The Israeli army’s attack last Saturday against Hizbollah positions in the Bekaa valley showed just how fragile UN resolution 1701 is. For the last nine days the resolution has maintained a ceasefire in southern Lebanon, but it allows the Israelis to defend themselves against Hizbollah, and equally allows the Shi’ite militia to justify a continuing armed struggle.
It is a highly flammable situation, and despite the Lebanese army’s deployment, it will be UNIFIL’s job, when it gets up to strength there, to patrol the frontier with Israel. The current French UNIFIL commander warns that without a precise mandate, it is a high-risk peace mission: “It’s all very fragile, tense, dangerous and volatile. At the slightest incident it could all degenerate very quickly into something serious.”
To conduct its peacekeeping operation successfully between the border and the Litani river, UNIFIL needs eight mechanised infantry battalions, three light reconnaissance battalions, four signals companies, five observation helicopters, two companies of military police, and one hospital unit: 15,000 men in all.
Several countries, such as France and Italy, say they are ready to send men, but only if there are security guarantees and rules of engagement for UNIFIL. Leaked reports from the UN suggest they will only be able to defend themselves, leaving Hizbollah disarmament up to the Lebanese army.
This limited power is risky, says UNIFIL’s former Italian commander: “Interfering in the Lebanese government’s policing operation, and the way they do it, in a situation where the population is desperate after what they’ve gone through… using military force is extremely dangerous.” With its hands tied, UNIFIL may end up as a diplomatic rather than a military mission and again attract Lebanese anger for ‘letting them down’. The force has already been caught in the crossfire several times since it arrived in Lebanon in 1978.