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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

UNIFIL: Passive Observer to Hezbollah’s Violation of International Law

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) revealed in June that the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah has been operating along the Israel-Lebanon border under the guise of an environmental NGO—Green Without Borders—to spy on Israel. The United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) subsequently rejected Israel’s claim, stating that it “has not observed any unauthorized armed persons at the locations or found any basis to report a violation of resolution 1701.” 

This most recent incident underscores how UNIFIL’s passivity in the face of Hezbollah’s blatant disregard for United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1701—adopted in 2006 following the Second Lebanon War—has permitted the terrorist group to turn southern Lebanon into a fortress from which it can attack Israel with impunity.  

UNIFIL has failed to ensure Hezbollah’s disarmament.

UNSCR 1701 increased the size of UNIFIL—originally created in 1978 to patrol the Israel-Lebanon border—and authorized it to take “all necessary action” to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon and ensure the disarmament of all non-state actors in Lebanon, including Hezbollah. While the U.N. recognized that Israel complied with UNSCR 1701 by removing its forces from Lebanon, Hezbollah continues to defy and disregard all of its provisions. The terrorist group now has up to 40,000 fighters, thousands of whom are battle-tested from fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war.

UNSCR 1701 also specifically mandates that the area between the Blue Line—the internationally recognized border between Israel and Lebanon—and the Litani River in southern Lebanon remain “free of any armed personnel…and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL.” Hezbollah personnel, however, are routinely spotted in this area. In 2008, and again in 2015, Hezbollah openly defied UNSCR 1701 by conducting military exercises in the border region.

In April 2017, Hezbollah organized a tour for Lebanese photographers and journalists, reportedly accompanied by armed fighters, along the border with Israel. In response, Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Danny Danon wrote a letter to the U.N. Security Council stating: “It is extremely disturbing that armed Hezbollah militants feel free to move openly in UNIFIL’s area of operation, without being challenged by UNIFIL or LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces] personnel. The well-documented and photographic proof of this blatant provocation once again verifies the maintenance of arms by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, in clear violation of UNSC resolutions 1701 and 1559. This recent report adds to other evidence that demonstrates Hezbollah’s ongoing efforts in strengthening its military infrastructure in southern Lebanon.” 

Since UNSCR 1701’s passage in 2006, Hezbollah’s arsenal has grown nearly tenfold with Iran’s help. Then, the terrorist group possessed approximately 15,000 rockets; today it has up to 150,000 missiles and rockets—many of which are more destructive and capable of precisely targeting any location in Israel. Hezbollah now also possesses advanced Russian-produced SA-22 anti-aircraft missiles and P-800 Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles that can strike Israel’s offshore gas platforms. Troublingly, Iran recently began building underground missile factories for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and has supplied the group with drones, which have been deployed to spy on Israel.

The terrorist group has also embedded its forces within civilian infrastructure—virtually all of southern Lebanon is a Hezbollah fortress of underground bunkers, rocket launch sites and interconnecting tunnels. While UNIFIL has pledged to investigate Hezbollah’s practice of using human shields, it has done nothing to remove Hezbollah facilities from civilian areas. The Iranian proxy will almost certainly use the inhabitants of southern Lebanon as human shields in any future confrontation with Israel, which will significantly increase Lebanese civilian casualties.

UNIFIL’s passivity in southern Lebanon prevents it from thwarting Hezbollah weapons smuggling and terrorist activity.

Although Israel’s northern border has been relatively quiet since 2006, multiple incidents of cross-border violence underscore UNIFIL’s shortcomings in maintaining peace.

  • In 2013, Hezbollah planted an explosive on the Israel-Lebanon border, injuring four Israeli soldiers.

  • In 2014, a Hezbollah roadside bomb injured two Israeli soldiers in a disputed strip of territory along the Lebanon-Israel-Syria border, known as Shebaa Farms.

  • In 2015, Hezbollah launched anti-tank missiles at an Israeli vehicle traveling in the Shebaa Farms area, killing two IDF soldiers. The terrorist group later claimed it was retaliation for an alleged Israeli drone attack.

According to a March 2017 U.N. Secretary-General report, “UNIFIL does not proactively search private property for weapons in the south, unless there is credible evidence of a violation of resolution 1701.” Israeli Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi recently told U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley that a substantive change of UNIFIL strategy would require a “confrontation with Hezbollah, [who] very crudely violates U.N. decisions.”

Many analysts believe that UNIFIL’s passivity stems from intimidation by Hezbollah and the reluctance of the Lebanese state to cross swords with the terrorist group. For example, Hezbollah fighters have blocked UNIFIL soldiers from accessing U.N. monitoring posts near the Israeli border, forcing them to withdraw. The U.N. mandate also restricts UNIFIL from increasing its forces in Lebanon or deploying them along the Lebanon-Syria border unless Beirut specifically requests such action; the Lebanese government has never asked UNIFIL to expand its activities or take any measures to limit Hezbollah’s freedom of action in southern Lebanon. 

Later this month, the UNSC must renew UNIFIL’s annual mandate. Given UNIFIL’s failure to acknowledge the threat from Hezbollah—much less do anything to diminish it—the United States must seek an improvement in UNIFIL’s performance. Washington should highlight UNIFIL’s deficiencies during the review process and urge it to find the means to remedy them. The United States must also demand that the international community hold Hezbollah and its sponsor Iran accountable for their blatant defiance of UNSCR 1701. Encouragingly, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Aug. 7 that the United States wants UNIFIL to take on an expanded mission and investigate any Hezbollah violations in southern Lebanon.

Tags: Near-East-Report Near East Report