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01/11/2006 | Israel/Hizbollah/Lebanon: Avoiding Renewed Conflict

International Crisis Group Staff

The international community needs to keep its goals in Lebanon modest lest it renew the conflagration that Security Council Resolution 1701 has put a temporary lid on.

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS

UN Security Council Resolution 1701 halted the month-long fighting between Israel and Hizbollah but did little to resolve the underlying conflict and, if poorly handled, could help reignite it. The resolution has held remarkably well, with only limited violations. However, the temptation by either party to overreach could trigger renewed fighting. The greatest threats would be attempts by Israel or UN forces (UNIFIL) to use 1701 as a blunt means of disarming Hizbollah in the south or by Hizbollah to test UNIFIL’s resolve. 1701 should be seen as a transitory instrument that can stabilise the border by containing both sides’ military impulses until bolder action is taken to address both domestic Lebanese matters (reforming and democratising the political and electoral systems; building a strong sovereign state and army; resolving the question of Hizbollah’s armaments) and, especially, regional issues (in particular re-launching the Syrian track and engaging Iran). In short the international community must be modest in implementing 1701 for as long as it is not prepared to be ambitious in its regional diplomatic efforts.

Resolution 1701 achieved a surprising degree of consensus. All relevant parties – Israel, Hizbollah and the Lebanese government, as well as key regional and other international actors – accepted the Security Council as the arbiter of the conflict while agreeing to the extensive deployment of Lebanon’s army (LAF) south of the Litani River, the expansion of UNIFIL with a strengthened mandate in the same area and the need to build up Lebanese sovereignty over its own territory. Core stumbling blocks (e.g., releasing the abducted Israeli soldiers; ending Hizbollah’s armed presence in the south) were mentioned in the resolution, but as strong aspirations, not immediate prerequisites. All in all, this is not negligible, nor was it pre-ordained. 1701 came about at a time of high tension, after a fierce diplomatic battle, and was accepted only because all sides needed a face-saving solution. Collective exhaustion produced an ambiguous outcome that nobody whole-heartedly endorsed but all reluctantly accepted.

After more than a month of violent conflict, Israel and Hizbollah were chastened, conscious of the limits of their military power and reluctant to continue hostilities. Israel had insisted both that it would not stop fighting until its soldiers were returned and Hizbollah was disarmed; 1701’s ambiguity notwithstanding, it achieved neither. Israel had limited appetite for continued confrontation and now, in the wake of a war that reawakened and reinforced anxiety about a Lebanese quagmire, has little stomach for resuming it. Rather, Israelis chose to invest cautious hope in the presence of international and Lebanese forces in the south to rein in Hizbollah and in UN mediation to free the abducted soldiers.

Hizbollah’s perceived victory may have emboldened the organisation but it too labours under heavy constraints. With over 1,000 civilian deaths, the destruction of thousands of homes and the damage done to basic economic infrastructure, initiating another round of violence would be deeply unpopular with its own constituency, not to mention the country as a whole. The LAF’s deployment to the south – for the first time in over three decades – and UNIFIL’s strengthening in what heretofore had been a Hizbollah sanctuary was not the movement’s preference. But it was deemed a price worth paying to end the fighting, avoid exacerbating domestic tensions and preserve as much as possible of the status quo, including its presence in the south.

The international community, and the U.S. in particular, were left with little choice. By allowing the war to rage on for weeks, they had lost much of their credibility and faced increasingly hostile Arab and Muslim publics. Washington claimed from the outset that only a solution that dealt with the roots of the conflict – in its view, Hizbollah’s armed presence – was worth pursuing. In the end, it settled for far less, namely a denser UN and Lebanese army presence in the south and reiteration of the longer-term goal of disarming armed groups. Evincing signs of pragmatism, U.S. officials for now are not pressing UNIFIL or the LAF to disarm Hizbollah, hoping instead to strengthen the central government and extend its territorial reach.

Such shared modesty must be preserved lest the fragile stability unravel. 1701 is not the proper framework for the necessary resolution of underlying issues in the Israeli-Lebanese relationship, and it must not be construed as such. It is inherently ambiguous, allowing for different interpretations, offering vague timelines, and covering conflicting long-term goals behind similar wording: strengthening Lebanese sovereignty means neutralising Hizbollah for some and defending against Israel for others. It does not address Lebanon’s domestic political situation. It places disproportionate emphasis on the question of Hizbollah and offers nothing to parties (Syria and Iran) with considerable interest and means of obstruction. Like its predecessor, Security Council Resolution 1559 (2004), it unwisely seeks to internationalise a particular aspect of the problem (Hizbollah’s armament) without regionalising its solution (addressing the broader Arab-Israeli conflict or the growing U.S.-Iranian differences).

In sum, 1701 all at once elevates Hizbollah’s armed status to the rank of core international concern; entrusts its resolution to a process (Lebanon’s internal dialogue) that is structurally incapable of dealing with it; and defers the key political step (progress toward a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace) that is a precondition for settling it.

In carrying out 1701, therefore, the international community should keep its eye on the risks. With its deterrent power severely damaged by a military draw most interpreted as a defeat, Israel will not tolerate brazen attempts by Hizbollah to resupply. Conversely, Hizbollah will not accept efforts by Israel, UNIFIL or its Lebanese opponents to try to achieve politically what could not be done militarily. Implementation should focus on several interrelated goals:

  • containing Hizbollah, not by aggressively seeking to disarm it, but through the presence of thousands of Lebanese and UN troops in the south who can constrain its freedom of action, ability to display weapons and, especially, capacity to resupply. Hizbollah will test UNIFIL’s resolve; UN forces must be ready to respond in a measured way that does not trigger escalation. Indeed, the establishment of checkpoints throughout the area already is confronting Hizbollah with a far different environment than the one it faced between 2000 and 2006;
  • containing Israel, by taking a clear stance against any violation of Lebanese sovereignty, in particular through over-flights. Neither UNIFIL nor the LAF can risk being perceived as securing Israel without securing Lebanon or as being more preoccupied with one goal than with the other;
  • strengthening the Lebanese state by empowering the LAF to become a guardian of national borders and a protector of its lands, and forcing it to cede the place it has long held as the arbiter of internal disputes to other security organs and the police; and
  • drying up the immediate potential triggers of renewed conflict through a prisoner exchange and setting in motion a process to resolve the Shebaa farms issue.

While these measures can help stabilise the situation, they are not sustainable in the longer term. Once again, regional and international actors are using Lebanese players as proxies to promote their interests, exploiting and exacerbating both pre-existing domestic tensions and the political system’s dysfunctionalities. Solving the question of Hizbollah and achieving real stability on the Israeli-Lebanese border will require steps both by the Lebanese state to reform the political system and, crucially, by the Quartet and the wider international community to engage Syria and Iran and work toward a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To the United Nations Security Council:

1.  Promote effective implementation of Resolution 1701 on Lebanon by passing a follow-up resolution calling for:

(a)  comprehensive Lebanese security reform, with the assistance of outside parties, based on the need to effectively assert the state’s sovereignty and defend its territorial integrity;

(b)  sustained and substantial international financial assistance;

(c)  intensive efforts to address outstanding Israeli-Lebanese issues, including a prisoner exchange, a halt to Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty and onset of a process to resolve the status of the contested Shebaa farms by transferring custody to the UN under UNIFIL supervision pending Israel-Syria and Israel-Lebanon peace agreements; and

(d)  intensive and sustained efforts to reach a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

To the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL):

2.  Accept that its task is essentially to assist the Lebanese Armed Forces, refraining from proactive searches for Hizbollah arms caches.

3.  Investigate, publicly condemn and take appropriate action against flagrant violations of Resolution 1701, particularly attempts to resupply Hizbollah and Israeli over-flights or other violations of Lebanese sovereignty.

4.  Quickly provide financial and technical support for the clearance of unexploded munitions (UXOs) and other lethal war debris, including cluster sub-munitions that are sinking below the surface due to the onset of winter.

5.  Avoid assuming an assertive armed posture in patrolling southern Lebanon so as to minimise anti-UN sentiment among the local population.

6.  Complete UN demarcation of the Shebaa farms area and propose to Israel, Lebanon and Syria placing it under temporary UN custody pending final peace agreements between them.

To the Government of Israel:

7.  Halt hostile operations in Lebanon, including the capture or assassination of militants and civilians, as well as violations of Lebanese waters and air space.

8.  Cooperate with UN efforts to address remaining Israeli-Lebanese issues, including a prisoner exchange, provision of digital records of cluster-rocket launching sequences and logbooks with target coordinates, and resolution of the status of Shebaa farms and Ghajar village.

To the Government of Syria:

9.  Engage in an open dialogue with Lebanon aimed at clarifying and addressing both sides’ legitimate interests, in particular by normalising bilateral relations on the basis of mutual respect and exchanging embassies.

10.  Cooperate with UN efforts to demarcate the Shebaa farms area and reach agreement with Lebanon on its final status.

To Hizbollah:

11.  End all visible armed presence south of the Litani River and avoid provocative actions vis-à-vis Israel or UNIFIL.

12.  Work within the context of the national dialogue on a mutually acceptable process that would lead to the end of its status as an autonomous force, notably through enhancement of the LAF’s defence capabilities, reform of the political system and progress toward Arab-Israeli peace.

13.  Limit territorial claims to those officially endorsed by the Lebanese government.

To the Government of Lebanon:

14.  Undertake, in cooperation with international partners, a thorough security reform aimed at re-establishing and defending the state’s sovereignty over its territory, emphasising defensive capabilities and reinforcing the army as an instrument of national defence.

15.  Ensure that such security reform is not used to further any international or partisan domestic agenda.

16.  Encourage Hizbollah’s gradual demilitarisation by addressing outstanding Israeli-Lebanese issues (prisoner exchange, violations of Lebanese sovereignty and Shebaa farms); and reforming and democratising Lebanon’s political system.

17.  Tighten controls along its border with Syria, using international technical assistance.

To the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF):

18.  Confiscate visible weapons south of the Litani River and seek to prevent arms transfers.

To the European Union and its Member States:

19.  Provide technical and material assistance to Lebanon’s security reform process, domestic security organs and the Lebanese Armed Forces.

To Arab States:

20.  Support the building and equipping of the LAF.

21.  Provide additional financial assistance to assist in reconstruction and reduce government indebtedness.

22.  Cast off sectarian bias in dealing with Lebanon, ensuring that relations are established with the central government rather than particular communities.

To Members of the Quartet (U.S., Russia, UN and EU):

23.  Conduct parallel discussions with Israel, Syria and Lebanon to re-launch Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese peace negotiations, making clear that the goal is a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

International Crisis Group (Organismo Internacional)

 

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