The Gardeners of Beirut

23/10/2008

An anecdote recently told me by a senior source in the Arab media indicates the process by which Hizbullah is rebuilding its strength south of the Litani River. The source, who is well connected in Lebanon, related the story of a family who left their home in one of the villages of the south during the 2006 war. They now return from Beirut to the south for weekends. Recently, on returning to their southern residence, they noticed that their garden had been dug up, and that an unfamiliar tree had mysteriously appeared in the area. The family made inquiries as to who or what had been responsible for this item of uninvited landscape gardening on their property. They were quietly advised not to further pursue the issue, and the matter was dropped. This example was cited as a typical instance of what is currently taking place in southern Lebanon.

This story, from a trustworthy source, suggests the extent to which Hizbullah is able to expect – or impose – silence and consent among the population of the south. It appears to offer supporting evidence to the suspicion that Hizbullah is using populated areas of southern Lebanon as the framework within which it is rebuilding its independent military infrastructure in southern Lebanon. But it also hints at the problematic “peaceful coexistence” which appears to be maintained between Hizbullah and the bodies tasked with implementing UN Resolution 1701 south of the Litani River – namely, UNIFIL and the Lebanese Armed Forces. On June 27 of this year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued his latest report on the implementation of Resolution 1701. The report noted Israeli claims that Hizbullah was in the process of rebuilding its military capacity in the south. It confirmed that UNIFIL, in collaboration with the LAF, would “immediately investigate” any claims of violations of Resolution 1701. However, the UN secretary-general found “no evidence of new military infrastructure in the area of operations.”

A possible explanation for UNIFIL’s failure to become aware of incidents such as the one described above is to be found by observing this force’s own patterns of deployment in the area, and its relations with the Lebanese army (LAF). A visitor to southern Lebanon will be immediately struck by the absence of international and LAF forces in populated areas. UNIFIL does not conduct patrols, establish checkpoints or maintain a presence of any kind within the towns and villages south of the Litani. Indeed, the UN forces have little unmediated security-related contact of any kind with the population of the area.

Thus, while UNIFIL, according to its own figures, carries out around 400 foot, vehicle and air patrols in each 24-hour period, these take place exclusively along recognized patrol paths and in rural areas. UN forces maintain no independent checkpoints and are involved in a minimum of joint checkpoints with the LAF (fewer than 10 such positions in the entirety of southern Lebanon, according to available figures.) The result of this pattern of activity is that UNIFIL has made some significant discoveries of ordnance in rural areas. However, given the physical absence of UN forces from any of the areas where evidence of Hizbullah infrastructure-building has emerged, it is not surprising that UNIFIL reports “no evidence” that such activity is taking place. In general, the two sides appear to do their best to stay out of each other’s way. The reason for the emergence of this pattern was succinctly expressed recently in private by an Italian official, who noted that the Italian government possessed no mandate from the public for the arrival of Italian soldiers in body bags from southern Lebanon.

Accidents have happened, however, most famously in an incident near the village of Jibal al-Butm in the western sector on the night of March 30-31. On that occasion, a UNIFIL patrol noted a suspicious truck towing a trailer and began to follow it. Two cars containing armed men then blocked the further progress of the UNIFIL patrol. The troops, in the words of a UN report, “challenged” the armed men. Unfortunately, while the challenge was going on, the suspicious truck disappeared. The armed men then also left the area. The UN’s report on the incident dryly notes that despite a Lebanese army investigation into the incident, efforts to “locate or identify the perpetrators have proved unsuccessful.” The role of the Lebanese army in events in the south must also be considered.

The LAF, it may be assumed, has a far better idea than does UNIFIL of what is happening on the ground. It maintains a far more visible presence, though it also avoids open patrolling in populated areas. But the LAF is the same army that existed throughout a decade and a half of effective Syrian control in Lebanon. In that time, Syria spread its control throughout the organs of the Lebanese state. No purge of the LAF took place after the Syrian departure, and it may be assumed that significant elements of the army continue to act according to a pro-Syrian agenda.

This, among other things, would include turning a blind eye to Hizbullah activity in the south. So Resolution 1701 notwithstanding, no force currently exists to effectively challenge or limit the activities of the Hizbullah “para-state” in southern Lebanon. As a result, the infrastructure for the next war is currently being built, woven into the fabric of civilian life, a few miles north of the border.

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