Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
The renewal of the mandate for the UN Interim Force in Lebanon – a peacekeeping force deployed along the Israel-Lebanon border – was agreed last Thursday by the UN Security Council. The initial vote was delayed as permanent UNSC members the US and the UK objected to the resolution drafted by France, as it was perceived as restricting UNIFIL’s movement. Of course, Hezbollah does not want the UN force to move freely and uncover its hideouts and arms depots. However, the more Hezbollah is perceived as being in control of southern Lebanon, the more it is prone to a strike by Israel.
Last year’s mandate renewal included a provision that allowed UNIFIL troops to carry out patrols without prior coordination with the Lebanese army, in addition to those previously announced. However, Lebanon wanted to change that provision this time around. Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib also refused a provision that would have transferred the UNIFIL’s mandate from Chapter VI of the UN Charter to Chapter VII. While Chapter VI calls for resolving conflict using peaceful means, Chapter VII is used when the situation is disastrous and the use of force is required. In this case, when a state represents a danger to its citizens and its neighbors, the UNSC can use forceful means to establish order.
While the Lebanese government, which is under Hezbollah’s influence, used sovereignty as a pretext to reject this provision, the issue is actually far more complicated than that. Do we remember the tragic death of a young Irish UNIFIL soldier in the south of Lebanon last year? While the story that Hezbollah tried to spread was that a clash occurred between a patrol and residents of Al-Aqbiya, the talk that circulated in the town was that the luckless soldier went where he was not supposed to go. Perhaps he uncovered a Hezbollah arms depot.
The soldier’s death created embarrassment for everyone, but particularly for Hezbollah. Lebanon’s military court has charged five members of the group with killing the Irish peacekeeper. Ten days after the incident, Hezbollah surrendered a man suspected of being the main assailant. Does it want to see similar incidents occur in the future? Of course not. That is why restrictions on the movement of UNIFIL troops are required: to maintain the security of the group’s infrastructure for its own survival. While Culture Minister Mohammed Al-Murtada made a statement dismissing the likelihood of Chapter VII being introduced, it has turned out to be quite possible and the vote was actually passed. Though the text includes a clause about “coordination with the army,” it uses strong language regarding permitting UNIFIL to have free movement in the south.
The UK issued an especially harsh statement on the mandate. After the vote, the Foreign Ministry stated: “It is unacceptable that UNIFIL is still unable to access some locations along the Blue Line border, including Green Without Borders sites. Particularly given Hezbollah’s self-acknowledged stockpiling of weapons in violation of Resolution 1701.” While Green Without Borders is supposed to be an environmental initiative, it is rumored to be an undercover intelligence-gathering operation for Hezbollah. The project was last month sanctioned by the US as it was judged to be providing support for the group. Hezbollah is in a delicate position. It trusts no one. Its closest ally, the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, in June turned its back and allied itself with the Lebanese Forces by backing Jihad Azour, the International Monetary Fund’s Middle East director, to be Lebanon’s next president. Even though the whole drama was staged so that Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil could extort more concessions from Hezbollah, the group now knows that even its closest allies can blackmail it.
The group has three centers of gravity: the south, the Bekaa and the southern suburbs of Beirut. Will it allow any of these centers to be exposed? Of course not. Hence, with increased insecurity comes an increased need for control, particularly the control of its facilities. This control now seems elusive, threatened as it is by UNIFIL’s freedom of movement. The group certainly does not trust the UN with its facilities, but it also does not want to incite a confrontation with Israel. UNIFIL’s restricted movement worked well for Hezbollah. It prevented a strike by Israel while allowing the group to operate quietly. This is now changing. Israel is no longer content with a restricted UNIFIL. It wants either greater enforcement of the UN force’s mandate or it wants to solve the problem by its own hand.
A confrontation with Israel is not in Hezbollah’s interest, especially not now. Today, there is rising anti-Hezbollah sentiment in Lebanon. The group feels it is being pushed into a corner. There is a strong Christian-led movement against it. The Christian street is talking about partitioning the country and federalism. Is it the time for a fight with Israel? Not really. A fight would reinforce Christians’ demands for federalism, as they would not want to be constantly under threat of a strike by a belligerent neighbor. Israel has no interest in a confrontation with Lebanon. It has enough internal problems already. It does not need another Gaza on its northern frontier. It also does not want chaos in Lebanon, as this would have a spillover effect. However, if there was any perceived danger, security comes first, meaning it would strike.
Hezbollah needs to maintain the prestige it has among the Shiite community as a resistance force – hence all the muscle-flexing in the south. But it needs to avoid crossing the threshold that will cause a reaction from the Israeli side. So, in a way, the UN vote decreases the threat of a potential Israeli strike. The more that Israel feels that Hezbollah is contained, the less insecure it is and the less it contemplates a strike. UNIFIL’s presence is needed to prevent another strike. Nevertheless, the vote put Hezbollah in a catch-22 situation: It cannot afford to get exposed by UNIFIL, but it also cannot afford a confrontation like the one with the Irish soldier. Though Hezbollah reportedly belittled the decision and said it would remain “ink on paper,” the group is in a difficult situation. However, this is a test to show how much it can push the limits.