Commentary Magazine


Topic: UNIFIL

Outsourcing Israel’s Security to Peacekeepers

Following yesterday’s attack by Hezbollah on an Israeli military convoy, in which two Israeli soldiers were killed, there have been growing concerns of a major escalation along the Lebanese border. During the exchange of fire between the IDF and Hezbollah that followed the attack, a United Nations peacekeeper was also killed. As fears grew that the attack by Hezbollah might signal the beginning of a major new conflagration to Israel’s north, the death of the peacekeeper was a reminder that in such circumstances the UN forces would be completely impotent in preventing such an escalation. Worse still, the UN in Lebanon will have contributed to the severity of any hostilities by allowing Hezbollah to have proliferated under its watch. This too should be a reminder of the ineffective nature of any international forces deployed on Israel’s borders.

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Following yesterday’s attack by Hezbollah on an Israeli military convoy, in which two Israeli soldiers were killed, there have been growing concerns of a major escalation along the Lebanese border. During the exchange of fire between the IDF and Hezbollah that followed the attack, a United Nations peacekeeper was also killed. As fears grew that the attack by Hezbollah might signal the beginning of a major new conflagration to Israel’s north, the death of the peacekeeper was a reminder that in such circumstances the UN forces would be completely impotent in preventing such an escalation. Worse still, the UN in Lebanon will have contributed to the severity of any hostilities by allowing Hezbollah to have proliferated under its watch. This too should be a reminder of the ineffective nature of any international forces deployed on Israel’s borders.

UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, which was created during Israel’s first Lebanon war, was subsequently emboldened with a reinforced mandate following the second Lebanon war in 2006. As well as maintaining the peace in southern Lebanon, UNIFIL was also tasked with assisting the Lebanese army in consolidating Lebanese government sovereignty throughout that part of the country. This presumably should necessitate the rolling back of the mini-state that Hezbollah terrorists have created for themselves in Lebanon’s south. Yet not only has UNIFIL utterly failed in that regard, but there are also serious questions about whether or not UNIFIL has in fact been complicit in assisting Hezbollah in various ways. Most egregious of all was UNIFIL’s conduct during the second Lebanon war itself, when UNIFIL publicly broadcast the movements of the IDF, knowingly exposing Israel’s troops to attack by Hezbollah fighters.

Ever since 2006 Hezbollah has been remilitarising well beyond the levels it had reached prior to the second Lebanon war, and it has been doing it directly under UNIFIL’s noses. UNIFIL therefore has not only failed to assist with reasserting the authority of the Lebanese state in the south of the country; it has allowed for the unfolding of a situation that will almost inevitably undermine a key aspect of UNIFIL’s mandate: to ensure peace and security in that territory.

Even before war broke out in Syria, Hezbollah had–with the assistance of Iran–been drastically increasing its stockpiles of weapons, the range and force of its missile capabilities, and the numbers of trained fighters within its ranks. Then, when Hezbollah was brought into Syria to help Assad retain power, a new channel for the flow of weapons opened as Hezbollah was able to move some of Assad’s weaponry into Lebanon itself. Indeed, from the outset of UNIFIL’s renewed mandate in 2006, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had always made clear that the force wouldn’t intervene to stop the flow of weapons from Syria unless specifically instructed to do so by the Lebanese government.

Just as UNIFIL would be completely incapable of preventing the outbreak of another war in Lebanon, so too have the UN personnel utterly failed in the Golan. This of course is in part because the international forces in that case primarily have an observational role. As such the strikes into the Israeli part of the Golan by Syrian rebels, and the Israeli retaliatory strikes, went on completely unimpeded by the UN troops there. However, the UN observer forces were at least supposed to keep the peace and prevent infiltration of the buffer zone that they control. Not only did they fail in this when the Syrian army began to engage rebels in the buffer zone, but in March 2013 21 Filipino peacekeepers managed to get themselves abducted by Syrian rebels. When the same happened to 45 Fijians in August of last year the UN’s forcers pulled back to the safety of the Israeli side and now carry out their work from Israeli lookout posts.

Given this abysmal record it is hard to believe that there are still those who would readily outsource Israel’s security to still more international peace keeping forces. Following this summer’s war in Gaza there had been talk of creating an EU force to police the Philadelphi corridor through which the majority of weapons are smuggled into Gaza from the Sinai. Still more alarming had been the proposal made during Kerry’s last round of peace talks that advocated for the IDF in the Jordan Valley being replaced with a foreign fighting force that would supposedly prevent a Palestinian state in the West Bank from becoming yet another terror hub.

From May 1967, when the UN willingly withdrew its peacekeepers from the Sinai so that General Nasser could remilitarize the territory in preparation for a war of annihilation against the young Jewish state, Israelis have always known that they need to be able to defend themselves by themselves. Quite apart from the fact that the UN appears to have a total disregard for the safety of Israelis–as seen with both UNIFIL and UNRWA–it will always be the case that international forces acting on behalf of international organizations, as opposed to national self-interest, will be woefully ineffective. A catalog of recent genocides are a sorry testament to the way UN forces are much better at observing and monitoring atrocities than they are at preventing them.

On the whole, most countries are simply not inclined to put their own troops at risk for the sake of other people’s peace and security. Israel knows this and should resist any pressure to outsource its security to coldly disinterested international forces in the future.

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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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