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Hezbollah Is Using UNIFIL to Deliver Political Messages

Hezbollah Is Using UNIFIL to Deliver Political Messages

Saturday, 29 January, 2022 - 07:30
A UNIFIL patrol near the village of Mais al-Jabal, along the southern Lebanese border with Israel on August 26, 2020. (AFP)

The repeated attacks against the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) are political messages from Hezbollah and Iran to the UN and international community.

Three attacks against the peacekeeping force were reported in one month alone. Never have there been this many attacks against the international troops in the space of one month. The attacks took place amid international calls that the Iran-backed Hezbollah party lay down its arms and for Lebanon to implement UN Security Council resolution 1701 and 1559.

UNIFIL has, meanwhile, taken a firmer stance against these assaults, more so than it has ever done before. In a sharp tone, it demanded that the perpetrator be held to account, calling on the Lebanese authorities to carry out a probe. This marked a shift in its tone as UNIFIL usually used to announce an investigation in such attacks and that it was coordinating with the Lebanese military.

Resolution 1701 was issued in August 2006 to end the Israeli war on Lebanon. It gave UNIFIL the jurisdiction to carry out the necessary security measures in areas where it is deployed in southern Lebanon. Among other points, the resolution demands that areas of UNIFIL's deployment are not used for hostile attacks of any kind. The resolution provides protection for UN facilities and employees, guarantees their freedom of movement in humanitarian work and protects civilians, while respecting the role of the Lebanese government.

The resolution effectively expanded the role of UNIFIL, which was first formed and deployed in Lebanon in 1978. Since then, the UN troops have been deploying at least 400 patrols a day. The troops have rarely come under attack and when they do, they usually happen before their mandate is extended in August of every year.

Political and field changes must have happened for three attacks to take place against UNIFIL in one month. In November alone, three assaults were reported against the troops. One attack was reported in the town of Shakra on December 24, another in the town of Ramia on December 25 and the third in Bint Jbeil on January 3. Often, "locals" are blamed for attacking UNIFIL.

'Locals' and Hezbollah

Lebanese academic and political researcher Dr. Mona Fayad rejects accusations that "locals" are behind these attacks. In remarks to Asharq Al-Awsat, she said that such excuses are "not fooling anyone." Rather, she said Hezbollah, which is "hiding behind the people", should be held responsible.

She said the party has managed over time to establish an authority that is independent of the Lebanese state. One of the ways it managed to reach this position is its assuming of the role of "speaking on behalf of the resistance community and labeling as 'locals' people, especially Shiites, whom it mobilizes whenever the party needs them to exert pressure on a certain side. That way the party avoids direct confrontation."

Political motives

The frequency of the recent attacks has raised questions over their motives and political messages to the international mission. UNIFIL was firm in demanding a probe into the attacks, rejecting attempts aimed at restricting its freedom of movement in the South.

Fayad noted the latest attack when a routine UNIFIL patrol was assaulted even though it did not veer off its main route. Past attacks have been blamed on patrols changing their routes without coordinating with the Lebanese army or on troops taking photos in specific locations.

Fayad said the latest attacks are taking place at a time when the residents of the South feel that they need UN troops given the security and peace they have established in the area since the implementation of resolution 1701. Prior to that, they had never experienced such peace and calm, she added. At a time of upheaval in the rest of the country in recent years, the South has enjoyed relative calm, with the assassination of Shiite dissident Loqman Slim last year as the only major incident. He was killed in the South, in an area that is filled with surveillance cameras and where Hezbollah must be very familiar with.

Hezbollah, continued Fayad, has exploited the "army, resistance and people" slogan to exert pressure on various sides, while still avoiding turning attention to it. Indeed, Hezbollah is not mentioned when attacks on UNIFIL are reported, but rather the "locals" are the ones being blamed. The party uses such tactics to give the impression that it is implementing resolution 1701.

Change in UNIFIL's tone

After the latest attack on January 25, UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti said the peacekeepers were not trespassing on private property, but were passing through a routine route. They were carrying out their duties according to resolution 1701 to preserve stability in the South.

He stressed that the resolution grants the troops complete freedom of movement and the right to deploy patrols in their area of operations. The attacks against the men and women who are serving peace are deemed as crimes by Lebanese and international laws.

The Lebanese authorities must probe these crimes and put the perpetrators on trial, he demanded.

Tenenti's statements mark a shift in tone. Fayad said the peacekeepers will no longer accept the excuse that the attacks were sparked by them changing their patrol route or that they were taking photos.

The change in the spokesperson's tone is a sign that the confrontation is growing because the UN mission senses a shift in the equation and an opportunity for it to play a better role, she explained.

Furthermore, Fayad said these changes "are not restricted to Lebanon alone," but they are tied to the Vienna nuclear talks with Iran.

International messages

Political researcher and retired Gen. of Staff Khaled Hamade said the timing of the attacks are more significant than the assaults themselves.

There is no doubt that Hezbollah is behind the attacks, which are tied to regional developments, Hamade told Asharq Al-Awsat. The developments point to significant changes on the ground in the region.

Iran is seeking to use its regional cards in response to its setbacks in the region, he explained. Iran, not Hezbollah, should be blamed for the attacks on UNIFIL because the party is an extension of Tehran in Lebanon.

Iran is seeking to "shuffle all regional cards," said Hamade. He cited the developments in Iraq that is stumbling in forming a new government. He also noted the attempt on the life of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. He pointed to the repeated rocket attacks on the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia by the Iran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen.

These are all signs of Iran's reactions in regions where it wields influence, stressed Hamade. Moreover, the attack carried out by ISIS against Gweiran prison in northeastern Syria is "one of the cards Iran is using to exert pressure in the region." Lebanon is another one of Iran's cards and it is using UNIFIL to deliver messages.

Hamade said Tehran is using all the cards at its disposal in reaction to the setbacks it has suffered. In Lebanon, Hezbollah does Iran's bidding by attacking UNIFIL.

By attacking UNIFIL, Iran is saying that it can obstruct the implementation of resolution 1701, explained Hamade. Lebanon is helpless in responding to or thwarting such a violation, so the government often takes a very vague stance that does nothing in affecting the situation on the ground.

UN cover

Meanwhile, fears have been growing in the South that the attacks would force UNIFIL to pull out of Lebanon, which would cost the country one of its last remaining international covers as it grapples with an unprecedented economic crisis.

Hamade eased these concerns, saying the peacekeeping force will remain. The attacks will not force UNIFIL to withdraw, but the repeated incidents will prompt international reactions, perhaps even a Security Council meeting.

"The Council will not be extorted and will not allow the obstruction of an international resolution," he stated. "Furthermore, Hezbollah itself does not want the UN troops to withdraw because it will lose a precious card in its extortion."

Another factor is Israel, said Hamade. It wants an international force deployed in the South because it ensures its security. Iran itself also wants UNIFIL to stay so that it can continue on delivering its messages.

Hezbollah wants the troops to remain so that it can keep its attention focused on internal Lebanese affairs, added Hamade. It will continue to abide by resolution 1701, implementing it "with an Iranian twist and a way that serves its interests."

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