Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Unfinished War with Lebanon

From GLORIA, October 15, 2009, by Jonathan Spyer*:

The explosion in the south Lebanese village of Tayr Felseir offers the latest evidence of the way in which Hizbullah is rebuilding its infrastructure following the Second Lebanon War in 2006. In the pre-2006 period, Hizbullah maintained its military infrastructure in open countryside areas often declared off-limits to all but the movement's personnel. The rebuilt infrastructure, by contrast, has been constructed within the fabric of civilian life in south Lebanon. This process has taken place largely undisturbed by the Lebanese and UN military personnel conspicuously deployed throughout the south.

...Hizbullah's decision to make use of populated areas is primarily a result of the increased presence of UNIFIL and LAF (Lebanese Armed Forces) personnel in the area south of the Litani River, a presence which was enforced under the terms of UN Resolution 1701. Of course, the movement has made use of civilian-populated areas in the past. During the 2006 war, Hizbullah often launched Katyushas from villages (generally non-Shi'ite ones). But the placing of arms caches and permanent positions within residential areas has served to render the renewed military infrastructure largely off-limits to international inspection. Past experience indicates that the embarrassing publicity deriving from the Tayr Felsair explosion is unlikely to alter this picture.

This week's explosion was not the first time in recent months that Hizbullah ordnance has accidentally detonated in south Lebanon. On July 14, a series of large explosions took place in the village of Khirbet Silm. The events that followed and the UNIFIL investigation into the explosions show the extent to which both the international forces and the Lebanese Army are adopting a "live and let live" attitude to Hizbullah's preparations for the next war.

At the time, Hizbullah actions in Khirbet Silm followed a similar pattern to those observed on Monday in Tayr Felsair. First, Hizbullah agents removed the evidence. As this was being done, a number of "outraged residents" from the area held demonstrations to prevent UNIFIL troops from inspecting the scene. Peacekeepers eventually conducted their investigation, and concluded that the site at Khirbet Silm contained large quantities of 107 mm Katyusha rockets, heavy machine gun rounds and mortar tubes of a type used by Hizbullah.

Investigators from the international force also discovered that the site had been permanently guarded by Hizbullah personnel. They recorded that all this constituted a "serious violation" of Resolution 1701.

Beyond this declaration, the investigation has had no discernible result. No one was ever named, much less held accountable. Nor did UNIFIL's modus operandi change to take into account the likelihood that if there was an arms depot in Khirbet Silm it probably wasn't the only one.

UNIFIL REMAINS deployed mainly in unpopulated areas. It enters Shi'ite villages only with an escort of Lebanese army personnel. Its vehicle and air patrols, taking place along recognized patrol paths and in rural areas, have produced some tangible results in terms of discovering unused bunkers and old munitions. But the international force, which maintains no independent checkpoints, does its best to stay out of the way of Hizbullah and the civilian population.

Except for cases where there are obvious signs pointing to the presence of ordnance - such as when a large explosion occurs - UNIFIL simply prefers not to act on the evidence. And there is no indication that the latest explosion at Tayr Falseir will change this situation. Rather, it is more likely that UNIFIL's investigation will be rapidly forgotten and the results quietly filed away as the media moves on.

Even more problematic is the role being played by the LAF. The Lebanese army and UNIFIL were prevented from entering the house in Tayr Falseir immediately following the explosion. Once LAF representatives were permitted to enter, they swiftly endorsed Hizbullah's version of events.

The Lebanese army, which is much more visible on the ground than UNIFIL, undoubtedly has a far better sense of what is really going on. The problem with the LAF becoming an obstacle to Hizbullah rearming and reorganizing itself in south Lebanon is that the army is a deeply divided organization. Many of its members are sympathetic to the "resistance." Thirty percent of the LAF officer corps, and a majority of its rank and file, are Shi'ite, like Hizbullah. More fundamentally, the official position of the LAF is one of "endorsement" of Hizbullah's "right to resist." The LAF defines Israel as its "primary antagonist and enemy."

So neither UNIFIL, nor the LAF, nor their respective employers - the United Nations and the government of Lebanon - are going to be standing in the way of Hizbullah's program of rearming in populated areas any time soon.

Ultimately, the situation in southern Lebanon is a facet of a larger problem, namely, the existence of a Hizbullah state within a state, which is answerable to no one but the movement's leadership and its Iranian patrons. Since the mini-civil war of May 2008, it has been clearer than ever that there is no force in the country able to challenge Hizbullah's independent foreign and "defense" policies. The movement maintains a parallel army, parallel security services, a parallel communications network and also, of course, independent educational and social structures.

The winners of last June's elections in Lebanon do not like the current situation, but they are helpless to prevent it, as they have not even succeeded in forming a government since their victory. The extent to which the Hizbullah state within a state is subservient to Iran or maintains its own agenda remains debated by analysts. But there is no debate that it is entirely free of any control or supervision from the official Lebanese state.

Preparations for the next round of fighting are going on daily, undisturbed, in the heart of the populated areas south of the Litani River, and the occasional "work accident" is the only reminder the world receives that it is happening. UNIFIL conducts its patrols and doesn't get in the way, and the LAF plays an even more ambiguous role. Anyone who thought that the war between Hizbullah and Israel ended on August 14, 2006 was surely mistaken.

*Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Herzliya, Israel
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