The European Union’s designation of Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization has cast a new light on the tussles between the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and the armed Shi’ite movement.
A Hezbollah official told the Financial Times last week, “People are not going to accept you living among them and calling them terrorists.”
Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and the head of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, told The Jerusalem Post on Saturday, “The reports of increased friction in southern Lebanon are not surprising after the European Union belatedly added Hezbollah to the list of terror organizations.”
According to a late-June UN report, the EU has thousands of military personnel as part of the 10,656-member force UNIFIL mission. The French contingent numbers 868 and Italy provides over a 1,000 troops. Smaller EU countries such as Ireland sent 360 and Belgium’s contribution totals 105.
UNIFIL has been present in southern Lebanon since 1978 to restore stability on the Israeli-Lebanese border. After the Second Lebanon War in 2006 between Hezbollah and Israel, the UNIFIL mandate was expanded to disarm Hezbollah’s weapons arsenal.
Despite the UNIFIL mandate, Hezbollah has amassed between 60,000 and 100,000 rockets since 2006, many of which now have long-range capability. Hezbollah took responsibility for wounding four IDF soldiers on Thursday on the Israel-Lebanon border.
The changed rhetoric and new tension between Hezbollah and UNIFIL was underscored by a remark from Ali Ahmed Zawi, a supporter of Hezbollah and a mayor of a southern town. He told the Financial Times, “We as locals in the South treated UNIFIL like sacred guests – we protected them. What do they do in return? Put us on the terrorist list.”
It is worth recalling that clashes between Hezbollah (or residents in the pro-Hezbollah region) and EU personnel from UNIFIL surfaced before the EU proscribed Hezbollah’s military arm as a terrorist group.
The Lebanese paper The Daily Star reported that a motorized patrol of Belgian peacekeepers in February sought to inspect a border fence close to Mais al-Jabal.
When a vehicle approached with five men inside, one of the peacekeepers tried to take a photograph of the occupants.
“Four of the five men jumped out of the car and snatched the camera along with the keys to the Belgians’ vehicle. The Belgians cocked their rifles and one of the Lebanese men put his hand inside his jacket as if to reach for a pistol,” the paper wrote.
The assailants eventually returned the keys but retained the camera. The Belgian contingent backed off from the conflict.
A month later, two men with walkie-talkies obstructed a group of Italian peacekeepers from entering a site where one can observe Wadi Mashawish.
After Lebanese troops appeared, the Italians retreated in order to “defuse the situation,” wrote The Daily Star.
Steinberg told the Post that “ in both instances described in this [Daily Star] report, the European forces backed off, continuing UNIFIL’s longestablished policy of avoiding confrontation as Hezbollah blatantly violates the 2006 cease-fire terms. As a result, Iran’s ally continues to prepare for attacks against Israel, while causing further disintegration of the Lebanese state.”
He continued, “To be taken seriously, Europe will have to decide whether it is willing to risk the costs of escalation which would result from enforcing the demilitarization of the area controlled by Hezbollah. If not, European leaders will have to adjust their rhetoric and avoid empty promises which they are unwilling or unable to fulfill.”
“Similarly, Israelis and Palestinians are aware of the growing disconnect between loud European policy pronouncements and minimal understanding of the situation on the ground. As a result, the EU has no role in the latest peace efforts.”
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