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Analysis

BICOM Analysis: New light on Hezbollah’s rearmament

Key points

  • Newly de-classified IDF intelligence has revealed unprecedented details of Hezbollah’s deployment in south Lebanese towns. 
  • Recent clashes between UNIFIL’s French contingent and residents of Shia villages in southern Lebanon have demonstrated the challenges in international monitoring of Hezbollah in south Lebanon.
  • The latest events shed new light on Hezbollah’s expanded military infrastructure south of the Litani River, in contravention of UN Resolution 1701. The new military infrastructure is deliberately centred on populated areas, placing the Shia population of south Lebanon in danger.
  • Placing military facilities in populated areas is a tactic that enables Hezbollah to side-step the presence of UN monitors and Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).
  • Lebanon is in a state of increased tension as the country awaits possible indictments by the Tribunal investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Growing tension between Hezbollah and French UNIFIL patrols may be related to this.

Introduction

Recent events have shed new light on Hezbollah’s rearmament in south Lebanon. In the last few weeks, the IDF has issued de-classified intelligence material showing in unprecedented detail Hezbollah’s deployment in a south Lebanese town. There has also been increased friction over the last two weeks between UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) and Shia residents of south Lebanon. Organised protests by Shia villagers appear part of an orchestrated attempt by Hezbollah to prevent UN monitors from interfering in the origination’s activities.

These developments contribute to a picture that is causing deep concern in Israel. Hezbollah is now believed to have 40,000 short range rockets south of the Litani River, more than before the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Hezbollah’s military infrastructure has been rebuilt, with its armaments now located within populated areas.  

Hezbollah’s reconstruction has taken place in contravention of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, passed following the 2006 war. This resolution specifically forbids Hezbollah from holding weaponry south of the Litani River. To enforce the resolution the size of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was increased to 12,000 troops, backed by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). 

Four years after the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War, the provisions put in place by 1701 have not prevented Hezbollah rearming. The weakness of the UNIFIL mission undermines the credibility of international monitoring forces to prevent the smuggling of weapons to extremist groups. This analysis looks at the recent developments, the shortcomings of the UNIFIL mission, and domestic developments which may be contributing to increased tensions within Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s rearmament

On 7 July, Israel Defense Forces revealed, in unprecedented detail, previously classified information about Hezbollah’s deployment in south Lebanon. The information released focused on El Khiam, a Shia town in south east Lebanon a few miles from the border with Israel. El Khiam was the scene of fighting during the 2006 war; the surrounding area was used by Hezbollah to launch Katyusha rockets at Israel. The IDF material included maps and a 3D simulated video of the village, showing that weaponry and rockets were being stored close to schools, hospitals and residential buildings.

The decision to release the material is interesting in itself. It shows the IDF’s growing awareness of the need to provide more public information about the challenges it faces.

Hezbollah’s weapons prior to 2006 were based mainly on areas of open countryside. However, since 2006 Hezbollah’s reconstruction has been in populated areas. This practice uses the civilian population of these areas as human shields, making it more difficult for Israel to attack Hezbollah’s military sites without risking civilian casualties. But the locating of ordnance in civilian areas is also a response to the presence of UNIFIL and the LAF. 

UNIFIL is active and visible in south Lebanon, but its activities follow predictable patterns. The UN forces carry out 400 foot, vehicle and air patrols per day. These take place exclusively along recognised patrol paths in rural areas. Here the force has had some success in locating hidden weapons.

When it comes to populated areas, UNIFIL has the right to conduct searches, but it must coordinate this activity in advance with the Lebanese Armed Forces. The LAF, however, prefer to avoid entering populated areas, in order to avoid friction with Hezbollah. This means in practice that populated areas have become more or less out of bounds to the forces tasked with implementing resolution 1701. Such areas are therefore the ideal site for Hezbollah to rebuild its military infrastructure. 

An explosion at a Hezbollah arms storage facility in the village of Tayr Falsir in October 2009 showed the extent to which Hezbollah is able to prevent interference from UNIFIL or the LAF. Hezbollah operatives sealed off the village after the explosion and removed weaponry from the site to another storage area to prevent it being seized. Throughout this process UNIFIL and LAF were not permitted to enter the area. 

Recent tensions between Hezbollah and UNIFIL

Tensions between UNIFIL and Hezbollah have re-surfaced in the past weeks, the underlying issue remains UNIFIL’s restricted access to populated areas. On June 29, UNIFIL carried out a deployment exercise. In the following week, enraged civilian crowds demonstrated against a number of UNIFIL patrols. French troops were particularly singled out for attention. An angry crowd pelted a French patrol in the village of Touline with rocks, sticks and eggs. 

A few days later, in the village of Kabrikha, 100 civilians gathered to prevent a French patrol from entering the village. The soldiers were reportedly disarmed by the crowd, and one was injured. Michael Williams, UN Special Coordinator in Lebanon, described some of the incidents as ‘clearly organized‘. There seems little doubt that the angry ‘civilian’ crowds who confronted the UN soldiers were organised by Hezbollah. The movement’s control of Shia villages in the south is complete, and its presence pervasive. Hezbollah leaders subsequently issued warnings to UNIFIL. The movement’s deputy leader Naim Qassem said that UNIFIL should ‘pay attention to what it does.’ UNIFIL’s Spanish commander, Alberto Asarta Cuevas, later apologised for the incidents. He promised that greater care would be taken in coordinating with the LAF into populated areas.

A number of explanations have emerged as to why Hezbollah chose this moment to escalate tensions. Firstly, Asarta Cuevas is considered to be a serious and professional commander. It is possible that Hezbollah wanted to demonstrate to him their authority in south Lebanon. However, Lebanese analysts have suggested other possible reasons.

The political situation in Lebanon is particularly tense because indictments may soon be issued by the Special Tribunal investigating the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. It is widely believed that Hezbollah is the main suspect in the killing. France is known to be playing a particularly active role in supporting the tribunal. The attacks on French UNIFIL patrols could be an attempt by Hezbollah to intimidate the French, reminding them of the vulnerability of their soldiers. Hezbollah might also be attempting to assert its authority against its pro-Western political rivals within Lebanon. Samir Geagea, leader of the ‘Lebanese Forces’ party within the pro-Western March 14 coalition, reportedly suggested that French force may also have been targeted because of French support for sanctions against Iran.

Conclusion

Recent events offer further confirmation of a worrying situation in south Lebanon. Hezbollah has rebuilt its military infrastructure in a way which deliberately places the Lebanese civilian population in danger. The provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 have been progressively undermined, by a combination of subterfuge and intimidation. Hezbollah has been able to go about its business largely undisturbed. The organisation has also shown its determination to prevent any effective curbing of its activities. There is no mandate or political will in any UNIFIL member country for confrontation with Hezbollah. The present situation is a logical consequence of this. The result is that a new military infrastructure has emerged, deeply embedded in the populated areas of south Lebanon.