The Israeli-Lebanese border, a powder keg ready to explode any time

Since 2006, made exception for a few border skirmishes, the Israeli-Lebanese border has been relatively calm. Despite its apparent calmness though, tensions between Israel and Hezbollah has been on the rise continually, especially in consideration of the upgrade of the Party of God’s arsenal and the de facto failure of UNIFIL. Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian crisis has spared this border from further escalation, but as the Shiite powers and groups in the Middle East face a turning point, this border could become a new front line to find legitimacy in the eyes of supporters, groups, and States.

The Israeli-Lebanese border, a powder keg ready to explode any time - Geopolitica.info

The relatively calm between Israel and Hezbollah is a very volatile powder keg, liable of turning the Israeli-Lebanese border in a new battlefield any time. Indeed, a new conflict between the two parties is considered inevitable by both populations in Israel and Lebanon. Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian crisis has changed its position on the regional check-board, shifting its role from subjected to Assad’s power to watchtower of his power. In this present stage, only Iran is set on a commanding position over Hezbollah.

The failure of UNIFIL and the growing regional role played by Hezbollah

During the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 1701 with the purpose of restoring calmness on the border, cut the weapon rearmament and smuggling to the Party of God’s militias, and prevent the Party from enhancing its activities in the buffer zone between the Litani river and the border.

Though everyone agreed on putting an end to the hostilities, some of the transcripts of the meeting at the UNSC express the different diplomatic and political approaches and standings of the parties involved, including the international community’s institutions:

«Welcoming the 7 August decision of the Lebanese Government to deploy 15,000 armed troops in Southern Lebanon, the Council extended the mandate of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) through the end of August 2007, and increased its troop strength –- currently at some 2,000 -– to a maximum of 15,000. In addition to carrying out its original mandate under Council resolutions 425 and 426 (1978), UNIFIL would, among other things, monitor the cessation of hostilities; and extend its assistance to help ensure humanitarian access to civilian populations and the voluntary and safe return of displaced persons.

The text emphasizes the importance of the Government of Lebanon extending its control over all Lebanese territory in accordance with the provisions of Council resolutions 1559 (2004) and 1680 (2006), and calls upon that Government to secure its borders and other entry points to prevent the entry, without its consent, of arms or related materiel. It further decides that all States shall take the necessary measures to prevent, “by their nationals or from their territories or using their flag vessels or aircraft” the sale or supply of arms and related materiel of all types, to any entity or individual in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s Acting Foreign Minister Tarek Mitri told the Council that, while his country is eager to see a cessation of hostilities, the nature of the cessation must be the same for both sides. “The Lebanese are not confident in [an] Israeli distinction between ‘defensive’ and ‘offensive’. The end to military operations should be unqualified”, he said, adding that “the obscenely disproportionate and unjustifiable Israeli retaliation” has already led to the deaths of more than 1,000 Lebanese.

Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman said the way to avoid the crisis between Israel and Lebanon had been clear: implementation of the unconditional obligations set out in resolutions 1559 and 1680, which had set out issues for resolutions between Syria and Lebanon. The clear path forward was by disarming and disbanding Hizbollah and other militias, as well as by Lebanon’s exercise of authority over all its territory. But the will to implement such actions had been lacking, leading the people of Israel and Lebanon to pay a heavy price. The resolution adopted this evening represented “an opportunity to correct the mistakes of the past and to create a genuine new reality in our region”.»

The resolution that was adopted set the principles to follow and the aims to reach:

«“13. Requests the Secretary-General urgently to put in place measures to ensure UNIFIL is able to carry out the functions envisaged in this resolution, urges Member States to consider making appropriate contributions to UNIFIL and to respond positively to requests for assistance from the Force, and expresses its strong appreciation to those who have contributed to UNIFIL in the past;

“14. Calls upon the Government of Lebanon to secure its borders and other entry points to prevent the entry in Lebanon without its consent of arms or related materiel and requests UNIFIL as authorized in paragraph 11 to assist the Government of Lebanon at its request;

“15.  Decides further that all States shall take the necessary measures to prevent, by their nationals or from their territories or using their flag vessels or aircraft:

“(a)  The sale or supply to any entity or individual in Lebanon of arms and related materiel of all types, including weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment, paramilitary equipment, and spare parts for the aforementioned, whether or not originating in their territories; and

“(b) The provision to any entity or individual in Lebanon of any technical training or assistance related to the provision, manufacture, maintenance or use of the items listed in subparagraph (a) above;

except that these prohibitions shall not apply to arms, related material, training or assistance authorized by the Government of Lebanon or by UNIFIL as authorized in paragraph 11”.»

Through the years this resolution proved to be void in its meaning. The proof is the continuing rearmament of Hezbollah, with an arsenal that reached far beyond the quality and the quantity it had in 2006, and its continuing activities in the buffer zone.

This constant growth has been possible on one side because of the political network it developed and the role it plays in the Iranian strategy, while on the other through the securing of “safe smuggling passages” on the Syrian-Lebanese border. The role it is currently playing in the Syrian crisis and its fights against the ISIS and al-Nusra militias haven strengthened and confirmed its position as one of the regional key players.

Despite this role, its main weakness though is to be found in the Lebanese political environment itself. Hezbollah controls every inch of Southern Lebanon, but has never been able to really take control of the Lebanese political spectrum. Many are the enemies it has on that front and putting in jeopardy the Lebanese population through its open hostility with Israel has brought the population and the political arena to distance itself from it.

The Lebanese government does not speak openly against Hezbollah as this would be implicitly considered standing on Israel’s side, at the same time though it is bringing on a silent policy to undermine Hezbollah’s power and avoid, as far as possible, new open hostilities with Israel that would only result in bloodshed on Lebanese soil.

Israel and the future war against Hezbollah

The State of Israel lives by the principle of safeguarding its security by itself, for this reason it is very sceptical about the role that international forces, such as UNIFIL, can play in preventing an escalation of hostilities.

Lately Tzahal (Tz’vah Haganah Le-Yisrael – Israel Defence Forces, IDF) has released some of the information it has about Hezbollah’s military deployment in Southern Lebanon. Some of the information concern a Shiite village called Muhaybib, a town with less than two thousands inhabitants: in this village the IDF has discovered arms deposits, rocket-launching sites,  infantry positions, underground tunnels, anti-tank positions, and a Hezbollah command post.

Many are the reasons why Israel may have decided to release these kind of information. The first may be found in its need to make the international community aware of the deteriorating situation on its borders.

While a second reason may be found in Israel’s need to set a new hasbara, a new public relations policy: Israel’s military operations in Gaza have always had as consequence an outbreak of criticism and its explanations have never been considered satisfactory by the international community. The IDF is very well aware that a war with Hezbollah will be much harder and will cost a higher number of human lives on both sides than those with Hamas. For this reason, from an Israeli perspective, it is mandatory to set a new policy in order to avoid the media implications of previous military operations.

A third reason may be found in Israel’s attempts to create an “empty area” around Hezbollah: the more IDF’s message reaches the Lebanese population, the higher are the chances that the this population itself will turn politically and socially against Hezbollah. The main purpose is to undermine the social safety net that the Party of God has been able to create in order to buy the population’s loyalty through the provision of services not provided by the government.

Conclusions

Both Israel and Hezbollah know that the countdown is on. Hezbollah’s artillery is now capable of reaching almost any major city in Israel. The question therefore is not any more if there will be a war, but when and who will shoot the first bullet.

The international community does not have the political tools to avoid this conflict. Hezbollah’s mainly raison d’etre is fighting Israel. Hezbollah is too important for Iran as it allows its regime to have a foothold on the Mediterranean coast.

Israel has set red lines, at the same time as long as Hezbollah will be actively involved in the Syrian crisis and in other Middle Eastern strategic regions, this war will be postponed.