UNIFIL’s mandate solely tested by tensions between Hezbollah and Israel

Sunday 01/10/2017
Hezbollah pressures. Peacekeepers of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) stand near their vehicles during a media tour organised by Hezbollah officials in the Lebanese village of Labbouneh near the Lebanese-Israeli border, last April. (AFP)

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.