Lebanon says observes resolution 1701, rules of engagement

UN Security Council calls for free movement of UN blue helmets as Hezbollah wants new chapter turned

France worried over incidents in south, wants free movement for UNIFIL troops

Israel threatens south Lebanon

Strongly deploring recent incidents directed at United Nations blue helmets in Lebanon, the Security Council called for ensuring the safety and freedom of movement of the peacekeepers serving there.

Members of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) have recently been the target of protests and attacks by villagers in the south of the country in response to routine military exercises carried out by the mission.

“The members of the Security Council strongly deplore the recent incidents involving UNIFIL peacekeepers which took place in southern Lebanon on June 29th, July 3rd and July 4th in the UNIFIL area of operation,” Ambassador U. Joy Ogwu of Nigeria, which holds the Council’s rotating presidency for July, said in a statement read out to the press following closed-door talks.

They also emphasized the importance of not impairing UNIFIL’s ability to fulfill its mandate under Security Council resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

The resolution also calls for respect of the so-called Blue Line separating the Israeli and Lebanese sides, the disarming of all militias operating in Lebanon and an end to arms smuggling in the area.

“They call on all parties to ensure that the freedom of movement of UNIFIL remains respected in conformity with its mandate and its rules of engagement,” the statement added.

In addition to monitoring the 2006 ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah, UNIFIL is also tasked with accompanying and supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) as they deploy throughout the south, and extending its assistance to help ensure humanitarian access to civilian populations and the voluntary and safe return of displaced persons.

Michael Williams, the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon, discussed the recent incidents involving UNIFIL with Lebanese Foreign Minister Ali Shami.

“We all hope that the situation has now calmed down and that there will be no recurrence of such incidents,” he in a statement following the meeting in Beirut.

Mr. Williams asserted that UNIFIL’s freedom of movement is a critical element for it to discharge its mandate and it must be fully respected.

“I think that we all agree that the excellent cooperation between UNIFIL and LAF has been the backbone of the stability that has prevailed in the south, and we must do all we can to maintain and to enhance it,” he added.

France ruled out the possibility of removing its peacekeeping contingent from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) as the force braced itself for clear the air talks with southern residents.

Claude Gueant, general secretary of the French Presidency, said that the UN presence in Lebanon was designed to avoid at all costs a repeat war between Lebanon and Israel.

“France is [in south Lebanon] under an international resolution, will stay committed to peace next to Lebanon and will not withdraw,” Gueant was quoted as saying by pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat.

“We are there to protect Lebanon,” Gueant added.

Gueant’s comments came as top UNIFIL and Lebanese Army officials met with residents in the southern village of Touline – the place where just a week ago French peacekeepers were accosted by civilians who threw stones at a patrol, injuring two.

The meeting was designed as the final phase of reconciliation between UNIFIL and southern Lebanese, following a discussion between UNIFIL and Lebanese Army representatives and mukhtars and local mayors in Tibnin.

“The mayor of the town of Touline has planned this meeting to confirm the good relationship between UNIFIL troops and the population of south Lebanon and, in particular, between French soldiers and local residents,” Lieutenant Colonel Francesco Tirilo, UNIFIL public information officer, Sector West, told The Daily Star.

The fallout from recent UNIFIL scuffles with residents prompted the Security Council to discuss the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 – signed by Lebanon and stipulating UNIFIL troops operate freely south of the Litani River – in New York last week.

“The members of the Security Council strongly deplore the recent incidents involving UNIFIL peacekeepers which took place in southern Lebanon on June 29, July 3 and July 4 in the UNIFIL area of operation,” said a UN statement following closed-door talks.

“They call on all parties to ensure that the freedom of movement of UNIFIL remains respected in conformity with its mandate and its rules of engagement,” the statement added.

The UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Michael Williams, after his last week’s meeting with Foreign Affairs Minister Ali al-Shami, welcomed the decision to deploy an additional 3,000 to 5,000 Lebanese Army troops to south Lebanon.

“I think we all agree that the excellent cooperation between UNIFIL and the LAF (Lebanese Armed Forces) has been the backbone of the stability that has prevailed in the south, and we must do all we can to maintain and to enhance it,” Williams said.

Meanwhile, Israeli intelligence has warned that a new war with Hezbollah on Israel's northern border with Lebanon cannot be ruled out, following heightened tensions between United Nations peacekeeping forces and Hezbollah supporters in the south of Lebanon.

"Israel has to be ready for any sudden provocation or outbreak of hostilities," Dan Diker from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs tells Inter Press Service (IPS). "The same way the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war was triggered over Hezbollah capturing Israeli soldiers."

In 2006, Hezbollah guerillas captured several Israeli soldiers after laying ambush along the border. This led to the second Israel-Lebanon war, which lasted just over a month until UN resolution 1701 brought hostilities to an end.

Dr. Samir Awad from Birzeit University near Ramallah, however, thinks the possibility of a military confrontation in the near future is slim, and that the current flare-up has more to do with internal Lebanese politics.

"Neither side wants war at this stage. Both Israel and Hezbollah are unwilling to pay the high price of a new and bloody conflict. The events in the south are related to a power struggle in the Lebanese government," Awad tells IPS.

Israeli intelligence has reported an increase in weapons being smuggled into south Lebanon through its porous borders with Syria. There are also reports of activity by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the area south of the Litani River.

Resolution 1701 called for this parcel of territory to be manned by the United Nations Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) troops and the Lebanese army, and for armed militias (Hezbollah specifically) to be disarmed. Israel was forced to withdraw from its self-declared "security zone" here in 2000 as a result of Hezbollah resistance.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have warned of increased military activity in the village al-Khiam in the south. They say Hezbollah cells are lying dormant in preparation for an ambush on any IDF troops that enter the area.

Al-Khiam is of particular strategic importance. In 2007 a roadside bomb alleged to have been laid by Hezbollah killed six UNIFIL troops from a Spanish battalion. The Spaniards had a reputation for confronting Hezbollah cadres.

The bombing was widely perceived to be a message to UNIFIL about the Lebanese resistance movement's ability to control the area. "Hezbollah regards Lebanon as a sub-colony of Iran.

Confronting UNIFIL with provocations is Hezbollah's way of fighting what it sees as foreign interference in its country, and a way of showing the UN who is boss in Lebanon," Diker tells IPS.

UNIFIL troops have encountered increased resistance in searching al-Khiam for weapons. Over the past couple of weeks, approximately 20 confrontations have taken place between Shiite villagers and UNIFIL troops.

Villagers, who are sympathetic to Hezbollah, have thrown stones at UNIFIL troops, seized their weapons, climbed onto tanks and in one case removed the aerial from one of them. The weapons were returned after the intervention of the Lebanese army.

Relations between various sects in the Lebanese army have worsened as the army has tried to confront Hezbollah guerillas. Many officers in the Lebanese army are Shiite and sympathetic to Hezbollah.

"Hezbollah has managed to hold on to its weapons despite resolution 1701," says Awad. "It has also managed to win support away from the March 14 governing coalition, led by the pro-Western Saad Hariri.

"Moreover, it continues to successfully portray itself as Lebanese liberator due to Israel's ongoing occupation of the Shebaa Farms and the northern part of Ghajar Village."

The Shebaa Farms were declared by the UN to be part of Syrian-occupied territory in 2000. But since then the Syrians and Lebanese have agreed the territory belongs to Lebanon. A UN cartographer has conceded their point has merit, but the issue is yet to be resolved.

"The Lebanese government has to acknowledge that it is losing more and more power to Hezbollah in the south and that it no longer controls the entire country," Awad tells IPS.

But a war in the short term seems unlikely, says Professor Moshe Ma'oz from Jerusalem's Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "This is more about Iran warning Israel, through its Hezbollah proxy, not to attack Iran. It's also about keeping mutual deterrence as both Iran and Israel exchange threats warning the other side not to attack.

"But this could change if Syria and Israel make peace," Ma'oz tells IPS. "Syria has hinted a number of times that it wants to reach a deal with Israel - on its terms obviously. If this happened Iran might step in through Hezbollah and disrupt proceedings."