UNIFIL’s mandate solely tested by tensions between Hezbollah and Israel
Beirut- With tensions growing between Hezbollah and Israel, the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, is examining how to fulfil a UN Security Council demand that it tightens patrols and reporting procedures in the face of months’ long accusations by Israel and the United States that it is ignoring potential Hezbollah violations.
The demand, contained in an August 30 resolution that renewed UNIFIL’s mandate for another year, came after Israel and the United States accused the peacekeeping force of turning a blind eye to alleged Hezbollah military activities in the southern Lebanon border zone. UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which helped bring an end to the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war, forbids any weapons or armed activities, other than those of UNIFIL and the Lebanese state, between the Blue Line (the UN name for a boundary that corresponds to Lebanon’s southern border) and the Litani River.
Israel has repeatedly alleged that Hezbollah has built a military infrastructure in the towns and villages of southern Lebanon in defiance of Resolution 1701 and accused UNIFIL of doing nothing about it. Irish Army Major-General Michael Beary, the UNIFIL commander, said in August that the force had uncovered no evidence of weapons being smuggled into the southern border district, adding that “if there was a large cache of weapons, we would know about it.”
His comment drew strong criticism from US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley during a debate on UNIFIL’s mandate renewal at the end of August.
“Hezbollah openly brags about their weapons,” she said. “They parade them before TV cameras… For the UNIFIL commander to deny it… has any proof, shows that we need to have changes in UNIFIL.”
The reference to the TV parade was a bizarre incident in April in which approximately a dozen uniformed Hezbollah fighters armed with weapons ranging from AK-47s to a SAM 7 missile launcher stood on the side of the road outside Naqoura in southern Lebanon allowing themselves to be filmed and photographed as a convoy of journalists passed.
The adopted resolution called for a “prompt and detailed breakdown of all Resolution 1701 violations.”
It also demanded reports on all violations of Lebanese sovereignty, a reference to the near-daily overflights by Israeli aircraft in Lebanese airspace and numerous aerial infractions of Israeli airspace.
A UNIFIL source said the peacekeepers have formed a working group to assess how best to improve their duties in the south and fulfil the enhanced reporting demands of the Security Council.
One of the factors that will be uppermost in the minds of senior UNIFIL staff is the effect on the security of their personnel should any tightened operating procedures be seen as overtly benefiting Israel. Hezbollah has a popular base of support in the UNIFIL area and is believed to have mobilised supporters to apply pressure on UNIFIL by throwing stones at passing vehicles or blocking roads in villages.
There have also been several bomb attacks against UNIFIL since 2006, most of them relatively minor and amateurish incidents involving sticks of dynamite and faulty detonators.
The one incident that does stick in UNIFIL’s mind was an improvised explosive device attack against Spanish UNIFIL troops in June 2007. The charge, estimated at 60 kilograms, was shaped to deliver a lateral blast and had been packed in a Renault Rapide parked on the side of the road near Khiam. The target was two Spanish armoured personnel carriers.
The blast knocked one of the APCs off the road, killing six soldiers. It transpired that some elements of the Spanish contingent had been spending too much time filming Hezbollah activity in hills just north of the UNIFIL zone — therefore outside the jurisdiction of Resolution 1701. There was no claim of responsibility for the attack and UN, Lebanese and Spanish investigations technically remain open but the lesson was not lost on the Spanish battalion and the extracurricular activities apparently ended.
Although UNIFIL has been sharply criticised by the United States and Israel, the Lebanese state and army have the ultimate responsibility for ensuring the fulfilment of 1701. UNIFIL is present to assist the Lebanese Army, not to take the lead. UNIFIL sources said that to maintain stability in south Lebanon the Lebanese Army must provide a larger and more robust presence.
“The Lebanese Army needs to be empowered. UNIFIL is there to assist,” a UNIFIL officer said.
The Lebanese Army only has two depleted brigades in the UNIFIL area, numbering 1,500-2,000 soldiers. This figure lately has been augmented with the deployment of the 5th Intervention Regiment, with fewer than 1,000 soldiers, into the border area but it is unclear whether this is a temporary or long-term measure.
One potential solution being discussed is to raise two more Land Border Regiments to deploy along Lebanon’s southern border in line with the four regiments, trained and equipped by the British government, that are arrayed along the length of the frontier with Syria.