Beirut: Parallel to aggressive military steps in the Golan Heights against Syrian troops for the fourth time this week, Israel authorised one of its anonymous military sources to accuse the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) of becoming an “excuse for Hezbollah”, and to blame the Lebanese government of violating UN resolution 1701 that ushered in a ceasefire on August 11, 2006.
Al Monitor, a pro-Syrian publication, quoted an Israeli source that lambasted UNIFIL and blamed it for “whitewashing Hezbollah’s activity on the Blue Line”, which is a grave accusation because the UN force enforces Security Council resolutions and keeps the peace along the border. The source told the online publication: “We don’t need this force here any longer. Better to remain with only the coordination and liaison units, and that’s all,” which belied UNIFIL’s mandate and achievements.
Such accusations were routine pronouncements and, over the years, Israel targeted UN troops often with fatal consequences. In 2006, for example, it killed four unarmed international observers — one each from Austria, Canada, China and Finland who took refuge in a UN shelter in Khiyam though the building was destroyed by a precision-guided bomb — and in 2015 paid a Spanish corporal’s family €200,000 in compensation for involuntary manslaughter.
The latest round in the cat-and-mouse confrontations between Israel and Hezbollah gained momentum a few days ago after Israel claimed that Hezbollah was building observation posts along the border under the cover of an environmental NGO, “Green Without Borders”. Photos of a “building” near the Israeli-Lebanese border were posted online, alleging that “Green Without Borders” was little more than a Hezbollah cover-organisation although UNIFIL reported that the NGO was simply guilty of planting trees in the area.
While the Israeli ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, sent a letter of protest to the Security Council with images of the alleged observation posts and maps locating them, UNIFIL observers did not report any unauthorised construction, and there were no armed personnel at the specified location. In other words, UNIFIL vouched that resolution 1701 was not violated despite Dannon’s interpretation of the NGO’s tree planting initiative as a “dangerous provocation”.
Irrespective of such affirmations, reconnaissance activities near the Blue Line border demarcation are nothing new, though they picked up pace after the month-long 2006 war that killed more than 1,200 Lebanese, most of whom civilians, and more than 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.
On Friday, Lebanese Minister of Justice Salim Jreissati, accompanied by a 12-member delegation that included senior legal officials, visited UNIFIL Headquarters in Naqoura. The mission was welcomed by UNIFIL Commander Major-General Michael Beary (Ireland), who briefed the Lebanese and confirmed that the situation in Southern Lebanon was “calm and stable”.
While Israel retains a military edge in the area, several border villages and towns are vulnerable to Hezbollah attacks, including Metula, where the border is a wide street separated by barriers and barbed wire. Israel recently proposed to construct a high wall in the western zone as well as around Metula, to prevent Hezbollah from gaining control over the two ridges that command a view of the town and, presumably, future incursions into it.