The threat to Israel posed by the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah has grown exponentially since the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. While U.N. Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1701, passed to end the war, was intended to disarm Hezbollah and demilitarize southern Lebanon, neither of these goals has been achieved—with Hezbollah in fact better armed today and southern Lebanon far more militarized.
In November, 241 members of the U.S. House of Representatives from across the political spectrum urged U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to fully enforce UNSC Resolution 1701.
Specifically, the bipartisan congressional letter urges Guterres “to lead an international effort to limit Hezbollah’s capabilities and to avoid the devastating but avoidable outcome…if Israel must act to defend its citizens because Hezbollah has positioned its massive arsenal in civilian areas.”
The letter highlights Hezbollah’s recent aggression against Israel, including a cross-border missile attack, precision-guided missile upgrades and terror tunnel construction.
This letter—and the aggressive actions that prompted it—serves as a stark reminder that nearly 41 years after the U.N. formed the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to bring peace to Beirut, the government is no closer to consolidating control over the country, posing a serious threat to Israel’s security.
UNIFIL’s Unfulfilled Mandate
The Second Lebanon War of 2006—which was triggered by Hezbollah’s continued attacks against Israel—ended with the unanimous passage of UNSC Resolution 1701.
The resolution did many things: It strengthened and expanded UNIFIL to more than seven times its previous size (from 2,000 troops to as many as 15,000), created an arms-free buffer zone in southern Lebanon to be jointly patrolled by the U.N. peacekeeping force and Lebanese army, and authorized UNIFIL to “take all necessary action”—including the use of force—to impose peace in the buffer zone, disarm Lebanese militias (i.e., Hezbollah), ensure its freedom of movement, safeguard its self-defense and civilians’ security, and demilitarize southern Lebanon.
The U.N. hoped that the bolstered force would be the support Lebanon needed to finally disarm Hezbollah and reclaim its sovereignty.
Unfortunately, this did not happen.
Impose Peace in the Buffer Zone: UNSCR 1701 authorizes UNIFIL to “ensure that its area of operations is not utilized for hostile activities of any kind.” However, in December 2018, Israel made a significant discovery proving this was not the case: six Hezbollah attack tunnels. For years, Hezbollah was digging these sophisticated terror tunnels into Israel from underneath Lebanese communities, with the intent of infiltrating Israel, kidnapping civilians and capturing Israeli communities along the border. Moreover, this past September, Hezbollah launched multiple missiles into Israel from southern Lebanon.
Disarm Militias: The peacekeeping force is also mandated to do “everything necessary” to enforce UNSCR 1701’s order to disarm all armed groups in Lebanon. However, instead of disarming Hezbollah, UNIFIL has allowed the terrorist proxy to grow unchecked. Today, Hezbollah has 45,000 fighters—more than double what it had in 2006—and up to 150,000 rockets and missiles—10 times as many as it had in 2006. Moreover, Hezbollah’s weapons today are far more advanced and have longer ranges than those in 2006.
Ensure its Freedom of Movement and Patrol: UNIFIL is mandated to “take all necessary action…to ensure the security and freedom of movement of United Nations personnel.” Despite this, UNIFIL routinely fails to patrol areas known to host illicit Hezbollah weapons for fear of Hezbollah and backs down to avoid conflict with the terrorist group. For example, after Israel revealed Hezbollah’s terror tunnels in southern Lebanon, UNIFIL attempted to inspect the sites. However, Hezbollah fighters blocking roads and Lebanese Armed Forces claiming private property rights denied access to UNIFIL. In another instance, in August 2018, Hezbollah militants blocked and attacked a U.N. convoy, setting an armored U.N. vehicle aflame. Rather than standing their ground as their rules of engagement dictate, UNIFIL peacekeepers fled and surrendered their weapons to Hezbollah.
Safeguard its Self-Defense and Civilians’ Security: UNSCR 1701 mandates UNIFIL to “protect United Nations personnel and…civilians under imminent threat of physical violence.” Instead, UNIFIL failed to use force in the face of Hezbollah’s attacks on UNIFIL and Israel in August 2018 and September 2019. The peacekeeping force’s unwillingness to act has also allowed Hezbollah to turn the Lebanese population in southern Lebanon into human shields. The terrorist group positions much of its forces and weapons inside hospitals, homes, schools and mosques, in direct violation of Article 58 of the Geneva Conventions’ Additional Protocols. According to the IDF, one out of every three or four houses in southern Lebanon hosts a Hezbollah base, post, weapons depot or hideout.
Demilitarize Southern Lebanon: UNIFIL is also required to ensure its area of operation in southern Lebanon is free of “any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL.” Instead, southern Lebanon now is a maze of Hezbollah command posts, underground bunkers, rocket-launch sites and interconnecting tunnels. The Israeli military revealed in June 2017 that Hezbollah had established approximately 15 military outposts along the Israel-Lebanon border, including some located mere feet from UNIFIL outposts.
Given UNIFIL’s decades of ineffectiveness, the United Nations must address the shortcomings in the peacekeeping force’s mandate. It can accomplish this, most effectively, by authorizing—as it did in 2007 and 2008—a third-party review of UNIFIL and implementing subsequent, proposed reforms.
In the meantime, the UNSC could consider authorizing private property inspections, installing third-party-run monitoring mechanisms, empowering operational independence, reiterating authorization to use force, installing veto power over the Head of Mission, and increasing the frequency and detail of the force’s reporting.
Equally if not more pressing than disarming Hezbollah, however, is preventing the terrorist group from acquiring any more advanced weaponry—especially precision-guided munitions. The U.N. should therefore also consider addressing Hezbollah’s illegal cross-border smuggling by expanding UNIFIL’s area of operation to along the Lebanese-Syrian border. The U.N. should also implement international oversight of the Beirut-Rafic Hariri Airport, Beirut Seaport, Lebanese Customs authority, and other border crossings and ports known for Hezbollah smuggling activity.
Finally, the United States should continue to exert maximum political, diplomatic and economic pressure on Hezbollah. Concurrently, the United States must support the Lebanese people’s right to a nation-state free of armed non-state actors, and Israel’s right to defend itself from the threat of the Iranian-backed terrorist organization. At present, however, unless UNIFIL adopts a more active role and receives an enhanced mandate and additional support, it will remain a bystander as the security situation on Israel’s northern border continues to deteriorate.
Type: Near-East-Report Near East Report NERWinter2019-2020