UNIFIL will be Hezbollah's 'shield' in the next Lebanon/Israel conflict

Hezbollah's military grows in numbers on the Lebanon-Israel border, known as the Blue Line.

 A UNIFIL peacekeeper stands next to a UN vehicle in southern Lebanon, in April (photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)
A UNIFIL peacekeeper stands next to a UN vehicle in southern Lebanon, in April
(photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)

The last few months have witnessed an alarming development in southern Lebanon. For instance, the veiled yet blatant rise in the number of Hezbollah military collection sites on the boundary between Israel and Lebanon, known as the Blue Line. This recreates a tactical reality mirroring the Hezbollah disposition prior to July 2006 (the Second Lebanon War) and is a clear and present danger to northern Israel. 

The upcoming UN annual discussions on UNIFIL mandate renewal in late August is an opportune moment to reflect on this large organization’s actual impact in fulfilling its purpose, as prescribed by the UN Security Council following the war in August 2006 (UN National Security Council Resolution 1701): supporting “security arrangements to prevent the resumption of hostilities, including the establishment… of an area free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL”.

In 2006 UNIFIL’s Blue Line freedom of movement was limited due to Hezbollah intimidation and limited Lebanese support. It resulted, much like today, in enabling Hezbollah freedom of action and the creation of a tactical over-watch and land strike capability on Israel’s North. This included the establishment of overt military collection sites adjacent to Israel and the forward deployment of land attack strike teams (then known as “Nature Reserves”). It was a fragile situation that enabled the “Hezbollah attack on Israel on 12 July 2006…” (UNSCR 1701) leading to the outbreak of the 2006 war. 

Regarding the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), UNIFIL’s strategic partner, the 2006 post-conflict hopes that its deployment to the South would strengthen Lebanese sovereignty, has only led to steady disillusionment. LAF presence has only served, unfortunately, to further impair UNIFIL Blue Line land monitoring. 

Relying on the much-recycled LAF pretext of the last few years of so-called “Private Property” on the Blue Line, UNIFIL has been continuously denied access to growing swaths of the boundary between Israel and Lebanon, leading to the incremental pushback of UNIFIL from the Blue Line – one of the mission’s key achievements in 2006 and still a current key mission performance indicator. 

 A UN peacekeepers (UNIFIL) vehicle drives in Adaisseh village, near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon, August 6, 2021.  (credit: REUTERS/AZIZ TAHER) A UN peacekeepers (UNIFIL) vehicle drives in Adaisseh village, near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon, August 6, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/AZIZ TAHER)

It’s a  worrying result of LAF deference to Hezbollah and facilitation of the Iranian-backed armed non-government actors’ exclusive interests. In this case, it is serving as Hezbollah’s mouthpiece in enabling the continuous degradation of the very essence of UNSCR 1701 to prevent hostilities.

UNIFIL’S aerial monitoring is also ineffective in limiting Hezbollah military activity, as made clear in the July 14 report to the UN. While observing three unauthorized firing ranges in the force’s area of responsibility, UNIFIL claimed it was unable to investigate the violations. Similarly, UNIFIL has constantly been refused access to known sites of “serious violations of resolution 1701 (2006),” including Lebanese entrance sites to Hezbollah across Blue Line attack tunnels into Israel, which were neutralized by the IDF (2018-2019), and Hezbollah missiles strike points against Israel (such as the incident at the start of the Israeli school year, September 1, 2019). 

A UNIFIL assessment report for the UN secretary-general in June 2020 made it abundantly clear that this is a “core part of its mandate” and could impact UNIFIL’s capability to “prevent actions by parties that could undermine the cessation of hostilities.”

Furthermore, the UN report was clear on the Lebanese government’s responsibility to “provide access without hindrance to all areas that UNIFIL determines to be mandated priority.” Unfortunately, this too has yet to materialize. Yet UNIFIL continues to invest international funding into building LAF capacity. 

In June, a state-of-the-art site for a new model border regiment, funded by the European Union, France and with UNIFIL assistance, was set up in Srebbine (approximately 5 km. north of Israel). The inauguration created another opportunity for UNIFIL (France and the EU) to once again express support for LAF, while ignoring the facts on the ground – LAF serves as a Hezbollah tool at their whim and disposal. 

The current development on the Blue Line serves to underline the emerging reality of a full-blown return of Hezbollah military infrastructure and land attack strike capability to northern Israel. These include at least 16 intelligence collection sites (housed in custom-made containers) and spotting the “Green Without Borders” flag. 

It is a cynical cover for the military activity fronted as an ecological forestry project. Additionally, the last few months have seen an uptick in the presence of military-attired young men more than likely serving in the Hezbollah strike unit called Radwan, who will be responsible for infiltrating into Israel and attacking crucial assets once they are ordered. 

This is a totally new operational environment, reminiscent of 2006 – an evolution that UNIFIL is incapable of dealing with – not in preventing or in mending. The sad truth is that UNIFIL, although “putting in the hours,” is irrelevant regarding the developing challenges on Israel’s northern border or the potentially growing threat to Lebanon. In fact, in many ways its very size and bureaucratic state of mind (especially on reporting violations) only serves as a strategic impediment to its main mission – persistent engagement to prevent escalation. 

Unfortunately, the past few years have seen the force turn into a growing “white elephant”: It cannot prevent Blue Line violations (UNIFIL access is denied), it is unable to deter clear Hezbollah infractions (such as Radwan light infantry activity), and is unable to rollback what is clearly a major Hezbollah intelligence collection effort. 

Hezbollah efforts to reestablish Blue Line tactical superiority to pre-July 2006 levels only serve to heighten Blue Line tensions. It is the very friction that enabled the Hezbollah attack in July 2006 and UNIFIL’s main mission. Today, while discussing UNIFIL’s future in New York, is an opportune moment to consider downsizing the force.

This could serve as a clear message to the Lebanese to take responsibility, or at the very least to prevent UNIFIL serving as Hezbollah’s “Human Shield” in a potential devastating conflict. Yet unfortunately, the likelihood of that potential conflict has grown due to LAF subservience to Hezbollah, and UNIFIL irrelevance and dereliction of mission “to prevent the resumption of hostilities.”