Why Israel might ultimately determine UNIFIL’s budget

Sunday 09/07/2017
Making a difference. Boys greet members of UN peacekeepers of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in the town of al-Wazzani in southern Lebanon. (Reuters)

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.