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Another year of UNIFIL won’t have Hezbollah quaking in its boots just yet

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Earlier this summer, United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) Mission Commander Maj. Gen. Michael Beary gave a briefing to US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley from the Israeli side of the Lebanon border. According to Israel’s Channel 2, in the midst of explaining how the situation over the border was stable and required no further intervention, he was interrupted by a passionate outburst from Israel’s deputy Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi. Kochavi challenged his briefing, said the situation was worse than UNIFIL’s Commander was letting on, and claimed that their peacekeepers were wary of going into certain villages because of pressure from Hezbollah.

In short, Kochavi accused UNIFIL of failing to do its job properly.

Two months later, Beary and UNIFIL were criticised again. This time it was Ambassador Haley’s turn as she accused Beary of having “an embarrassing lack of understanding of what’s going on,” after the commander denied there was any evidence of large scale weapons smuggling to Hezbollah. “If there was a large cache of weapons, we would know about it,” he said.

Haley called Beary “blind” and “the only person” unable to see Hezbollah’s weapons smuggling in Lebanon.

Amid this intense scrutiny of UNIFIL’s work, and with their mandate due to expire, the UN Security Council (UNSC) voted on Wednesday whether to renew, lapse or expand the current remit of the peacekeeping force. Israel and the US made the case for expanding UNIFIL’s remit and powers, with France leading the opposition to any change. In a compromise, UNIFIL’s mandate was renewed for a further year and widened to give them more authority to address Hezbollah’s weapons in Lebanon.

Israel has long held major concerns over both Hezbollah’s increasing role in Lebanon and the effectiveness of UNIFIL in its current form of combatting them. In the 11 years since the 2006 Second Lebanon War, UNIFIL has been unable to fully implement UNSC Resolution 1701, which states that “there will be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese state”. In recent years, Hezbollah’s military capabilities have significantly increased, with the Shi’ite group now in possession of an estimated 130,000 missiles, including many advanced Russian and Iranian built weapons capable of reaching every major city in Israel. Security experts predict they would be capable of launching 1,000 missiles per day into Israel in any future conflict, overwhelming Israel’s Iron Dome and David’s Sling defence systems.

Israel’s Chief of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, told the Herzliya conference in June that Iran has been working to construct underground factories in Lebanon to allow Hezbollah to produce advanced, precision targeted weapons. Hezbollah’s heavy involvement in the Syrian civil war and the increasing investment from Iran have given thousands of Hezbollah fighters enhanced combat experience working with complex military logistics. On top of that, last week – and despite official denials – Hezbollah and Lebanese Armed Forces appeared to cooperate in an operation against ISIS forces. This is only the most recent example of Hezbollah’s growing cohesion with Lebanon’s state institutions.

The current state of calm in Lebanon, of which UNIFIL must take some credit, belies the failure to address many of Hezbollah’s weapons smuggling; in other words, UNIFIL has avoided greater confrontation with Hezbollah by avoiding certain areas under their control. Assaf Orion in INSS points to the way UNIFIL have used euphemism such as “unfriendly behaviour” in their official reports, instead of identifying prohibited activity.

Israel claims that Hezbollah operatives disguised as environmentalists or civilian photographers regularly enter forbidden areas by approaching the border fence. Senior IDF officers have been quoted saying that “UNIFIL assists Hezbollah … they do what Hezbollah tells them to do”.

So what can the UN do to counteract this?

Israel and the US had wanted to see a major beefing up of UNIFIL’s remit and powers, but there is little appetite for this in the international community. UNIFIL already has 10,500 peacekeepers, not including civilian staff, and a budget of close to half a billion US dollars that most consider to be sufficient for them to maintain the peace. France and Italy, both of whom contribute significant portions of the UNIFIL force, had reservations about the possibility for retributive terror attacks by Hezbollah endangering their forces if the remit was expanded. Russia and, crucially, the Lebanese state expressed their wish for the mandate to be renewed without amendment.

While not as extensive as Israel would have liked, the newly passed UNSC Resolution 2373 strengthens the mission by granting UNIFIL authority to “take all necessary actions” to ensure that its area of operations is “not utilised for hostile activities of any kind”. Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon described the vote “as a victory for Israel,” saying the resolution requires UNIFIL to “open its eyes, and forces it to act against Hezbollah’s terror build-up in the area”.

However, the wording of the resolution is vague and does not specify precisely how UNIFIL will use its greater authority or explain what “all necessary actions” might involve. UNIFIL may be more willing to search private property under the new mandate, which currently it avoids doing unless it has reason to believe there are weapons concealed inside, and we may see peacekeepers entering urban areas where they have been effectively deterred from patrolling in the past by Hezbollah; or, given that Major General Beary, France and Italy opposed any changes to the mandate, UNIFIL may change very little about their current operations. Six Spanish peacekeepers were killed by an explosion near Khiyam in 2007, and Beary will be all too aware that a more invasive strategy from UNIFIL may lead to similar retaliatory attacks. Beneath the UNSC’s rhetoric, the resolution allows the Mission Commander a good deal of room for interpretation.

What we can expect is more robust reporting of Hezbollah activities by UNIFIL, and hopefully a tightening up of the vague language used. The UNSC has asked for each specific violation to be detailed, and though UNIFIL has used euphemistic terms to avoid this in the past, it seems unlikely they will be able to get away with this now.

Eleven years since UNIFIL was tasked with clearing southern Lebanon of Hezbollah arms and military facilities, Israel will hope the new resolution calling “for full implementation of resolution 1701” will bring this a step closer.

On the other hand, past experience has taught Israel to be wary of expecting any big change from UNIFIL’s operations just yet. And if Hezbollah succeeds in domestically producing sophisticated precision weapons, the situation could get even worse, regardless of how successful the new UNIFIL is.

Simon Smith is Communications Officer at BICOM.