BEIRUT: A gradual drawdown in Lebanese troop numbers in the southern border district has led to a recent increase in standoffs between UNIFIL and suspected members of Hezbollah.
UNIFIL patrols are finding paths blocked and former temporary observation points suddenly out of bounds in what is being interpreted as Hezbollah seeking to flex its muscles on the ground at a time of heightened regional uncertainty and aggressive postures by Israel.
UNIFIL officers are privately expressing frustration at the often humiliating confrontations with Hezbollah personnel where the peacekeepers feel compelled to back down.
One officer noted that U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 calls on the Lebanese Army to take control of the southern border district, with UNIFIL playing a support role. “The Lebanese Army is nowhere near that right now. In fact, they are further away from that than before,” the officer said.
With units withdrawn in response to deteriorating security situations in Tripoli, Sidon and the north, the Lebanese Army troop strength has dwindled to an estimated 3,000 soldiers in the border district, according to various UNIFIL sources.
Only around 10 percent of the peacekeepers’ patrols are conducted jointly with Lebanese troops. The absence of Lebanese soldiers as interlocutors leaves UNIFIL patrols more vulnerable to intimidation by Hezbollah or local residents.
In one of several examples given to The Daily Star, on Feb. 9, a motorized patrol of Belgian peacekeepers drove down a track to inspect the border fence near Mais al-Jabal. As the peacekeepers approached the fence, they saw a civilian vehicle coming the opposite way with five men inside, one of them in military uniform.
The Belgians stopped the car and one of the peacekeepers attempted to snap a picture of its occupants. Four of the five men jumped out of the car and snatched the camera along with the keys to the Belgians’ vehicle. The Belgians cocked their rifles and one of the Lebanese men put his hand inside his jacket as if to reach for a pistol.
Another of the four men quickly interceded and explained they did not want any trouble. The four men returned to the car and drove away, taking with them the camera and the vehicle keys, leaving the Belgians stranded. Moments later, the car reversed back down the track and the keys were tossed out of the window for the Belgians to collect.
On March 25, a patrol of Italian peacekeepers was blocked by two men equipped with walkie-talkies from accessing a site overlooking Wadi Mashawish just south of Teir Harfa in the western sector. A third man nearby was scanning the valley with a pair of binoculars. The site had been used before by the Italians as a observation post.
Lebanese troops were called to the scene and after conversing with the two men told the Italians that the location was private property and that UNIFIL was not permitted to access the area. The Italians decided to withdraw to “defuse the situation.”
A similar incident occurred in almost the same location a month later on April 22 when a joint UNIFIL and Lebanese Army foot patrol following a track that led into Wadi Mashawish were halted by a chain slung across the route carrying a sign saying that the valley was “private property.”
The peacekeepers noticed that they were being watched by several small groups of men equipped with binoculars and walkie-talkies on nearby hills. A pickup truck arrived at the scene and two men inside informed the Lebanese soldiers the area was private property. The patrol retreated.
Other similar incidents have occurred at Majdal Zoun in the western sector. On April 19, a UNIFIL vehicle broke down on the edge of the village and was pelted with large rocks and glass bottles by four men, causing damage to the vehicle.
Incidents of friction between local residents and UNIFIL peacekeepers are not unusual although the recent confrontations with men clearly belonging to Hezbollah are less common.
The presence of unarmed Hezbollah personnel monitoring Wadi Mashawish has spurred speculation within UNIFIL’s ranks that the resistance may have resurrected some of the undiscovered pre-2006 war military facilities in the valley.
Before the 2006 war, the Mashawish/Hamoul valley was one of several sealed-off security pockets manned by Hezbollah in the southern border district. The valley was heavily hit by Israeli artillery and airstrikes during the war and was littered with unexploded cluster bombs in the aftermath.
The Lebanese Army and UNIFIL discovered some abandoned Hezbollah facilities in the valley in the months following the war, including 122mm Katyusha rocket-firing positions and underground bunkers.
The facilities are inspected from time to time to make sure they have not been reactivated. However, it remains unknown, outside the ranks of the resistance, how many – if any – other facilities lie undiscovered beneath the dense canopy of trees that cover the steep slopes of the valley.
If Hezbollah is looking to reactivate some of its old facilities, it is likely on a small scale. Before 2006, the southern border district and a relatively narrow area north of the Litani River was considered the main zone of confrontation in the event of a war between Hezbollah and Israel because of the limited range of the former’s rockets.
Today, the border district is simply the first line of a tiered defensive infrastructure that stretches to the northern Bekaa Valley due to the increased size, range and accuracy of Hezbollah’s suspected post-2006 rocket arsenal.
Another conclusion to be drawn from the activities in the southern border district is that, despite the media attention lately on Hezbollah’s role in Syria, the resistance has not taken its eye off the ball in terms of the confrontation with Israel. On the contrary, the vast bulk of Hezbollah’s fighting force is looking south toward Israel, not east and north into Syria.
Israel’s actions toward Lebanon this year have become more aggressive with a significant escalation in the number of overflights as well as the unprecedented airstrike against a suspected arms convoy outside Damascus at the end of January.
And on Sunday, Israel launched a surprise military exercise, the largest of its kind in several years, involving 2,000 reservists to assess how quickly they can mobilize for a war with Hezbollah.
Hezbollah is well aware that the war in Syria is creating new levels of turmoil and insecurity in the region that put at risk the certainties that have helped maintain calm along the Lebanon- Israel border for nearly seven years.
As such, given the stakes involved, frustrating UNIFIL on the ground is of small consequence to Hezbollah.