(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
There is no mistaking the worrying similarity between the challenges that beset Israel on its borders with Lebanon and Gaza. Both were sites of unilateral Israeli withdrawals, followed almost instantaneously by reinforcement of the most fanatical terrorist organizations Israel faces, deployment by them of rocketry aimed at Israeli civilians and intermittent border attacks and kidnappings, as well as audacious stockpiling of weaponry dangerous both in terms of quality and quantity.
In both cases, Israel, pulling back to international border lines, hoped it could rely on neighboring forces and the international community to ensure those borders were respected: UN forces and the Lebanese army in Lebanon, Egyptian forces along the Philadelphi Corridor that separates Egypt from the Gaza Strip, and various other international players. In both cases, such hopes have been dashed, and any expectation of a change for the better is being dashed too.
After this summer's Hizbullah-provoked war, a beefed-up UNIFIL incarnation was promised. But this enlarged force, with its supposedly more serious mandate, is plainly, and quite predictably, proving disinclined to intervene effectively to prevent the rearming of Hizbullah, much less to confront it and seek to complete the IDF's partial achievements toward defanging Hizbullah entirely.
Disturbingly, indeed, and despite Israel's record of restraint - respecting the Lebanese border for years even as it watched Iran build Hizbullah into the world's best-armed terrorist force - some of those responsible for UNIFIL seem to have misidentified the enemy, perceiving Israel as the threat to tranquility, rather than Sheikh Nasrallah and his Teheran-inspired forces.
Instead of bolstering Israel in the effort to defeat hostile forces, UNIFIL is in some cases actually seeking to limit Israel's room for maneuver, issuing complaints and even threats over Israeli reconnaissance flights - in what amounts to a policy that, far from thwarting Hizbullah, would provide it with still wider immunity.
Similar scenarios are playing out in the South, where Israel is still coming under intermittent Kassam attack, and where a scant Egyptian presence has done little or nothing to thwart the importation of huge amounts of explosives and antitank and ground-to-air-missiles, mostly smuggled in via a veritable "underground city," as Chief-of-Staff Dan Halutz has dubbed the intricate system of tunnels dug and expanded under not-so-watchful Egyptian eyes.
The controversial Philadelphi agreement with Egypt stipulated that despite peace-treaty restrictions, Egypt may significantly increase the number of its armed personnel on the border. The Egyptians had on a few occasions intimated that they would increase their vigilance, but this has failed to materialize. On Monday, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak personally denied reports that some 5,000 Egyptian security police had been dispatched to the border to bolster security.
It's fair to conjecture that were Egypt faced with a situation of arms smuggled the other way - to the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance - its response would be considerably more resolute.
Were Egypt belatedly to live up to its obligations, any sense of "better late than never" would be offset by the intelligence reports of how much materiel has already made its way to the gunmen, bombers and rocket crews of the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip. But there are no indications, even now, that Cairo is about to emerge from its lethargy.
The option of ceding Philadelphi was rejected in the original Oslo Accords, precisely because of concerns over arms supplies being smuggled into Gaza. But in September of last year, the Defense Ministry's Amos Gilad assured the nation that "the deal with Egypt is excellent and thoroughly professional. It should well serve as a model for agreements with other states in the region and constitutes an impressive basis for the improvement of strategic cooperation with Egypt."
This assurance has proved misplaced, just as the hope that the importation of European soldiers would ensure calm in southern Lebanon is proving unfounded. As Israel grapples with the challenges on its northern and southern borders, its conceptual overhaul can no longer credibly accommodate the notion of overwhelming reliance on outside forces to provide protection.
Israel complied to the last centimeter with UN demarcations of the border line with Lebanon. Its pullout from the security zone in May 2000, however, saw Hizbullah given free rein to fill the vacuum left by the departing IDF, with UNIFIL an irrelevant presence.