Why Israel might ultimately determine UNIFIL’s budget
Beirut - The UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, is going to have to tighten its belt next year as the United States is proposing to slash its contribution to the 39-year-old mission by more than $70 million, which equates to about 15% of UNIFIL’s budget.
The cut in Washington’s annual allocation to UNIFIL is included in a draft US State Department foreign aid budget for 2018 that reflects the Trump administration’s determination to slash overseas spending. However, with tensions at a high level between Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah, a potential weakening of UNIFIL could send the wrong message to the warring parties.
“If they [the United States and Israel] are unhappy with us, how is cutting $70 million from our budget going to help?” said a senior UNIFIL official.
Israel has repeatedly accused UNIFIL of failing in its mission to prevent Hezbollah from conducting military activities in the peacekeepers’ area of operations. The Israeli point of view has been supported by US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who voiced her own criticism of UNIFIL’s performance following a recent visit to Israel.
Specifically, Israel charges that UNIFIL patrols do not enter villages and search houses and turn a blind eye to Hezbollah’s surreptitious activities in the border area.
Israel is, perhaps deliberately, misrepresenting UNIFIL’s mission. Its role is not to take the lead in ensuring that UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war, is implemented correctly. It is the Lebanese state that is responsible for ensuring the fulfilment of Resolution 1701 in relation to security in the border district. UNIFIL is there to “accompany,” “support” and “assist” the Lebanese Army.
Nevertheless, it is widely understood that Hezbollah operates in the southern border district. There have been numerous hints at covert military activity by Hezbollah over the years, including the discovery of a massive anti-tank “belly charge” explosive device that was being buried beneath a road close to the Blue Line and mysterious explosions that destroyed buildings suspected to have been weapons storage sites.
UNIFIL patrols are sometimes blocked from accessing certain valleys by plainclothes men. When these incidents occur, army intelligence personnel are called to the scene and they usually side with the “civilians,” telling the UNIFIL soldiers that the property they wish to reach is privately owned and therefore off-limits.
In recent months, Hezbollah personnel have been conducting a thorough survey of the Blue Line, in part to observe the defensive measures being undertaken by the Israeli military. The survey is well-organised and involves at least two teams, one carrying out the survey work and another providing watch from parked vehicles. No weapons are visible nor uniforms worn and UNIFIL has been told that the survey work has been authorised by municipalities in the area, giving the activity an official sheen.
UNIFIL understands very well what is going on but it is powerless to intervene in an activity that does not actually represent a direct breach of Resolution 1701 and has not been opposed by the Lebanese state.
Nevertheless, these ambiguities provide ammunition for critics of UNIFIL to accuse the force of, at best, being weak and, at worst, complicit in Hezbollah’s military undertakings in the border district.
UNIFIL’s current strength stands at 11,390 personnel compared to 2,000 armed observers that made up the force before the 2006 war. It includes a maritime task force, which patrols the eastern Mediterranean to intercept arms smuggling attempts into Lebanon.
UNIFIL is the only UN mission to boast a navy. The 2016-17 budget for UNIFIL stood at about $488.7 million, of which almost half was provided by the United States.
When UNIFIL’s mandate was renewed last year, the UN Security Council called for a strategic review of the peacekeeping force to examine whether the current configuration was still suitable. After ten years of stability along the Blue Line, there was a growing support for downsizing the costly mission and allow the Lebanese state to step up its responsibility in the southern border area. Despite UN Resolution 1701 calling for up to 15,000 Lebanese troops in south Lebanon, there are only two undersized brigades — numbering a few thousand troops — deployed.
The strategic review, which was published in March, said that the “overall strategic political guidance is to maintain the current strength, composition and configuration of UNIFIL.”
The recommendation to essentially change nothing in UNIFIL’s configuration garnered little sympathy from the Trump administration.
Still, the slashing of $73 million from the US allocation to UNIFIL could be reversed to an extent, Western diplomats and analysts said. While budgets are drawn up by government agencies, it is Congress that decides on the final allocation of funding.
Despite Israel’s persistent grumbling about UNIFIL, it is unlikely that the Jewish state would welcome a reduction in the force due to budgetary constraints. Israel may make its objections known to the US Congress, which has plenty of Israel-friendly ears and is the final arbiter in determining the foreign aid budget.
Nevertheless, it looks likely that UNIFIL’s budget for 2018 will be lower than the previous years. UNIFIL’s most important role is to provide the vital liaison channel between Lebanon and Israel that helps resolve numerous minor disputes that could otherwise flare up. So long as this mechanism is left intact and there remains an international presence along the Blue Line, a downward reconfiguration of UNIFIL could be applicable.
In 2006, UNIFIL’s 2,000 armed observers were powerless to halt a war between Hezbollah and Israel once it began. UNIFIL’s current 11,000-plus peacekeepers would be equally impotent in a future war. The only difference is that next time there might be an additional 9,000 blue helmets trapped in observation posts and looking for cover while Hezbollah and Israel wage their bloody war around them.