Israel’s Newfound Concern for UNIFIL

A recent article in the online edition of the Jerusalem Post states that “Israel is becoming increasingly anxious about the fate of UNIFIL if Hizbullah increases its power in upcoming parliamentary elections in Lebanon.” Anxiety over UNIFIL’s fate was apparently not an issue in 2006 when an Israeli air strike on a UN post in Khiam killed 4 UN observers; the introduction of the word “increasingly” is thus encouraging.

Hezbollah has also been prone to bouts of worrying over the fate of Lebanon’s long-term guests, such as when UNIFIL enlisted the Party of God’s protection following a 2007 car bombing that killed 6 Spanish and Colombian troops. The bombing was attributed to Sunni militants whose proliferation in Lebanon had been encouraged by regional moderates like Fuad Siniora and the United States in order to counterbalance Iran; in other instances of convergence between radicals and moderates, Al Qaeda number two Ayman Al Zawahiri joined Israel in condemning innovative Lebanese answers to the question of who will guard the guards.

Cooperation between Hezbollah and UNIFIL was not a new phenomenon, as demonstrated by a 2006 article on entitled “Unifil aided and abetted Hezbollah – provided detailed Israeli troop movement on website.” The article addresses claims by the president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Zionist Organization of America that UNIFIL churned out real-time intelligence on Israeli coordinates during the July War while merely ambiguously noting that Hezbollah “fired rockets in large numbers from various locations.” As for more recent collaborations recorded by websites that did not contain the words “militant Islam” in the title, the Israeli Haaretz site reported in April 2008 that, according to senior sources in Jerusalem, UNIFIL was “intentionally concealing information about Hezbollah activities south of the Litani River in Lebanon to avoid conflict with the group.”

Offered as evidence of intentional concealment was the statement that UNIFIL soldiers had seen armed Hezbollah operatives on at least 4 occasions over the past 6 months but had failed to report them to the UN Security Council. The article described the IDF and the Israeli Foreign Ministry as being “reportedly very angry” about the lenience with which UNIFIL commander Major General Claudio Graziano approached his duties, lenience that reached new heights when the UN attempted to conceal an incident in which peacekeeping troops were threatened by Hezbollah militants in a truck full of explosives.

According to Haaretz, the response of the threatened troops had been to retreat from the vicinity of the truck, “[i]nstead of using force as required by their mandate.” Not addressed in the article was UNIFIL’s lack of resort to force in response to sonic booms regularly executed in Lebanese airspace by the IAF, or Kofi Annan’s lenience vis-à-vis Israeli apologies for “operational level” mistakes such as the targeting of UN observers at Khiam. (Previous targeting of the UN compound in Qana had also been classified as a mistake, albeit one that was Hezbollah’s fault.)

Last week’s Jerusalem Post article on the fate of UNIFIL attributes sudden Israeli anxiety to the possibility that, in the event of a Hezbollah electoral victory in June, European components of the peacekeeping force might decide that they are not in fact friends of the Party of God and abandon the mission. A sudden Israeli affinity for Major General Graziano appears as an additional component of anxiety, brought on in this case by his impending resignation and the transfer of command to the Spaniards, whose Foreign Minister had not just agreed with Avigdor Lieberman that European relations with Israel were in need of strengthening. Additional indications that Spain was an unworthy partner for peace included a suggestion by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in 2006 that war on Lebanon could fuel radical Islam.

IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi meanwhile registered his own concerns with the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee this past Tuesday, and was reported in the Jerusalem Post article as informing committee members that, “while Hizbullah was amassing unprecedented amounts of weaponry, UNIFIL’s presence in southern Lebanon was ‘making the task more difficult.’” Friends of mine from south Lebanon appeared less concerned about the fate of UNIFIL forces, whose primary regional function they defined as shopping. When I asked whether sudden European pullouts would thus not adversely affect the south Lebanese economy—a potential benefit the Israelis had apparently not taken into account—I was told that the Ghanaian UNIFIL contingent purchased enough fake designer perfume to cover such losses.

Other Ghanaian claims to fame in south Lebanon included denying refuge to a civilian convoy from the village of Marwahine in July 2006; the convoy was then subjected to Israeli air strikes despite the fact that Israel had ordered the villagers out of their village in the first place. It was never established whether convoy massacres fell into the category of “creative ways for fighting Hizbullah,” which then-Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz insisted he had helped the military devise. Peretz’ insistence came in response to accusations by the Israeli Winograd Commission that he was unknowledgeable and inexperienced, due in part to the fact that creative ways for fighting Hezbollah had included ineffective ground invasions involving 30,000 Israeli troops.

Israel was authorized to get even more creative in its modes of destruction in this week’s Jerusalem Post article, which includes a warning by current Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that Israeli restraint exhibited in attacks on Lebanese infrastructure in 2006 will diminish in accordance with increased Hezbollah representation in the government. I was distracted from my attempt to think of an example of previous infrastructural restraint by a large advertisement featuring soaring warplanes in the bottom right hand corner of my computer screen.

The ad turned out to be for a week-long excursion entitled “The Ultimate Mission to Israel,” in which visitors were invited to “explore Israel’s struggle for survival” through such activities as briefings by Mossad officials, tours of Gaza border checkpoints and IAF targeted killing units, and attendance at a military trial of Hamas terrorists. Israeli creativity in this case was courtesy of the Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center, whose motto was “Bankrupting terrorism—one lawsuit at a time,” a process which according to the center’s calculations had already resulted in the reduction of terror in Gaza by 60 per cent.
An added highlight of the trip was a “[l]ive exhibition of penetration raids in Arab territory,” the logistics of which may be facilitated by the scheduled commencement of the Ultimate Mission on June 8, the day after the Lebanese elections.

BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ is currently completing a book entitled Coffee with Hezbollah, which chronicles the 2-month hitchhiking journey through Lebanon that she and Amelia Opaliska conducted in the aftermath of the July 2006 war. She can be reached at





Belén Fernández is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso, and Martyrs Never Die: Travels through South Lebanon.