Losing the Scent in South Lebanon
Last week, the IDF released evidence of Hizbullah stockpiling of weaponry in populated civilian areas of southern Lebanon. The IDF material showed an aerial map of the Shi'ite town of El Khiam. The map showed details of a developed military infrastructure woven into the fabric of the town's civilian population.
While the precise details were new, the fact of Hizbullah's use of civilian areas as bases for its military reconstruction after 2006 is by now no longer a major revelation.
The fact of this activity is not seriously in doubt. It is in direct contravention of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war. The mechanisms by which Hizbullah and its allies act to neutralize the 12,000 strong international force tasked with preventing the movement's military activities in Lebanon's south have also been in evidence over the last couple of weeks.
Tensions have been steadily rising between elements of the UNIFIL forces deployed in south Lebanon (specifically - the French contingent) and supporters of Hizbullah's "resistance." A number of incidents have taken place. On June 29, UNIFIL conducted a 36-hour deployment exercise.
In the days that followed, members of the French contingent were attacked in the village of Touline by a crowd which pelted them with rocks, sticks and eggs.
On Saturday, July 3, in the village of Kabrikha, a gathering of around 100 civilians blocked the road, preventing a French UNIFIL patrol from entering the village. The soldiers were reportedly disarmed, and a number were injured. The Lebanese army eventually intervened to separate the crowd from the patrol. Villagers interviewed after the incidents claimed that UNIFIL troops had tried to enter homes - a claim which a spokesman for the UN forces denied.
Michael Williams, UN special coordinator for Lebanon, meanwhile, described the incidents as "clearly organized."
Williams was correct. Mobs of 100 civilians do not suddenly appear by accident in southern Lebanon. It is not an area known for its liberal attitudes toward freedom of political association. In the Shi'ite villages of the area, the only force able to march, demonstrate and make its presence felt is the "resistance" - that is Hizbullah - and its allies.
Sure enough, as UNIFIL commander Alberto Asarta Cuevas sought assurances in the days that followed, Hizbullah leaders issued a number of statements expressing puzzlement at UNIFIL's recent increase in activity. The movement's deputy chief Naim Qassem laconically advised UNIFIL to "watch what it does." Hussein Haj Hassan, a movement member who serves as minister of agriculture in the current Lebanese government, described UNIFIL's behavior as "incomprehensible." "One wonders what they want," he added.
In the Lebanese manner, a rumor then began to do the rounds that the UNIFIL deployment exercise was in fact a trial run of a move whereby international forces moved to prevent rocket fire on Israel. A Hizbullah-associated MP, Muhammad Raad, said that that if a particular country affiliated with UNIFIL wanted to "give the Israelis a card," it should not seek to do so at the expense of southern Lebanon. It was unacceptable, said Raad, that "some UNIFIL units" might be taking orders from their own minister of defense, rather than from the UN.
In reality, Israeli commanders could only dream of such activity being undertaken by the UN force. But such an interpretation has the unmistakable quality of a further warning to the international forces not to overstep the recognized rules of the game between them and Hizbullah. Hizbullah expects a "live and let live" attitude both from the international forces and from the Lebanese army regarding its military activities and preparations in the south.
FOLLOWING A series of consultations with the Lebanese government and armed forces, UNIFIL commander Asarta this week issued a contrite statement, apologizing to the residents of the south for the inconvenience to them caused by his force's activities. He expressed his "love" for Lebanon. It was later announced that henceforth, UNIFIL would no longer use sniffer dogs in patrols (a point which had reportedly particularly annoyed the villagers). Also, it was reiterated that UNIFIL would not enter houses and yards in populated areas, except with prior coordination and the involvement of the Lebanese Armed Forces.
Given that the UNIFIL activity that prompted the actions and statements by Hizbullah did not differ in a major way from previous practices, a number of theories have been raised as to why the "resistance" chose to draw attention to it in the way that it did.
In an interview with the Lebanese An-Nahar newspaper, Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces movement, speculated that the decision to move against the French UNIFIL contingent related to anger at France's decision to vote in favor of further sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council. According to such an interpretation, the latest events would be by way of a friendly reminder to the French of the vulnerability of their troops in southern Lebanon.
Geagea also noted French support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. This is the body charged with investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. The latest reports suggest that the tribunal is soon to issue indictments. Hizbullah is now considered to be the main suspect in the killing. But whatever the precise reasons for Hizbullah's latest move against the French element in UNIFIL, the recent events once more demonstrate the relative helplessness of the UN force.
The photos released by the IDF last week may have reassured Israelis by demonstrating the extent of its "coverage" of southern Lebanon. But they also showed the degree to which Hizbullah has been able to rebuild and rearm undisturbed south of the Litani since 2006. Some 160 Shi'ite villages have been turned into armed camps similar to El Khiam, we are told. All of this has taken place under the sensitive noses of the (now demobilized) UNIFIL sniffer dogs. The dogs, or someone else, have also apparently chewed up and digested UN Resolution 1701.
Dr. Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Herzliya, Israel