Commentary Magazine


Topic: UNIFIL

Hezbollah Feels Unappreciated

Last month, I wrote about one misguided response to the European Union’s decision to blacklist the “military wing” of Hezbollah: the concern by a Mideast analyst that Hezbollah would cease being a “stabilizing” force in Lebanon in a fit of pique. I objected that, first, Hezbollah was not actually a stabilizing force in Lebanon because the article concerned spillover into Lebanon from the war in Syria, a conflagration Hezbollah was actively feeding by fighting on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s forces and thus Lebanon was absorbing retribution, not provocation.

Second, I criticized the flawed logic that held that appeasing Hezbollah could keep the group from carrying out attacks in Lebanon and elsewhere when that is exactly what Hezbollah has already been doing for decades, because that is the group’s raison d’être. But apparently, though not entirely unsurprisingly, the belief in the power of appeasement is present among media covering the international force tasked with trying to keep the peace (and Hezbollah in check) in southern Lebanon, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. The Financial Times reports that the decision has left “some observers even fearing for the peacekeepers’ safety.” Those “observers” are mostly absent from the report, and UNIFIL commanders deny there’s an issue. So do Hezbollah representatives, but the Financial Times isn’t so sure:

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Last month, I wrote about one misguided response to the European Union’s decision to blacklist the “military wing” of Hezbollah: the concern by a Mideast analyst that Hezbollah would cease being a “stabilizing” force in Lebanon in a fit of pique. I objected that, first, Hezbollah was not actually a stabilizing force in Lebanon because the article concerned spillover into Lebanon from the war in Syria, a conflagration Hezbollah was actively feeding by fighting on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s forces and thus Lebanon was absorbing retribution, not provocation.

Second, I criticized the flawed logic that held that appeasing Hezbollah could keep the group from carrying out attacks in Lebanon and elsewhere when that is exactly what Hezbollah has already been doing for decades, because that is the group’s raison d’être. But apparently, though not entirely unsurprisingly, the belief in the power of appeasement is present among media covering the international force tasked with trying to keep the peace (and Hezbollah in check) in southern Lebanon, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. The Financial Times reports that the decision has left “some observers even fearing for the peacekeepers’ safety.” Those “observers” are mostly absent from the report, and UNIFIL commanders deny there’s an issue. So do Hezbollah representatives, but the Financial Times isn’t so sure:

However, even if Hizbollah as an organisation has decided not to turn up the heat on European peacekeepers, villagers angered by the decision might confront a Unifil convoy, Mr Goksel said. And extremist groups known to operate in the south might take advantage of the situation to launch an attack on Unifil, a Lebanese security official said.

The security environment in the south is murky, and two years ago, unknown assailants targeted French and Italian peacekeepers. More than a dozen were wounded by three roadside bombs.

Yes, the security situation there is “murky”–if only there were an international force on the ground to keep things in order! Perhaps there’s money in the UN budget for a peacekeeping force to protect the peacekeeping force from threats the Financial Times says lurk in shadows. Of course, UNIFIL has a history of watching Hezbollah rearm for another potential conflict with Israel, so it well knows who Hezbollah’s weapons are aimed at anyway.

Sitting on the sidelines, however, might be better than what UNIFIL tends to do in times of war. In 2006, UNIFIL posted Israeli troop movements on its website, a helpful guide for Hezbollah to follow if it wanted to know where Israeli reinforcements might turn up. (After the war in 2006, I called a UNIFIL official on the ground in south Lebanon to ask him what they were thinking. He claimed they were only copying what the IDF was doing, but a simple comparison of the two websites debunked the excuse.)

Those who claim that UNIFIL might as well formally take sides against Israel instead of feigning neutrality are usually dismissed as cranks. But actually, that’s how Hezbollah sees it. The Financial Times explains why Hezbollah’s supporters were so disappointed in the EU’s terror designation:

In Hizbollah’s eyes, the foreign troops in the country’s south that were bulked up after the 2006 war are under their protection. Though the peacekeepers are supposed to help the Lebanese army curb Hizbollah’s military activities in the south, their mandate to enforce this is limited. The force, meanwhile, and particularly the Europeans in it, provides Hizbollah with a buffer against future Israeli attacks.

The EU designation has tested Hizbollah’s relationship with Unifil. “We as locals in the south treated the Unifil like sacred guests – we protected them,” says Ali Ahmed Zawi, the pro-Hizbollah mayor of one south Lebanon village. “What do they do in return? Put us on the terrorist list.”

That is an actual quote, though the whole thing reads like a parody. Hezbollah thinks UNIFIL is like a litter of strays taken in by the magnanimous Hassan Nasrallah. In Nasrallah’s mind, the roles are inverted: Hezbollah is the humanitarian relief agency keeping the peace. And this is the thanks he gets!

It’s worth pointing out here that some observers saw all this coming a mile away. As Benny Avni wrote in the New York Sun in October 2006, it took only a couple months for the pessimists’ fears to be confirmed. Here is how he described the concerns of the naysayers who were soon vindicated:

Back then, pessimists said an international force would need to maintain close ties and avoid confrontation with Shiite supporters of Hezbollah if it were to succeed. Consequently, the beefed-up U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon would hinder Israel’s ability to carry pinpoint operations across the border. Hezbollah would gain an ally, while the Israeli army would face a new obstacle.

This was one of what Avni called “worst-case scenarios.” But notice how this went from worst-case scenario to reality to Hezbollah’s revisionist history of the intent and mission of the force. Hezbollah thinks they took UNIFIL under their wing and developed a rapport based on mutual cooperation and appreciation. The problem is not that the EU’s terror designation disrupted that fantasy, but that UNIFIL ever let that fantasy take root in the first place.

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