Last Wednesday night, the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL), who have been operating since 1978, were reminded of the scary reality of their deployment in a volatile area. Iran’s Lebanese proxies militia Hezbollah faces it, on the one hand, while on the other by Israel, which lurks in waiting and observes an area it considers a national security threat.
The tragic incident involved a contingent of the Irish regiment deployed with the UNIFIL. It was ambushed by the ‘people” of the southern village of Aqbieh near Sarfand in the south of Lebanon. It’s an area 15 kilometers outside the regiment’s sanctioned area of operation.
According to local sources - usually a cover name for Hezbollah - the UNIFIL patrol had allegedly got lost and swayed off course while driving to the capital Beirut. It traveled into the village of Aqbieh, where it got into a car accident and ran over a person from the village. It was an act that unleashed the wrath of the residents, who opened gunfire at the military convoy, leading to the death of 23-year-old Private Seán Rooney and the injury of three other Irish soldiers.
The UNIFIL statement was very much reserved and did not offer any justification or details about the incident. Nor did it contradict the metanarrative by Hezbollah, which denied any involvement of its members or supporters, dismissing this incident as personal.
The Aqbieh incident is not the first of its kind. Time and again, Hezbollah has used the villagers in different parts of the UNIFIL area of operation lying south of the Litani River to send messages or to warn it off. It was the first time Hezbollah resorted to using extreme violence.
The violence requires a deconstruction of the facts at hand and a re-examination of the way Hezbollah departed from its earlier bullying practices and the timing of the ambush: it fell before the holidays when most UNIFIL troops and administrators entered vacation.
The presence of the UNIFIL patrol 15 km from its area of operation refutes the “getting lost” tale. The Tyre-Sidon-Beirut road is straight and easy to navigate. Peacekeepers have used this pathway for years to drive to Beirut to resupply or for rest and recovery. Moreover, the UNIFIL vehicles are equipped with GPS and connected to a central command room they would have contacted if lost. In turn, UNIFIL would liaison with the Lebanese army and even Hezbollah to ensure their safe passage.
Above all, the video clip circulating of the UNIFIL vehicle coming under fire shows that the shooters were highly skilled in accurately hitting the car with more than one shot while withdrawing from the crowd. Second and more importantly, these so-called villagers who ambushed the UNIFIL were all of military age and were drawn from the youth. Very few women and children were around, as there usually are when village scuffles erupt. Notably, the pictures of the ambush clearly show Hezbollah’s intention to use lethal force and not only scare away the peacekeepers. It is hard to believe that villagers would shoot at a UN convoy with the intent to kill without explicit instructions from Hezbollah and assurances that whoever carries out this task is immune from justice. All crimes involving Hezbollah are never adequately investigated by the Lebanese state. It includes the assassination of my excellent friend and ardent voice for freedom of expression, Lokman Slim. He was murdered deep in the heart of the south on February 3, 2021, a few miles away from one of the biggest UNFIFL bases. It was a crime that a private citizen had committed and would have been apprehended within hours of the incident.
As UNIFIL chose to call it, this severe incident came almost ten days before a rumoured visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to Lebanon. On Christmas Eve, he will likely visit French troops operating alongside several international forces in the south. It’s notable that one day before the incident, the former French defense minister Michel Alliot-Marie speaking to al-Arabiya TV, accused Hezbollah and the Syrian regime of assassinating former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. It marked the first time the French had come out with this accusation towards Hezbollah.
The incident comes a few months after Hezbollah accused UNIFIL of expanding its mandate. This allegation was outwardly denied by the latter as it assured that its “freedom of movement has been reiterated in Security Council resolutions renewing UNIFIL’s mandate, including Resolution 1701 in 2006, and UNIFIL’s Status of Forces Agreement, signed in 1995.”
While all of the political speculations on the incident might be valid, the main underlining reason for the Hezbollah ambush on the UNIFIL is a security and a military motive. Al-Aqibiya and the coastal line is a critical line for Hezbollah and an important location for weapons depots as it lies outside the jurisdiction of UNSCR 1701. In the past few years, multiple explosions at Hezbollah arms depot occurred, which were never investigated by the Lebanese authorities and brushed aside by Hezbollah as accidents.
Consequently, Hezbollah has been actively transporting new weapons components such as intelligent missiles, drone technology and even chemical weapons into Lebanon. It’s something the Israelis will not sit idle about, and thus, the south of Lebanon, specifically the area where the ambush took place, would soon be the target of a routine airstrike by the Israeli air force. Hezbollah wants to remind the international community that it will not tolerate any oversight of its activity in the area or future aerial attacks against its depots. In its eyes, the 10,000 peacekeepers from 48 troop-contributing countries stationed in the south of Lebanon are merely hostages.
The UNIFIL ambush is an affirmation of what Hezbollah does best, using terror and violence to remind everyone what’s at stake and bully nations within the UNIFIL to coincide with its demands. Many European states have done so this year. The UNFIFL peacekeepers and the innocent blood of Sean Rooney should act as an earnest reminder to apologists, chiefly amongst them French President Emmanuel Macron, that violence and impunity will never breed stability. Sitting down with the so-called political representatives of Iran’s Lebanon proxy Hezbollah, as he has done in the past, will only drive them to use terror more copiously.
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