No one wishes to see a war break out between Israel and Hezbollah. After the defeat of ISIS, several possible scenarios have emerged, which point to further escalation and internationalization of the Syrian conflict. In recent months, we witnessed a Turkish campaign against the Kurds of Syria, an American assault on Russian mercenaries and an altercation between Israel and Iran.
The tension between Lebanon and Israel is rising and the possibility of the two waging war against each other cannot be discounted. Still, Israel and Hezbollah do not seem likely to engage in any confrontation imminently. However, as Hezbollah fighters return to Lebanon after being successful having rescued Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, indications suggest that the stalemate may begin to unravel. Between the two sparring sides stands The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), whose task is to supervise the end of hostilities between Lebanon and Israel, which are still technically at war. With the emergence of new squabbles between the two sides, such as Israel’s construction of a border wall and the dispute over offshore oil and gas blocks in the Mediterranean Sea, the situation between Lebanon and Israel may explode. This had subjected UNIFIL to harsh criticism.
On February 23, French weekly Le Journal de Dimanche published an investigative report about the ongoing tensions and stated that UNIFIL troops are trying to stay out of sight and only hope to postpone the next war.
Touring a treacherous border
In December, the Iranian-backed leader of Iraq’s Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq Qais al-Khazali toured Southern Lebanon, where he was escorted by three Hezbollah military personnel. Their trip ended in the border village of Kafr Kila located a few meters away from an Israeli outpost. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri asserted that he had instructed Lebanese security services to deny Khazali entry into the country in the future, yet these instructions did not stop Hezbollah from inviting Haj Hamza, the commander of the Syrian Shiite Imam Al-Baqer Brigade, and taking him on a tour similar to that of Khazali.
UNIFIL’s 15,000 troops deployed on the highly fractious borders were not alerted to the visits of non-Lebanese militiamen to Southern Lebanon. UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti said addressing these visits were the responsibility of the Lebanese authorities.
Hezbollah Violates UN Resolution
UN Resolution 1701 requires UNIFIL troops to not allow any military personnel on the Lebanese side of the border, with the exception of the Lebanese army. International troops are currently deployed in an area inhabited by Shiite Muslims, where nothing is done without the permission of Hezbollah. A French soldier in a mechanized infantry brigade has acknowledged that compared to 2006 and 2007, “now we are less independent. We used to patrol Bint Jbeil, one of Hezbollah’s villages, despite having Hezbollah elements following us at a distance. Today, it’s impossible. When we talk to locals about these areas they tell us: No patrols, no problems.” Another soldier says: “We never leave the barracks at night, because the Lebanese army does not like it, and at this time many things happen.”
Similarly, a former UNIFIL liaison officer states: “Whenever we detect military activities in our area, especially near the Blue Line, the Lebanese army prevents us from deploying observers. It appears as if the orders are not issued by its officers, and everyone knows that Hezbollah is preparing the area for the next war.”
Hezbollah has always accused the ‘blue helmets’ (UN soldiers) of spying for Israel. Hezbollah does not hesitate to infiltrate UNIFIL, which employs 585 Lebanese people, many among whom do not hide their affiliation with Hezbollah.
The same fact has been confirmed by a Finnish officer who stated that some UNIFIL troops come from countries that do not recognize Israel, stressing that Indonesian peacekeepers regularly inform the Lebanese side, including Hezbollah, about Israeli movements. For his part, editor of the journal Notebooks from the East Antoine Sfeir has stated that even Hezbollah has been infiltrated by Israeli intelligence, adding that a large section of the Shiite community there is closer to Israel than what others may think.
After Le Journal de Dimanche published its report, UN peacekeeping chief Jean-Pierre Lacroix visited Lebanon for the first time since he assumed his position in April last year. During his visit, he applauded UNIFIL’s joint efforts with the Lebanese army. Nevertheless, this applause does not negate the fact that UNIFIL may be under pressure, which includes over cutting its budget. United States ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has described UNIFIL Commander In Chief General Michael Perry as the only blind person in southern Lebanon who does not see the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah. Following the statement, UNIFIL has increased its patrols in southern Lebanon.
This action does not comfort Israel, which is putting all of its focus on Hezbollah and Iranian facilities along the borders between Israel and Syria. It is very interested in Lebanon, where Hezbollah keeps 150,000 rockets. In fact, there is little doubt on both sides of the border that another war could erupt within months — especially that Hezbollah has sparked tensions every summer since the 2006 July War. With developments taking place in Syria, many incidents have rapidly transpired on the Lebanese-Israeli borders. Three weeks ago, Israel began building a wall replacing the ruined barrier. The new construction is expected to be higher, thicker and harder to breach, making it difficult for Hezbollah to keep an eye on Israel. The wall which is expected to be 75 miles long has become a cause for bitter disagreement between the two countries.
Lebanese officials consider the wall a transgression of Lebanon's sovereignty, but UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti said that peacekeepers are overseeing the construction of the wall and that they are confident that it is being built on the Israeli side of the Blue Line, the informal border to which Israeli forces withdrew in the year 2000.
Maritime borders have also become a bone of contention between the two countries after the discovery of huge reserves of natural gas in East of the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon has signed contracts with three large foreign companies to begin gas exploration and Israel has claimed that part of the gas-rich area falls under its territory. Sayyed Nasrallah has seized upon the oil and gas issue in order to restore his failing national influence, after having sent Hezbollah fighters to protect the Assad regime.
Amid this confusion, the United States is trying to play a mediating role. Meanwhile, UNIFIL is on the ground seeking to ease tensions. Although its operations are flawed and although Hezbollah is trying to violate Resolution 1701, many Lebanese feel safe having it around.
UNIFIL’s budget woes
The Trump administration intends to reduce UNIFIL’s budget from $146 million to $84 million, which would prove disastrous if the war in Syria takes a new turn. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has turned down a Russian proposal for a political solution, stating that he is winning the war. Meanwhile, relations between Russia and Iran are tense because of who will make more gains in Syria. The war in Lebanon does not appear a likely proposition, and its prospect may lessen because of an international consensus on “sparing Lebanon.” However, Hezbollah which returns to Lebanon victorious along with Iran, after having restored the Assad-led regime, may look for a new conflict in which to demonstrate its combat expertise gained in Syria. With the United States insistence on maintaining its control over the stretch between Abu Kamel and al-Tanf to block the rising Iranian ‘Shiite Crescent’ and Israel's resolve to stop Hezbollah and Iran from securing their positions near its borders, no possibility can be ruled out. However, the Shiites in Southern Lebanon are likely to be the biggest losers this time after having enjoyed 11 years of stability and prosperity.
Lebanese officials are preoccupied with their preparations for the parliamentary elections, hoping that problems of the Lebanese citizens will be solved by the presence of oil and gas. Hezbollah seems confident that its candidates will win in the South; however this is not the case in Hermel and Baalbeck.
Iran will certainly not pressure Hezbollah to confront Israel now, before it has a strong bloc in the parliament.
What is needed of the other blocs is to not allow Hezbollah to drag the state into a new war for the sake of Bashar al-Assad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei!
This article is also available in Arabic.
Huda al-Husseini is a political writer who focuses on Middle East geopolitics.