have Israeli cows coming and drinking our water - you need to put a stop to it," she said.

The Lebanese armed forced turned to UNIFIL, who contacted the Israeli Defence Force to see if they could resolve the situation.

"The IDF said 'we cannot stop the cows - they are cows. If the Lebanese side doesn't want the cows to come there, let them build a technical fence'."

This was not a suitable solution for the Lebanese. The land between the two nations is disputed, so the Lebanese feared that any fence would be treated as a new border, effectively granting extra territory to the Israelis.

Instead, the Lebanese proposed a different solution, stating that if Israel would not prevent the cows from coming across the border, they would allow the farmers to shoot any cows found drinking from the lake.

Dr Newby said this suggestion was not taken lightly by the Israeli Defence Force.

"The Israelis said 'if you shoot the cows, we will consider that an act of war'. The situation was escalating," Dr Newby said.

At this point UNIFIL was required to step in, with some creative problem solving.

"The solution was a small fence just around the lake itself, rather than running along the border. This way the Lebanese farmers could allow their livestock to enter but also lock out the troublemaking cows."

Dr Newby said this kind of incident shows how easily tensions on the Blue Line (the line that divides Israel and Lebanon) can rise.  UNIFIL responsiveness to incidents such as these is just one way that UNIFIL has earned the credibility from local stakeholders required to run a long term peacekeeping mission. She said this credibility has enabled UNIFIL to gain confidence and co-operation from the local population.

"This book unpacks how the mission has been able to obtain enough cooperation from the local population to safely patrol without being attacked," she said.

"This cooperation enables them to prevent flare-ups between the Lebanese Armed Forces and Israeli soldiers, and to maintain positive relations with local civilians who may support Hezbollah.

"While the local population isn't necessarily going to tell them where they can find hidden weapons for example, they are not going to obstruct them in their daily operations."

Following the war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, the UNIFIL mission was given new mandate by the UN - resolution 1701. This mandate considerably expanded the mission in order to prevent further conflict.

Dr Newby's book, Peacekeeping in South Lebanon - Credibility and local cooperation, is the first academic evaluation of resolution 1701.  It is also the first book to unpack what credibility is in peacekeeping and show why it is an important factor in the success of peace operations.

The book has been published by Syracuse University Press and is available here: http://syracuseuniversitypress.syr.edu/spring-2018/peacekeeping-south.html