The war begins, against Resolution 1701


As prospects increase for a conflict over Iran’s nuclear program, Hizbullah and Israel are clearing the way for a possible war between themselves by bending Security Council Resolution 1701 out of shape. This makes it all the more important that the next Lebanese government, once it comes around to drafting a ministerial statement, avoid any ambiguities with respect to the resolution and to Hizbullah’s activities in the border area.

For some time now Hizbullah has been working to undercut Resolution 1701. This is part of its wider effort to weaken the edifice of United Nations resolutions governing Lebanese affairs since 2004, starting with Resolution 1559 and including Security Council decisions on the assassination of Rafik Hariri. However, Resolution 1701 is the keystone of the UN system in Lebanon, and it’s not difficult to see why Hizbullah wants to knock it out.

The 2006 war, hailed as a victory by Hizbullah, was a strange victory indeed. It neutralized the party’s military activities in the border area, and it so traumatized the Shiite community that Hizbullah has spent three years thinking of how it might reopen the Israeli front without losing communal support. Cross-border retaliation from Lebanon is one of Iran’s principle deterrents against an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities. If Hizbullah fails to fulfill that contract with Tehran, it surrenders one reason for existing. That is why the party has done two things in recent months.

It has started by reinterpreting Resolution 1701 in such a way as to render UNIFIL ineffective. In the past three days, party officials as well as media outlets friendly to Hizbullah have suggested that the UN force exceeded its mandate by inspecting buildings in Khirbet Silm last week, which led to a confrontation with villagers. However, the UN resolution, while it states that UNIFIL must “[a]ssist the Lebanese armed forces” in its activities, also goes quite a ways in clarifying the force’s mandate in its Paragraph 12.

The paragraph “authorizes UNIFIL to take all necessary action in areas of deployment of its forces and as it deems within its capabilities, to ensure that its area of operations is not utilized for hostile activities of any kind, to resist attempts by forceful means to prevent it from discharging its duties under the mandate of the Security Council and to protect United Nations personnel, facilities, installations and equipment, ensure the security and freedom of movement of United Nations personnel, humanitarian workers, and, without prejudice to the responsibility of the government of Lebanon, to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence.”

Hizbullah, in contrast, has stuck to a much narrower interpretation of the resolution, suggesting that UNIFIL’s role is basically to support the Lebanese Army, which must take the lead in most actions. This is not sustained by a reading of the text of Resolution 1701, but that’s missing the point. Hizbullah’s primary aim is to bolster the legitimacy of its interpretation among its Shiite supporters in the south, in order to be able to mobilize the community against UNIFIL when required. The situation on the ground, much more than textual legalisms, will constrain the UN force, which cannot hope to function effectively in a hostile environment.

However, Hizbullah’s actions also serve a more significant purpose: to generate a feeling in the south that an Israeli attack is imminent, and that UNIFIL is preventing Lebanon from properly defending itself. If Israel were to attack Iran, Hizbullah would not be able to persuade its followers of its duty to retaliate on Tehran’s behalf. No Lebanese wants to become cannon fodder for the Iranians. On the other hand, if Hizbullah’s partisans were persuaded that Israel was the one itching for war, then the party could better justify to the Shiite community firing rockets across the border.

This was the intention of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s speech on Monday, but his long-term objectives were made even clearer in a speech the Hizbullah secretary general made last May 15, when he declared: “We look forward to a state able to defend itself, its own decisions, its land, its people, and its security, without needing [UN] forces – which, with all due respect as they are our guests in the south, neither make things better or worse – and without needing foreign security apparatuses; we Lebanese have the capabilities allowing Lebanon to have a creditable force on that basis.”

The Israelis are no less keen to undermine Resolution 1701, in order to widen their margin of reprisal against Hizbullah in the aftermath of an attack, Israeli or American, on Iran. Their call this week for UNIFIL’s terms of engagement to be altered was disingenuous. Israel has systematically violated Resolution 1701 through its overflights, and still occupies the Lebanese half of Ghajar. The Israelis, too, are setting up a straw man in the south – to depict themselves as innocent if any conflict breaks out along the border.

There is also the matter of brutality. The next war between Lebanon and Israel, if it occurs, will bring about much more violent an Israeli reaction than ever before. The Israelis will bomb Lebanon’s infrastructure, cities, and a variety of other economic targets. To eventually validate such an apocalypse over the protests of the international community, the Netanyahu government today is trying to show that it is committed to robust implementation of Resolution 1701, therefore to international law.

Lebanon remains a confrontation state. It’s doubtful, however, that most Lebanese welcome this fact. Much will be determined by how the government frames the situation in south Lebanon in its ministerial statement. The likely outcome will be an unsatisfactory compromise, a statement satisfying both Hizbullah’s desire to pursue the armed resistance and the majority’s support for Resolution 1701. That’s bad news. Unless March 14 takes a strong stance guaranteeing the continued neutralization of the border area, it will be partly responsible for any conflict in the future.

Lebanon is caught up in calculations that largely involve a country, Iran, thousands of kilometers away. We know the carnage that Israel can wreak. Lebanon has no business getting caught up in hostilities between Israel and Iran, and Hizbullah has no business dragging us into one. And the Hariri government, if it ever sees the day, has no business creating an opening for those pining to turn Lebanon into a battle zone again.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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