UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army Prove Once Again to be a Worthwhile Investment

UNIFIL forces stationed in Southern Lebanon were able to position themselves on April 15th between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Israeli troops to intervene before tensions broke out. Lebanon charged Israel with crossing the “Blue Line,” the controversial demarcated border between the two countries established in 2000. A “high alert” went out as Lebanese troops faced off with the Israeli soldiers, but UNIFIL intervened before things got out of hand. UNIFIL later stated that there were no infractions over the border.

During a visit in June of 2019, an ATFL delegation visited the LAF Southern headquarters and the Blue Line and were encouraged by what we saw. One critical task was bringing together Israeli and Lebanese military for a meeting every six weeks to discuss infractions and disagreements on the demarcation of the Blue Line, creating an atmosphere of dialogue rather than friction.

In our meetings we learned that UNIFIL conducts an average of 460 operations per day, including 75 with the LAF, to monitor infractions and enable the LAF to extend its operations in the south. We were informed that the LAF is capably carrying out its mandate, limiting infractions from Lebanon to a few minor incidents each month, mostly shepherds crossing the Blue Line. The Israelis are violating Lebanese airspace with more than 100 illegal monthly overflights of planes and drones as well as illegal incursions over the Blue Line for “security” purposes. The LAF requires more support to extend its reach more strongly in the south on land and in the Mediterranean Sea to better conduct operations to keep Hezbollah forces out of the area in line with recent UN resolutions and expectations.

By intervening to prevent an incident that could leader to “unintended consequences,” UNFIL demonstrated that it is a cost effective investment for the US, and that US support for the LAF has resulted in a capable, professional, competent, and American trained force when addressing its issues on the Lebanon’s borders.

UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army Prove Once Again to be a Worthwhile Investment

UNIFIL forces stationed in Southern Lebanon were able to position themselves on April 15th between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Israeli troops to intervene before tensions broke out. Lebanon charged Israel with crossing the “Blue Line,” the controversial demarcated border between the two countries established in 2000. A “high alert” went out as Lebanese troops faced off with the Israeli soldiers, but UNIFIL intervened before things got out of hand. UNIFIL later stated that there were no infractions over the border.

During a visit in June of 2019, an ATFL delegation visited the LAF Southern headquarters and the Blue Line and were encouraged by what we saw. One critical task was bringing together Israeli and Lebanese military for a meeting every six weeks to discuss infractions and disagreements on the demarcation of the Blue Line, creating an atmosphere of dialogue rather than friction.

In our meetings we learned that UNIFIL conducts an average of 460 operations per day, including 75 with the LAF, to monitor infractions and enable the LAF to extend its operations in the south. We were informed that the LAF is capably carrying out its mandate, limiting infractions from Lebanon to a few minor incidents each month, mostly shepherds crossing the Blue Line. The Israelis are violating Lebanese airspace with more than 100 illegal monthly overflights of planes and drones as well as illegal incursions over the Blue Line for “security” purposes. The LAF requires more support to extend its reach more strongly in the south on land and in the Mediterranean Sea to better conduct operations to keep Hezbollah forces out of the area in line with recent UN resolutions and expectations.

By intervening to prevent an incident that could leader to “unintended consequences,” UNFIL demonstrated that it is a cost effective investment for the US, and that US support for the LAF has resulted in a capable, professional, competent, and American trained force when addressing its issues on the Lebanon’s borders.

UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army, a worthwhile US investment

Recently, there has been concern over whether U.S. assistance for foreign militaries and UN global peacekeeping missions is worthwhile. I just returned from the Israeli-Lebanese border, where I saw first-hand the work of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and its partner, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). This is a positive story that the Washington policy community should be made aware of.

My colleagues and I at the American Task Force for Lebanon (ATFL) visited the LAF southern headquarters, the UNIFIL headquarters, and the Blue Line, established in 2000, separating Israel and Lebanon. We were encouraged by what we saw.

UNIFIL was established in 1978, under UN Security Council Resolution 425, to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon. Following the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict, the UN adjusted its mandate to facilitate the entry of the LAF to south Lebanon and monitor the cessation of hostilities.

Each August the UN Security Council reviews and votes to renew the mandate of UNIFIL. Last year, the Council encouraged Lebanon to deploy a model regiment and an offshore patrol vessel in UNIFIL’s area of operations and accelerate its deployments in the area. Evidence today shows that UNIFIL and LAF are fulfilling this mission with great success.

Lebanon and Israel do not have a peace agreement and often refer to each other as the “enemy.” However, it is scarcely known that Israeli and Lebanese generals have been meeting in a building on the Blue Line about every six weeks for more than a dozen years, discussing infractions and disagreements on the demarcation of the Blue Line. UNIFIL chairs and facilitates the discussion. They and UN representatives make up two sides of a four-sided table with Israeli and Lebanese generals facing each other.

During their meetings over the past decade the generals have identified 13 areas on the Blue Line called “reservations,” which indicate disagreements on precisely where the Blue Line should be drawn when examined on an enlarged, more detailed map. Although the generals are not empowered to negotiate on behalf of their countries, this ongoing dialogue demonstrates what is possible if the two governments one day negotiate a final settlement of their border. These are tangible confidence-building discussions.

We learned that Israeli and Lebanese experts believe that only two areas of the 13 reservations remain “difficult.” One could be settled by exchanges of secure heights overlooking an Israeli settlement for more land to Lebanon. The other contentious reservation is the Mediterranean Sea marker (commonly referred to as the Hof Line), which some believe is an issue that requires a separate negotiation.

In our meetings we learned that UNIFIL conducts an average of 460 operations per day, including 75 with the LAF, to monitor infractions and enable the LAF to extend its operations in the south. We were informed that the LAF is capably carrying out its mandate, limiting infractions from Lebanon to a few minor incidents each month, mostly shepherds crossing the Blue Line. The Israelis violate Lebanese airspace with more than 100 illegal monthly overflights of planes and drones as well as illegal incursions over the Blue Line.

Although there have been some points of contention, such as the Israelis deciding to build a wall and fence on two disputed areas without a resolution, and the Lebanese not making a public statement confirming tunnels discovered on the Israeli side of the Blue Line, a historic breakthrough could still happen.

Following Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Lebanon in March, Special Envoy David Satterfield has been shuttling between Lebanon and Israel to engage the parties in a political dialogue to settle either the land or maritime border, or both. It would be historic to achieve even a partial settlement of the border dispute.

The work of LAF and UNIFIL is proving to be worthwhile and, if negotiations begin in earnest in the coming weeks, they should take a large part of the credit, given their great work in interacting with Israeli generals and keeping peace on the border for nearly 13 years. The excellent performance by the UN and LAF should be acknowledged by the U.S. policy community as well.

 

Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel is the former U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Morocco and President and CEO of the American Task Force on Lebanon. The views expressed in this article are his own. 

Photo by Muhammed Ali Akman/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Lebanon News: Progress on the Blue Line Demarcation with Israel? Interview with Interior Minister; S

After a push from US Secretary of State Pompeo and President Trump’s endorsement of Israel’s annexation of the Golan, Lebanon finally seems ready to settle its southern border. The main obstacle among Lebanon’s leaders until now has been the speaker of the parliament, Nabih Berri, who has wanted to settle the land and maritime borders simultaneously.

However, in a recent meeting with Major General Stefano del Col, commander of UNIFIL, Berri said “his country was prepared [to] establish a maritime border and special economic zone with Israel as long as it involved the same mechanism used in adopting the so-called Blue Line demarcation under the auspices of the UN,” according to an article in Ynetnews. The thorny issue for Lebanon is control of Shebaa Farms and other parcels in the area, which the country says are part of Lebanon although their status is the subject of conflicting claims.

The dispute is over the so-called Blue Line, drawn between Lebanon and Israel in June 2000 following the withdrawal of Israel’s military from the south of Lebanon. Despite the controversy, UNIFIL has included the area in its scope of operations since its inception.

UNIFIL would like nothing better than to have the border settled formally, although Lebanon and Israel have no formal diplomatic relations. Its hosting of tri-part meetings with military officials from Lebanon and Israel has been very effective in averting “unforeseen consequences” along the border. In fact, a senior Hezbollah official commented that it “is fully committed to working to liberate the Shebaa Farms, Kfar Shuba hills and the village of Ghajar and put them under Lebanese sovereignty.”

What may be motivating Berri is unclear but what is clear is that if Lebanon’s sovereignty over offshore gas and oil reserves is established, South Lebanon in particular would benefit from investments ranging from exploration and production to distribution logistics, bringing badly needed jobs to the area. Later this year, drilling is scheduled to begin, and Lebanon is getting ready to open additional blocks to bidding, both of which would benefit from greater security and stability in the area.

Ynetnews quoted Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese general and head of the Middle East Studies Center in Beirut, who told The Media Line that Lebanon had always sought to define its borders with Israel through UN mediation. “It’s not a new position or out of the ordinary,” he said. Having the UN mechanism as the facilitator is a natural extension of UNIFIL’s role.

To date, Israel and Lebanon have reached agreement on almost all of the issues on settling the land border, with Lebanon ceded some high areas to Israel for security purposes and being compensated with tracts of land that protect Lebanese villages. When it comes to the oil and gas potential, both countries have a stake in facilitating a solution sooner rather than later.

Recent expulsions of Syrian refugees from unlicensed camps on public land abutting public water sources is just another sad saga in building a case for repatriation sooner rather than later. According to the Al Jazeera story, Sami Alawieh, director of the Litani River Authority (LRA), said the agency sent in bulldozers to demolish the camp in southern Tyre because refugees there were polluting the already heavily contaminated river. “If the refugees erect tents on our agricultural land and their waste seeps into the ground and the river, then, of course, we need to move them,” Alawieh said.

At least 180 refugees were evicted in February from an informal settlement in the nearby town of Zahrani in a similar fashion, with the LRA claiming the refugees’ tents were on the site of an irrigation project. The LRA has carried out five such operations this year, evicting at least 1,500 Syrians from makeshift camps around Litani. The agency accused refugees of throwing waste into the river or in agricultural lands, blocking irrigation canals.

These evictions are being debated in public with those opposed to the continued presence of the refugees citing this as necessary to protect Lebanon’s environment. On the other hand, others accuse LRA and others of discrimination against the Syrians, creating a hostile environment to encourage them to return to Syria even if conditions are not settled for their security and safety.

HE Raya al Hassan, first female minister of the interior in Lebanon, was recently interviewed by Al Arabia about security issues in Lebanon and the region. Among other topics, she spoke about the important role that the US was playing in Lebanon. “The Americans are one of the most important supporters, especially in the field of training and arming of the internal and general security forces. There are also other donors such as the British and the EU and the French and we are lucky that there is serious work by donors to support the official security forces in Lebanon.”

Regarding the status of the Syrian refugees, she pointed out that she was the deputy head of the Future Movement and “Our position as the Future Movement, I represent a political party as well, is that we want the Syrians to go back home as soon as possible, as long as their return is safe and fast. We do not want to force any Syrian to return without guaranteeing his or her safety.”

She stressed the need to create a new culture within the security services that moves from being perceived as oppressors to protectors. “Absolutely, I mean a cultural change in the gendarmerie, which is how to preserve security within the approach of human rights. The citizens have rights and we must treat them with respect, and tell them that we are protecting you, and we do not want to oppress you. We are working to help you, we want to improve traffic. There are several things that we’re trying to apply through practices that several projects are adopting, in public security or internal security forces, which mostly deals with citizens.”

So what do the Lebanese do while the government debates? Beirut has set a new Guinness World Record for the number of national flags raised in a city for 24 hours. The Beirut Alive Association raised a total of 26,852 Lebanese flags, breaking New York’s Waterloo record of 25,599 flags. This bit of information comes from a Gulf News post, which noted that “The event was organized under the patronage of Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, represented by MP Rola Tabsh, at the Nejmeh Square in downtown Beirut…” MP Tabsh pointedly said, “Today they were capable of raising thousands of Lebanese flags to enter the Guinness book. This is a national initiative which reflects Beirut’s role and which implicates no flag other than the Lebanese will be raised in Beirut.”

UNIFIL Mandate Renewed Amid Continuing Concerns and Qualified Support from Security Council

On August 30th the UN Security Council renewed the mandate of the UN Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL) for a year. UN Security Council members expressed serious concerns, according to VOANews.com,“that violations of the cease-fire agreement between Lebanon and Israel could lead to a new conflict and urged international support for Lebanon’s armed forces and their stepped up deployment in the south and at sea.”

Rodney Hunter, the USUN Mission’s political coordinator, told the UN Security Council during its meeting that twelve years after the council imposed an arms embargo “it is unacceptable that Hezbollah continues to flout this embargo, Lebanon’s sovereignty, and the will of the majority of Lebanese people.”

The centerpiece of UNIFIL’s mandate is UNSC Resolution 1701, which limits the flow of arms into the southern region of Lebanon, provides for routine meetings between the Israeli Defense Forces and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) brokered by UNIFIL (the only direct contact between Lebanon and Israel), calls for disarming the area south of the Litani River, and assists the LAF forces in providing security throughout south Lebanon.

Following a visit with UNIFIL in its Beirut office in July, we heard a different story about claims of Hezbollah’s armed infiltration in southern Lebanon from those expressed during the UN renewal. Our UNIFIL briefer said that it conducts 14,000 patrols a month with fully deployed Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) using its 10,000-person force drawn from more than 40 countries. They state that they have not found any strategic weapons or large arms caches in the geographical area of their mandate or border infractions, other than hunters with rifles and reports of shepherds in the area.

Statements that don’t distinguish between UNIFIL’s work along Israel’s border versus concerns with Hezbollah action in other parts of Lebanon can be misleading or worse, lead to a new conflict. Recognizing the potential for misunderstanding, the UN urged “all parties” to exercise “maximum calm and restraint and refrain from any action or rhetoric that could jeopardize the cessation of hostilities or destabilize the region.”

It is time for the Administration and Congress to make its own assessment in southern Lebanon. Congress and the Administration should conduct visits in the UNIFIL mandated area and fully assess actions on the ground with the objective to clarify and strengthen UNIFIL’s mandate and its support of the LAF. It must also distinguish between the actions of the UN and LAF in the south, under the UNIFIL mandate, from potential concerns in other parts of Lebanon. A clear assessment by the US, including accepting an invitation by UNIFIL to overfly suspected weapons, should be part of that assessment.

US military assistance is critical for the Lebanese Armed Forces growing role in the south in line with Resolution 1701; and efforts to undermine that bilateral relationship between the US and Lebanon only play into the hands of Russia, which has increased its pressure for a bilateral security relationship with Lebanon, something Lebanon has resisted to date.

Although not perfect, it appears that progress with the LAF and UNIFIL mandate is being made. Now is the time for the US to examine the situation with firsthand knowledge in order to advance US objectives in southern Lebanon, strengthen the LAF in its mission throughout the country and protect Lebanon’s territorial integrity from terrorism and outside interference.

UNIFIL Mandate Renewed Amid Continuing Concerns and Qualified Support from Security Council

Edward M. Gabriel (Morocco, 1997-2001) and Jean AbiNader

On August 30th the UN Security Council renewed the mandate of the UN Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL) for a year. UN Security Council members expressed serious concerns, according to VOANews.com, “that violations of the cease-fire agreement between Lebanon and Israel could lead to a new conflict and urged international support for Lebanon’s armed forces and their stepped up deployment in the south and at sea.”

Rodney Hunter, the USUN Mission’s political coordinator, told the UN Security Council during its meeting that twelve years after the council imposed an arms embargo “it is unacceptable that Hezbollah continues to flout this embargo, Lebanon’s sovereignty, and the will of the majority of Lebanese people.”

The centerpiece of UNIFIL’s mandate is UNSC Resolution 1701, which limits the flow of arms into the southern region of Lebanon, provides for routine meetings between the Israeli Defense Forces and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) brokered by UNIFIL (the only direct contact between Lebanon and Israel), calls for disarming the area south of the Litani River, and assists the LAF forces in providing security throughout south Lebanon.

Following a visit with UNIFIL in its Beirut office in July, we heard a different story about claims of Hezbollah’s armed infiltration in southern Lebanon from those expressed during the UN renewal. Our UNIFIL briefer said that it conducts 14,000 patrols a month with fully deployed Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) using its 10,000-person force drawn from more than 40 countries. They state that they have not found any strategic weapons or large arms caches in the geographical area of their mandate or border infractions, other than hunters with rifles and reports of shepherds in the area.

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Statements that don’t distinguish between UNIFIL’s work along Israel’s border versus concerns with Hezbollah action in other parts of Lebanon can be misleading or worse, lead to a new conflict.  Recognizing the potential for misunderstanding, the UN urged “all parties” to exercise “maximum calm and restraint and refrain from any action or rhetoric that could jeopardize the cessation of hostilities or destabilize the region.”

It is time for the Administration and Congress to make its own assessment in southern Lebanon. Congress and the Administration should conduct visits in the UNIFIL mandated area and fully assess actions on the ground with the objective to clarify and strengthen UNIFIL’s mandate and its support of the LAF.  It must also distinguish between the actions of the UN and LAF in the south, under the UNIFIL mandate, from potential concerns in other parts of Lebanon. A clear assessment by the US, including accepting an invitation by UNIFIL to overfly suspected weapons, should be part of that assessment.

US military assistance is critical for the Lebanese Armed Forces growing role in the south in line with Resolution 1701; and efforts to undermine that bilateral relationship between the US and Lebanon only play into the hands of Russia, which has increased its pressure for a bilateral security relationship with Lebanon, something Lebanon has resisted to date.

Although not perfect, it appears that progress with the LAF and UNIFIL mandate is being made. Now is the time for the US to examine the situation with firsthand knowledge in order to advance US objectives in southern Lebanon, strengthen the LAF in its mission throughout the country and protect Lebanon’s territorial integrity from terrorism and outside interference.

Edward M. Gabriel is the former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, currently President of the American Task Force for Lebanon (ATFL) and a member of the Council of American Ambassadors. Jean AbiNader is a senior adviser to ATFL.