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Since the cease-fire took effect a month ago in Lebanon, the existing 2,000-member UNIFIL contingent has expanded to about 5,500 troops, and it is expected to grow to 8,000 in November. Time and again, Israel and the US were assured that the new, more robust UNIFIL would be nothing like the old, discredited force, which acted as human shields for the massive Hizbullah weapons buildup that led to the recent war.
Signs are already growing, however, that the "new" UNIFIL, though larger and better armed, will not act appreciably differently to the "old" UNIFIL that has existed since 1978.
In an exclusive interview with our reporter Yaakov Katz in these pages on Friday, UNIFIL commander Maj.-Gen. Alain Pellegrini explained that UN Security Council Resolution 1701 resulted in new rules of engagement for UNIFIL. Previously, UNIFIL could only open fire to defend itself. Now, it is authorized to use force to implement Resolution 1701, which requires the disarmament of Hizbullah.
Yet when asked whether UNIFIL would intervene against Hizbullah forces on their way to attack Israel over the international border, Pellegrini said that UNIFIL was in Lebanon to "assist the Lebanese army... and to inform them and advise them how they can do their job." UNIFIL was not there to disarm or engage Hizbullah, and if it saw "something dangerous" unfolding, it would "inform the Lebanese army" and would take action only if asked to do so by the Lebanese army.
Pellegrini was less circumspect when it came to Israel. Speaking of continued Israeli intelligence-gathering overflights of Lebanon, he called them "unacceptable and dangerous... violations [of 1701 that] are not justifiable with the deployment of the Lebanese army and the enhancement of UNIFIL."
For the first time in 40 years, the Lebanese army has been deploying along the border with Israel. On Thursday, however, hundreds of Hizbullah supporters marched up to the border fence near Metulla, waving Hizbullah flags.
The picture that is emerging, then, is mixed. Pellegrini claims that the Lebanese army has been intercepting weapons shipments from Syria. "This border is airtight and hermetically closed by the Lebanese army," he said.
The combined forces of UNIFIL and the Lebanese army could, if they so decide, stop the rearmament of Hizbullah and prevent attacks by Hizbullah across the border with Israel. And some actions in this direction seem to be taking place.
It remains far from clear that the will of those seeking to prevent a Hizbullah buildup, to the extent it exists, is sufficient to block the determined efforts of Hizbullah, Syria and Iran.
Syrian President Bashar Assad's recent interview supposedly expressing interest in peace with Israel actually contained more threats than it did olive branches, among them a warning to Europe not to "waste time" trying to prevent weapons shipments to Hizbullah. The leader of Hizbullah, Hassan Nassrallah, also boasted that he had 20,000 missiles and openly rejected the UN mandate that he disarm.
Under these circumstances, it is hardly sufficient for UNIFIL to stand around and complain about Israel. A month after a devastating war, with some 5,000 Israeli troops still in Lebanon and the soldiers whose kidnapping precipitated the war still in captivity, UNIFIL is already showing signs that it may not take the actions necessary to prevent a return to the status quo ante. What, then, will prevent the next war?
If there is any lesson to be learned from the last war, it is that the only way to prevent a renewed conflict is to prevent Hizbullah from being in a position to start one.
This means disarming Hizbullah, and keeping it away from the border, not just "sharing" that border and standing by as it becomes a potential flashpoint. It is hard to see how this can happen if UNIFIL refuses to use its new capabilities to fulfill its new mandate.
Preventing the next war also means UNIFIL actively working to at least report violations of 1701 by Lebanon, Hizbullah and Syria, not just violations by Israel. These Israeli violations are necessitated by the failure of Lebanon and UNIFIL to fully implement that resolution's essence, namely preventing the recreation of a tinderbox.