The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) celebrated the 40th anniversary of its founding on March 19. UNIFIL Head of Mission and Force Commander Maj. Gen. Michael Beary (Irish Army) congratulated the peacekeeping force for its part in maintaining calm over the most recent 12 years along the Israel-Lebanon border. But in the years since the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah has grown considerably stronger and better equipped to conduct a future, large-scale attack on Israel—with UNIFIL doing little to curb the threat posed by the terrorist organization.
The Creation of UNIFIL
UNIFIL was created in 1978, following Israel’s first operation in southern Lebanon to expel the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) terrorist presence on its northern border—which had experienced increased volatility since the PLO moved there from Jordan. Lebanon protested to the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), claiming it was not responsible for the PLO terrorist attacks carried out from southern Lebanon.
To help resolve this conflict, UNIFIL was tasked with overseeing Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon, restoring peace and stability, and assisting the Government of Lebanon in regaining authority over the southern part of its country. Despite the new U.N. presence, Lebanon’s Civil War (1975-1990) and PLO-initiated terrorism from southern Lebanon continued unabated.
Following rocket attacks from Lebanon into Israel, and the attempted assassination of a prominent Israeli diplomat by terrorists, Israel launched Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982. The action resulted in Israel temporarily occupying a buffer zone in southern Lebanon, led to the First Lebanon War, and also resulted in the creation of the Iranian-proxy Hezbollah. Israel unilaterally and fully withdrew from this zone in 2000, as confirmed by the U.N. forces. But Hezbollah—whose main goal was supposedly to expel Israel from Lebanon—chose to dramatically strengthen its presence along the Israel-Lebanon border, from where it continues to threaten Israel.
In 2006, following the murder and abduction of Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah, the Second Lebanon War began, resulting in a month-long conflict that ended indecisively.
A Mandate Unfulfilled
Of note, the preceding 28 years of threats and warfare emanating from Lebanon into Israel occurred despite the presence of UNIFIL. As a result, shortly after the 2006 war ended, the UNSC renewed and expanded UNIFIL’s mandate, most notably by tasking the force with countering Hezbollah efforts to rearm and attack Israel again.
Specifically, UNSC Resolution 1701 tasked UNIFIL with aiding in “the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon,” of which Hezbollah was by far the strongest. It further authorized UNIFIL to create an approximately 25-mile (40-kilometer) buffer zone in south Lebanon free of “any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL.”
The new mandate additionally increased UNIFIL’s strength from 2,000 to 15,000 troops, ordering the peacekeeping force to “take all necessary action” to “ensure that its area of operations is not utilized for hostile activities of any kind.” With this enlarged presence, UNIFIL was charged with preventing all arms transfers to Lebanese non-state actors—most notably Hezbollah.
This year, on its 40th anniversary, UNIFIL has clearly failed to fulfill this mandate. The approximately 25-mile buffer zone—UNIFIL’s area of operation—is firmly controlled by Hezbollah, not the Lebanese government. UNIFIL routinely fails to patrol parts of the buffer zone where Hezbollah operates and stashes weapons, for fear of confrontations with the well-armed terrorist group.
Since UNIFIL’s 2006 mandate, Hezbollah has grown substantially in both military and political power. Entrenched on Israel’s northern border, the terrorist organization has built outposts—frequently situated mere feet from UNIFIL outposts—under the guise of an environmental NGO called “Green Without Borders.” According to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), one out of every three or four houses in southern Lebanese now hosts a Hezbollah base, post, weapons depot or hideout. Hezbollah’s leaders have installed missiles in mosques, hospitals, homes and schools, making virtually all of southern Lebanon a maze of Hezbollah underground bunkers, command posts, rocket-launch sites, and interconnecting tunnels.
Today, Hezbollah has an estimated 150,000 rockets and missiles—more than 10 times what it had in 2006—of varying ranges and accuracy, many of which are more destructive and more precise than their predecessors. Virtually all of these munitions have been smuggled into Lebanon across the Syria border.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres acknowledged in a March 2018 report that “the presence of unauthorized weapons in the hands of Hezbollah remains of serious concern and warrants condemnation.” He added, “The maintenance of arms outside the control of the state by Hezbollah and other groups continues to restrict the ability of the government of Lebanon to exercise full sovereignty and authority over its territory. Hezbollah continued to acknowledge publicly that it maintains its military capacity.”
But, given Hezbollah unwillingness to cooperate with UNIFIL, Guterres argued that the U.N. cannot substantiate these claims independently, and simply condemns Hezbollah’s possession of unauthorized weapons and calls upon the Lebanese government—not UNIFIL—to disarm it.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in a January 2018 interview publicly boasted that the group is “working day and night…to obtain all kinds of weapons that would enable it to achieve victory in the next war.” Nevertheless, UNIFIL Commander Maj. Gen. Beary has claimed to know nothing about such activities: “If there was a large cache of weapons [entering southern Lebanon], we would know about it.”
Although UNIFIL has the authority to use force, it barely even acts like an observation force, often turning a blind eye to Hezbollah’s violations while urging all sides to adhere to UNSC Resolution 1701.
In blatant disregard, Lebanese President Michel Aoun in a 2017 interview said that he does not currently seek to disarm Hezbollah, which “uses its weapons to ensure our resistance against the Israeli entity.” Hezbollah politicians and bureaucrats either control or strongly influence all branches of the Lebanese government. The Government of Lebanon has neither the ability nor the inclination to challenge Hezbollah, which conducts itself as a fully autonomous armed entity in control of southern Lebanon, dedicated to Israel’s destruction.
U.S. and Israeli Complaints and Actions
The United States and Israel have regularly protested UNIFIL’s failure to enforce the 2006 ceasefire and the disarmament of Hezbollah. In August 2017, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley stated: “conditions in south Lebanon are very dangerous today. The clouds of war are gathering,” even though “UNIFIL exists to help prevent war from happening again.”
In August 2017, U.S. and Israeli efforts led to the passage of a new U.N. resolution that renewed UNIFIL for another year and included language reaffirming the peacekeeping force’s authority to “take all necessary action” to impede “hostile activities of any kind.” UNSC Resolution 2373 also asked Secretary-General Guterres to look for ways UNIFIL can increase its visible presence within the existing mandate, including through patrols and inspections. Unfortunately, UNIFIL has not heeded this order, and little has changed.
In addition, since 2017, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been building fortified, underground missile production factories in Lebanon. There is little Jerusalem can do to target these facilities without escalating tensions.
Over the last decade, Israel has sought to fill the arms-control vacuum created by the negligence of UNIFIL and the Lebanese Armed Forces. Israel has destroyed some Hezbollah weapons shipments with airstrikes, and, in 2009, seized the cargo ship MV Francop—a German-owned vessel being used to transport 400 tons of weapons—including thousands of Katyusha rockets—from Iran to Hezbollah.
UNIFIL congratulates itself for what it calls an “oasis of peace” on the Israeli-Lebanese border. But to the extent that there is quiet on that border, it derives from three sources: Israeli deterrence of Hezbollah in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War; Hezbollah’s current focus on fighting on Iran’s behalf in Syria; and Israeli restraint in responding to Hezbollah’s weapons buildup. UNIFIL’s passivity and inaction endanger the current calm and may make it unsustainable in the long term. 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.
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