Lebanon, Israel and the Problem of UNIFIL

War was very fortunately avoided this week between Lebanon and Israel when the two (technically warring) states had a mini-skirmish along the UNIFIL protected Blue Line demarcating the border that resulted in the deaths of 3 Lebanese (including a journalist) and an Israeli officer.  Initial reports and photos showed the IDF reaching over the fence to remove a tree and install a video camera in what seemed to be Lebanese territory (why else would there be a fence), instigating the conflict.  Later reports show that the Israeli IDF was not actually in Lebanese territory, but rather an ‘international enclave’ where the Blue Line deviates from the actual border.

Where truth lies in this story is unclear.  While UNIFIL has declared that Israel was not in Lebanese territory, there are still severe differences in the Lebanese and Israeli narratives.  Israel maintains that it was acting in coordination with UNIFIL while Lebanon has stated that it acted with restraint.  It has also come out that the Lebanese initial shots were ordered from high on the LAF command chain and that the IDF commander was out of contact with UNIFIL at the height of the conflict.  Despite the lack of accurate information (surrounding the correct version of events as well as the discrepancies in the Lebanese, Israeli and UNIFIL understanding of the Blue Line) demonstrates how fragile the peace between Lebanon and Israel actually is.  Moreover, perhaps, it shows how difficult the job of UNIFIL is and, unfortunately, how ill-prepared the UN watchdog is to do anything to prevent war.

The underlying problem here is the uncertainty surrounding the UN backed Blue Line (see the video above).  Israel refers to the Blue Line as the border between the two countries; it also erected a fence, but the fence does not follow the Blue Line and is, in some areas, hundreds of meters from the actually border.  As UNIFIL explains it, “The Blue Line is not the border, the technical fence is not the Blue Line, but under no circumstance may anyone cross the Blue Line.”  Furthermore, there are places where the Blue Line deviates from the international border.  While Lebanon, Israel and UNIFIL are working to clearly mark the border and the Blue Line (and how they differ from the fence), the confusion of what is Israel and what is Lebanon is clearly a danger.

Of course, the decision to fire at the Israelis was probably foolish and the LAF certainly needs to be criticized for its decision making, the entire situation underlines the helplessness of UNIFIL.  Not only has the UN force failed to prevent Hezbollah from rearming (a major piece of the UN Resolution 1701 that ended the 2006 war), but it is also completely incapable of stopping the numerous Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty.  UNIFIL confirmed that the questionable tree was in Israeli territory and that Israel had informed the UN group of its plans to remove the tree.  One has to wonder why UNIFIL did not inform the LAF.  Did they not see the possibility for conflict?

After the skirmish, there were some who defended UNIFIL (see Andrew Exum as well) and praised the quick de-escalation of tensions, thanks, largely, to the negotiating of the UN force: the skirmish did not result in a general war between the two countries.  Sure, give UNIFIL credit for this – and they do deserve credit considering the disastrous potential of a third Lebanon War – but I find two problems with the defense of UNIFIL in this situation.

First, echoing the analysis of David Kenner, UNIFIL should be responsible for preventing skirmishes like the other day.  In 2006, immediately after the war and the introduction of the UN forces, hopes were high that UNIFIL would be able to keep the peace between the two neighbors.  After the events of the other day, UNIFIL supporters are celebrating the fact that UNIFIL successfully avoided war: “some experts are trying to talk themselves into the notion that the fact these clashes only killed four people, without igniting a full-blown war, is a positive sign. Talk about redefining success!”

Secondly, very few are mentioning the decision of Hezbollah not to enter the conflict.  Some on the Israeli side have decided this is merely proof of the ‘Hezbollisation’ of the LAF, but it is certain that if Hezbollah did aid the LAF, we would be talking about many more deaths.  The decision to remain on the sidelines can be explained in many ways – predominately by the political calculation that another full was with not in the interest of the party – but it is unlikely that UNIFIL would have been able to deter Hezbollah leader Nasrallah had he wanted to join the fight.

I have a tough time fully criticizing UNIFIL as they are faced with a nearly impossible task while being underfunded and manned by third-party soldiers with little-to-no connection with the conflict.  But, at the same time, the four deaths on the border this week underscore the troubles and challenges that the UN force faces.  Specifically, it is clear now (if it wasn’t a week ago) that UNIFIL is incapable of preventing war in the region if Israel or Lebanon (or Hezbollah) feel obliged to unilaterally counter what both sides see as a  growing threat.

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