On UNIFIL’s Continued Utility

“UNIFIL Blames Hezbollah for Inciting Citizens!” screamed a headline in Nidaa al-Watan, one week after residents of the south Lebanon town of Al-Aqbiyeh killed an Irish UNIFIL peacekeeper last Wednesday. The headline this week quotes a reported tense exchange between UNIFIL’s Commander, Maj. Gen. Aroldo Lazaro Saenz and an unnamed Hezbollah security official – presumably Wafiq Safa – during which the peacekeeper force’s commander berated his interlocutor saying, “if you’re not directly responsible for the incident, then you’re responsible for inciting the citizenry against us!”

To careful followers of Lebanese events, this is no surprise. Hezbollah’s outlets, perceived as purveyors of unvarnished truth by the group’s supporters, routinely decry UNIFIL as a tool of malicious foreign interests, including arch-nemesis Israel. In Hezbollah’s telling, UNIFIL’s (unfulfilled) mandate masks its true goal of “weakening the resistance” to facilitate a future Israeli invasion and conquest of Lebanon.

The murder of the Irish peacekeeper, Hezbollah’s incitement against the force, and UNIFIL’s inability to fulfill its mandate to prevent Hezbollah’s arms buildup south of the Litani River all call into question this force’s continued utility. Hezbollah is today better armed than it was in 2006, when UNIFIL received its updated and more “robust” orders. The group and Israel clash (or don’t) at will – and that’s the key point: hostilities have not erupted between the two belligerents since 2006 because each side has its own calculus for wanting to avoid conflict for the time being, and neither side’s considerations have anything to do with UNIFIL. The peacekeeping force doesn’t even serve as a proverbial trip wire.

It is therefore crucial to consider – 44 years after UNIFIL’s establishment, and 16 years after its mandate was upgraded and expanded – whether this force is up to the mission with which it was tasked, or if its presence is merely providing a false sense of security while Hezbollah and Israel gear up for an inevitable future conflict, whenever it may come.