memri
October 6, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 547

In South Lebanon, Tension Increases Between UNIFIL and Hizbullah-Syria-Iran Bloc

October 6, 2009 | By H. Varulkar
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 547

Introduction

In recent weeks, tensions between Hizbullah and the UNIFIL forces in South Lebanon have escalated, following several violations of U.N. Resolution 1701. The first of the incidents was the explosion at a Hizbullah weapons depot in the town of Khirbat Selem on July 14, 2009, followed on July 18 by an attack on UNIFIL troops searching the town for illegal weapons, who were pelted with stones by locals. Another incident was on July 17, when dozens of Hizbullah supporters and residents from the village of Kafr Shuba crossed the Lebanon-Israel border near the village, alleging that the Israeli army had erected a barrier and a watchtower on territory across the border that belonged to the village. The protesters put up Lebanese and Hizbullah flags in the disputed area, and accused UNIFIL of complacency in the face of Israel's violations. [1]

In the wake of these incidents, Hizbullah officials leveled harsh accusations against UNIFIL, and Hizbullah supporters made threats against the organization. The hostile tone was echoed by Syria and Iran, and also by the Fath Al-Islam organization, whose name has been associated with Syrian intelligence since the 2008 events in Nahr Al-Bared. The London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat argued that the incident was intended to divert public attention from the issue of Hizbullah's weapons and to minimize the debate on its violations of Resolution 1701. Hizbullah officials and the Syrian press focused on Israel, repeatedly warning that it was preparing for another war on Lebanon. [2]

Hizbullah Officials, Supporters Threaten UNIFIL

Top Hizbullah officials stated that UNIFIL had overstepped its authority when it entered Khirbat Selem and searched homes there without being accompanied by the Lebanese army. [3] Hizbullah deputy secretary-general Na'im Qassem said that he held UNIFIL responsible for this oversight, [4] while Hizbullah foreign relations chief 'Ammar Al-Mousawi accused the organization of provoking the Khirbat Selem residents, and called their response "natural." He said: "Some UNIFIL units overstepped their authority when they raided the homes of civilians in Khirbat Selem. The mission of these forces is [only] to assist the [Lebanese] army, which is exclusively responsible for preserving security." [5]

Hizbullah officials contended further that UNIFIL had proven itself unable to defend Lebanon's sovereignty, and that it was therefore unreliable. They also accused the organization of turning a blind eye to Israel's violations of Resolution 1701. [6] Amal MP Qassem Hashem said at a Kafr Shuba rally on July 17, 2009 that during the July 17 Kafr Shuba incident, UNIFIL troops had not lifted a finger but had only stood by and watched. [7]

Ibrahim Al-Amin: If UNIFIL Takes Israel's Side, It Will Become the Enemy

Following the Khirbat Selem incident, the chairman of the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, Ibrahim Al-Amin, who is known to be close to Hizbullah, published a harsh article that included warnings to UNIFIL: "The reaction of the locals in Bir Al-Salasil and Khirbat Selem [to the UNIFIL raid on their village] was understandable... considering that their [reaction] could have been a bloodier and more violent confrontation. Those responsible for the misguided decision [to enter the village] by [UNIFIL's] French unit were lucky that the incident escalated no further... The international forces [now] face two simple options: either to be neutral and help Lebanon, or to side with Israel and comply with its demands - in which case they will immediately become a hostile force [as far as we are concerned]. There is no third option...

"The population among whom these international forces operate is one that adheres to the resistance [i.e. supports Hizbullah]... In other words, this population is not neutral when it comes to the resistance. So if [the residents] feel [that UNIFIL] is plotting against the resistance, Hizbullah will not need to organize reactions [on their part, for they will react of their own accord]...

"It is impossible to restrict the alert [actions] of the resistance just because some hot-headed French officer decided to carry out an operation that almost became a suicide operation for him and his men. His commanders should investigate [the incident] and remove him from his post, along with all others who think like him, lest he bring disaster upon all those around him... Those in charge of UNIFIL [must bear in mind that] South Lebanon is not like other parts of the world, and that he who sinks into the South Lebanese quagmire soon finds himself hankering for an annual vacation in Afghanistan or Somalia!" [8]

Hizbullah-Affiliated Sheikh: If UNIFIL Continues This Way, It Will Not Be Wanted Here

Threats and warnings were also voiced by Sheikh 'Ali Yassin, head of the Tyre Religious Scholars Assembly, who is considered close to Hizbullah. He stated: "We [suspect] that UNIFIL is receiving instructions from the Israeli government, and if it continues this way, it will not be wanted here. We are willing to live [with UNIFIL] as long as it serves as an unbiased observer." [9] In a communiqué, the Tyre Religious Scholars Assembly accused UNIFIL of "promoting Israel's, rather than Lebanon's, interests in South Lebanon," and of ignoring Israeli violations of Resolution 1701. [10]

Syrian Official: UNIFIL Violated Resolution 1701 and Must Apologize

A hostile tone towards UNIFIL was also taken by Syrian officials and the Syrian press. George Jabour, a former advisor to Syrian President Assad and currently the head of Syria's U.N. Affairs Association, gave an interview to the Iranian Al-Alam TV channel, in which he alleged that UNIFIL had violated Resolution 1701 during the recent incidents in Khirbat Selem, and called upon it to apologize to the residents of this town. He added that any changes to UNIFIL's regulations on opening fire (as demanded by Israel in order to increase the organization's effectiveness and freedom of operation) might adversely affect the situation in South Lebanon and in the region as a whole. [11]

Syrian Daily: UNIFIL's Excuse Is Unacceptable

The Syrian daily Al-Watan, which is close to government circles, stated: "Observers have been raising questions regarding [UNIFIL's] role in South [Lebanon]... For example, they wonder about the slowness with which it responded to the Israeli violation [of 1701] in Kafr Shuba... They contend that its excuse, [namely] that Kafr Shuba is outside its area of operations... is irrelevant and unacceptable, since this [Israeli] violation was [the factor] that caused all the tension in South [Lebanon] in the last two days, and the international force is fully responsible for preventing tensions [of this sort]..." [12]

Iranian Daily: UNIFIL Fears Hizbullah

An editorial in the Iranian daily Kayhan, which is close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, boasted that UNIFIL is intimidated by Hizbullah's power, and is therefore unable to enforce Resolution 1701. The article explained that by passing the resolution, the international community had sought to monitor Hizbullah's weapons, and that the following steps had been taken to this end: "[It was decided to] expand UNIFIL from 2,000 troops to 12,000; UNIFIL was authorized to use firearms, to monitor the Syria-Lebanon border, and to search cargo arriving at Beirut airport; and the Lebanese army was designated as the only [Lebanese] force allowed to possess arms. However, none of these clauses have actually been implemented: UNIFIL, which never actually numbered 12,000 troops, has now shrunk to 9,000; Hizbullah's might in South Lebanon robs it of the courage to use its firearms; cargo passing through Beirut airport is not actually searched; the Syrian border is still regarded as a secure border for the Lebanese resistance; and the weapons of the resistance remain in the hands of Hizbullah. Therefore, though it has been three years since Resolution 1701 was passed, it remains no more than a symbolic gesture... and the elements that passed it have no hope of implementing its clauses." [13]

Is Iran Behind the Escalation in South Lebanon?

Following the incidents, Hazem Saghiya, a columnist in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat, accused Iran of being behind the escalation in South Lebanon, either with the aim of drawing the world's attention away from Iran's internal crisis following its presidential election, or as a response to the international community's ultimatum that it reach an agreement with the West on its nuclear issue by September 24, 2009.

He wrote: "All [these events in the South] are happening at a burning regional moment - a very burning regional moment. It is no secret that the West, the U.S., and Europe are rapidly losing patience with Iran. This is reflected in statements by senior Western officials that bordered on threats, and were even accompanied by a timetable... It is also no secret that [Iran's] regime of ayatollahs recently experienced a period that was not its most felicitous. [This regime's leaders,] who thought that this 'domestic matter' [i.e. the post-election protests] was over and done with... were taken by surprise... by the renewed protest activity...

"It is clear that the [Iranian] regime urgently needs to deflect attention from the crisis that has struck it and that [still] has [more] surprises in store for it. What happened in [the village of] Khirbat Selem can be seen in this light - that is, maybe the [Iranian regime thought] that the time has come to get rid of Resolution 1701 and to activate, in an absolute way, the theory that Lebanon [can be used as] an arena [for settling regional and international accounts]. This theory was put on hold for the past three years, when Tehran was confident in its stance in its negotiations [with the West on its nuclear dossier]..." [14]

Lebanese Military, Government Back Hizbullah's Weapons

Following the events, several reports were published indicating that the Lebanese military and even the Lebanese government backed Hizbullah's weapons and its presence in South Lebanon - even though both are blatant violations of Resolution 1701.

In an article in the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, a source close to the French Embassy in Beirut was quoted as saying that the French forces were certain that "a blind eye was being turned" by the Lebanese military so as to aid Hizbullah in smuggling weapons and to protect it from UNIFIL search operations. The source said that in contrast to Hizbullah's claims, "UNIFIL forces did coordinate with the Lebanese army, as required, in order to search a house in Khirbat Selem. However, when they came to the village, the French [soldiers] were taken [by the Lebanese army] to a place [that was] not [the one they wanted to search]. The French protested to the commander of the army unit that accompanied them, saying that they were not stupid, and [demanded] to be taken to the right place. The military personnel were embarrassed and left the scene several minutes later. The French tried to complete their mission of searching [the house], and then the clash with the Lebanese civilians happened..." [15]

Evidence of Lebanese government backing for Hizbullah's weapons can be seen in an official government letter to U.N. Security Council chairman and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, which attempted to deny that the explosion had taken place at a Hizbullah weapons depot - which would have made it a clear violation of Resolution 1701. The letter said that the explosion was caused when a fire broke out in an unoccupied building that contained ammunition left behind by the Israeli army during the July 2006 war. The letter also stated that at the explosion site there were various types of ammunition with Hebrew writing, as well as types that Hizbullah did not possess.

In response to Israel's claim that the Lebanese army had prevented UNIFIL from visiting the site of the explosion, the Lebanese government claimed that "the investigation began only the day after [the explosion], because of the risks involved in coming too close to the site on the day of the explosion itself - based on the opinions of explosives experts from both the Lebanese army and UNIFIL." [16]

The Return of Fath Al-Islam

Following the escalation of hostilities by Hizbullah, Syria, and Iran against UNIFIL, attention was suddenly drawn to the Fath Al-Islam organization, which has been linked to Syria, and has returned to the Lebanese arena. Since the battles between the Lebanese army and Fath Al-Islam at the Nahr Al-Bared refugee camp in May through September 2007, there has been much evidence, presented by Fath Al-Islam operatives, that Syrian intelligence had recruited the organization's activists and sent them to Lebanon to undermine stability and security there. [17]

On July 22, 2009, just a few days before the escalation in the South, it was reported that the Lebanese army intelligence authority had arrested a fundamentalist extremist spy ring, including 10 Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese with connections to Fath Al-Islam. According to the report, this spy ring had planned, inter alia, to form squads to monitor UNIFIL and the Lebanese army in South Lebanon in order to carry out terror operations against them. [18]

This was not the first time that Fath Al-Islam had threatened to harm UNIFIL. In June 2007, at the height of the clashes and battles between it and the Lebanese military at Nahr Al-Bared, Fath Al-Islam spokesman Abu Salim Taha had threatened to target UNIFIL, saying that it was collaborating with the Lebanese army against his organization and that it had shelled Nahr Al-Bared. [19]

As in the past, this time too the Lebanese pro-Syrian daily Al-Akhbar presented Fath Al-Islam as an organization subordinate to Al-Qaeda, apparently with the aim of refuting claims regarding its Syrian connection. An article published on July 23, 2009 - the day after the report of the arrest of the Fath Al-Islam spy network - stated that any doubts about the Al-Qaeda presence in Lebanon were now a thing of the past. It added that since the Nahr Al-Bared battles between Fath Al-Islam and the Lebanese army, a Fath Al-Islam "second generation" had been operating in Lebanon seeking vengeance against the Lebanese army for the Nahr Al-Bared events, before the attacks against UNIFIL had even taken place. [20]

Further, both the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar and the Syrian daily Al-Watan reported that one of the terror ring's aims was to carry out attacks in Syria - a claim not mentioned by the other Lebanese newspapers or by the London Arab daily. The Syrian daily Al-Watan also stated that the ring had direct links to the Al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan, and that it maintained contact with squads in Syria. [21]

*H. Varulkar is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] In response to similar accusations by Kafr Shuba residents a few weeks earlier, UNIFIL spokesperson Yasmina Bouzaine said that the Shab'a Farms and Kafr Shuba lay outside UNIFIL's jurisdiction. Al-Akhbar, Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), July 18, 2009.

[2] For example, Nasrallah said in a June 20, 2009 speech: "...We hear talk of a new war on Lebanon and of another attempt to harm it. Israel's tones continues to escalate from day to day... They are talking of a war [aimed at] rooting out the resistance from the Lebanese arena. They have Lebanon in their sights..." In another speech a week later, Nasrallah stated that Israel was looking for a pretext to start another war against Lebanon, and he assessed that the war would break out sometime between the end of the year and the spring of 2010. The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah, stated in a similar vein: "[Certain Israeli] elements are urging Israeli Prime Minister Binyanim Netanyahu to launch new hostilities against Lebanon, and he may deem this aggression as a necessity rather than [merely] an option..." www.alintiqad.com, July 20, 2009; www.nowlebanon.com, July 26, 2009; Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), July 20, 2009. The Syrian government daily Al-Thawra stated: "Israel, which clearly has not yet come to terms with its defeat in [the 2006 war] in Lebanon, is openly trying to drag Lebanon and the resistance into [another] military confrontation... If Israel persists [in this], it will find itself facing a special [kind of] confrontation, and the [Lebanese] resistance has no doubt made all the necessary preparations for it." The Syrian daily Al-Watan wrote in late July: "...Israel's repeated threats indicate that there are those who are planning [an act of] aggression and who are interested in it..." Al-Thawra (Syria), July 23, 2009; Al-Watan (Syria), July 20, 2009.

[3] UNIFIL Spokesperson Yasmina Bouzaine said, in response, that Lebanese troops had indeed been present. Al-Hayat (London), July 20, 2009; www.moqawama.org, July 23, 2009.

[4] www.moqawama.org, July 23, 2009.

[5] www.moqawama.org, July 21, 2009. Nawwaf Al-Mousawi, a member of Hizbullah's parliamentary bloc, the Resistance Loyalists party, said in a similar vein: "Resolution 1701 clearly [states] that the Lebanese army is the legitimate and legal authority in South [Lebanon]. [UNIFIL] may intervene [only] if the army asks [for its assistance]." Al-Mousawi added that, at Khirbat Selem, there had been no coordination between UNIFIL and the army, otherwise the locals would not have responded as they did. "UNIFIL's raid [on the town] was just as unacceptable as Israel's violations," he concluded. www.moqawama.org, July 20, 2009.

[6] Hizbullah MP 'Ali Fayyadh said that UNIFIL forces were unable to defend Lebanese sovereignty and to help Lebanon restore its occupied territory. Resistance Loyalists member Nawwar Al-Sahili said: "The U.N. is Israel's eye [in Lebanon], and we do not trust it, because there are thousands of Israeli violations against Lebanon, but nobody investigates or monitors them..." Lebanese news agency NNA, July 20, 2009; Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), July 28, 2009.

[7] www.alintiqad.com, July 21, 2009.

[8] Al-Akhbar, August 20, 2009. Al-Amin has already published articles in the past that harshly criticized UNIFIL and even included warnings and threats against the organization. In an August 2008 article, he wrote: "UNIFIL knows that if they accuse the Lebanese resistance of violating Resolution [1701], and initiate practical steps [in response to these violations], this will be seen as readiness on their part to tangle with Hizbullah..." In another article, from August 7, 2008, Al-Amin claimed that groups within UNIFIL were spying in Lebanon and gathering information on Hizbullah and its leaders. He also accused the organization of complying with Israeli demands that are transmitted to UNIFIL by means of Israeli spy networks in South Lebanon. In a November 7, 2008 article, he claimed, in a similar vein, that groups within UNIFIL are subordinate to foreign intelligence apparatuses. These groups, he wrote, have recruited dozens of young villagers in South Lebanon who have been asked to collect information and have been given specific tasks, such as to observe certain buildings. Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), August 1, 2008; August 7, 2008, November 7, 2008.

[9] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), July 20, 2009.

[10] Al-Hayat (London), July 20, 2009.

[11] www.alalamnews.ir, July 21, 2009.

[12] Al-Watan (Syria), July 20, 2009.

[13] Kayhan (Iran), July 21, 2009.

[14] www.nowlebanon.com, July 20, 2009. Former Lebanese MP Mustafa 'Aloush said that the explosion at the Hizbullah weapons depot was a deliberate act by Hizbullah, and that it was connected to the West's ultimatum to Iran, which is about to expire. Syrian official George Jabour also assessed that the volatile situation in South Lebanon was linked to this ultimatum. Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), July 20, 2009; www.alalamnews.ir, July 21, 2009.

[15] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), July 23, 2009. The Lebanese daily Al-Safir reported that the U.S. was not pleased by the conduct of Lebanese army, which had imposed a media blackout on the affair of the Khirbat Selem explosion, and by its stance on the incident between UNIFIL and the Khirbat Selem residents. According to the daily, Syria, on the other hand, is pleased by the events in the South; moreover, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and his Syrian counterpart Bashar Al-Assad are maintaining contacts, far from media scrutiny, and are discussing, inter alia, the tightening of cooperation between the Lebanese army and Hizbullah. Al-Safir (Lebanon), August 25, 2009.

[16] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), July 27, 2009.

[17] UNIFIL is now operating in Lebanon not only under threats by Fath Al-Islam, but also under direct and explicit threats from other fundamentalist groups, some of whom belong to Al-Qaeda, and who regard UNIFIL as a target. Al-Safir (Lebanon), February 9, 2007, May 1, 2008; Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), January 10, 2009.

About Fath Al-Islam, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 362, Who Is Behind Fath Al-Islam? June 8, 2007; MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 365, Syrian Efforts to Deny Fath Al-Islam Affiliation With Syrian Intelligence June 20, 2007; MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1880, Lebanon Publishes New Evidence of Ties Between Syria and Fath Al-Islam March 27, 2008; MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 487, Rising Inter-Arab Tensions: Saudi Arabia and Egypt versus Syria and Iran Part III – Syria, Saudi Arabia Clash over Fath Al-Islam December 22, 2008.

[18] Al-Hayat (London), June 22, 2009. The network had also planned to perpetrate terrorist attacks outside Lebanon, to kidnap foreigners in Lebanon in order to exchange them for Fath Al-Islam detainees held by the Lebanese authorities, and to smuggle out of the country wanted Fath Al-Islam activists who were staying in the refugee camp of Ain Al-Hilweh, including the group's commanders. It was also reported that the organization leader was a Syrian citizen. According to the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, Fath Al-Islam detainees admitted to establishing a network that had extended logistic assistance to Fath Al-Islam in Ain Al-Hilweh, and especially to 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-'Awadh, who had replaced Shaker Al-'Absi as the organization's emir, and also to its number two man, Osama Al-Shihabi. Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), July 22, 2009.

[19] www.aljazeera.net, June 3, 2007. Many Fath Al-Islam detainees admitted in their interrogation that targeting UNIFIL had been one of the organization's goals. In February 2009, some detainees admitted to having detonated IEDs beside UNIFIL vehicles, and explained that they had done so because UNIFIL was "like the occupation forces in Iraq, and fighting it is a religious duty." The activists added that they had carried out the operations on orders by 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-'Awadh. Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 8, 2007; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 9, 2007; Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), February 5, 2009.

[20] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), July 23, 2009.

[21] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), Al-Watan (Syria), July 23, 2009.

Share this Report: