Northern Border: Since the massacre of October 7, more than 100,000 Israeli soldiers have been sent to protect Israel’s northern border with Lebanon against a potential attack from Hezbollah, a radical Shiite terrorist organization and one of Iran’s most powerful proxies.
Hezbollah was established in 1982 and by 2000 had become the de facto rulers of southern Lebanon and a fighting force to be reckoned with. Lebanon has been a thorn in Israel’s side since 1982, when Israel launched the First Lebanon War to extricate the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Lebanon. For 18 years, Israel maintained a security buffer in southern Lebanon. This security buffer protected the Israeli citizens in towns close to the border from danger. One night in June 2020, as a result of mounting Israel Defense Forces (IDF) casualties, Israel unilaterally withdrew all of its forces from southern Lebanon. Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, which was not supported by the upper echelons in the IDF, left a vacuum which was quickly filled by Hezbollah. While the United Nations (UN) stationed troops known as “UN Interim Forces in Southern Lebanon (UNIFIL)” in southern Lebanon, these troops were ill-equipped to deal with a vastly more powerful Hezbollah. To this day, UNIFIL operates as window-dressing.
Without the IDF oversight, Hezbollah turned southern Lebanon into what the Israeli defense establishment referred to as “Nature Reserves.” Hezbollah dug a network of tunnels and underground stockpiles of rockets and ammunition. They installed a network of underground rocket launchers and reloading capability that were essentially impervious to Israeli air strikes. On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah militants crossed the border into Israel, attacked a military convoy, killed five soldiers, and took two bodies back into Lebanon to be used as future bargaining chips. Five more IDF soldiers were killed in Lebanon in an aborted rescue attempt. Israel responded with overwhelming force, predominantly via air and artillery, and Hezbollah responded by firing 4,500 rockets into Israel. A subsequent Israeli ground incursion into Lebanon was ineffective at staunching the rocket fire. As the death toll of Israeli soldiers began to mount, a cease-fire was brokered. The terms of the cease-fire were woven into United Nations Resolution (UNR) 1701. UNR-1701 went into effect on August 14, 2006, after having been confirmed by the Israeli and Lebanese governments. The unstated purpose of UNR-1701 was to recreate the buffer zone north of Israel that existed until Israel’s unilateral withdrawal six years earlier.
The following are the key points of United Nations Resolution: UNR-1701 (available here):
Imposing the full sovereignty of the Lebanese government throughout Lebanese territory. The Lebanese government must attain full sovereignty, so that there will be no weapons without the consent of the Government of Lebanon and no authority other than that of the Government of Lebanon.
The Lebanese army will be supported by a more powerful UN Interim Forces in Southern Lebanon (UNIFIL).
The disarming of all “armed personnel” between the Lebanon-Israel border (known as the Blue Line) the Litani River, which lies about twenty kilometers north of the Blue Line. While the Hezbollah is not mentioned by name as being one of these “armed personnel,” it is clear that this clause is referring primarily to them.
Preventing the entrance of weapons into Lebanon without the authorization of the Lebanese government.
Since 2006, Hezbollah has systematically violated UNR-1701.
Hezbollah has armed itself to the teeth. To replace the “Nature Reserves” damage during the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah has constructed, upgraded, and improved a more extensive network of “Nature Reserves.” According to public sources, Hezbollah has more than 150,000 rockets pointed at Israel. There is no place in Israel that is not threatened by Hezbollah rocket fire. Some of these rockets have precision guidance systems such that on Day-1 of the next war, Hezbollah would likely target critical Israeli infrastructure including power plants, water desalination plants, offshore gas rigs, and cell-phone towers. Israeli citizens would quickly find themselves without power, water, and cell-phone coverage. (To account for this doomsday scenario, many Israelis, including myself, have their bomb shelters stockpiled with drinking water, canned food, and a transistor radio.)
Hezbollah forces are located immediately across the Blue Line.
Hezbollah has repeatedly dug tunnels under the border fence to facilitate the capture of Israeli territory. Some of these tunnels have been discovered by the IDF but they do not know what they do not know.
The primary enabler for Hezbollah to openly flaunt UNR-1701 is the impotence of the Lebanese government and its army. Hezbollah makes up a full third of the Lebanese parliament such that in many ways, the Hezbollah is the Lebanese army. More worrisome is the continued silence of the United Nations. Its member nations have shown no gumption or willingness to stand up against open violations of their own resolution. The UN is fully aware of this. UN Resolution 2650, signed in August 2023, expresses “deep concern” at the continued lack of progress… of key provisions of UNR-1701 sixteen years after its adoption.”
Immediately after the massacre of October 7, Hezbollah opened up a second front. So far, they have been content to maintain a low-intensity conflict, lobbing rockets and mortars into northern Israel and firing anti-tank weapons at army installations and vehicles. Israel has responded in a sort of quid pro quo way by attacking the sources of fire with artillery, precision guided munitions and air-launched weapons. Hezbollah knows that if they up the ante by firing on civilians then the Israelis will respond with overwhelming force, starting an all-out war. Nevertheless, in order to prevent a potential replay of the horrors that took place in the Gaza envelope on October 7, Israel preemptively evacuated all towns within four kilometers of the Lebanese border. No official wants a repeat of the October Massacre on his watch. While most of these towns are relatively small, the city of Qiryat Shemona, with more than 20,000 residents was also turned into a ghost town. More than 30,000 people left their homes and are living in hotels and hostels hundreds of miles away. Restaurants were closed and factories were shuttered.
The question everyone is asking is when can the evacuees return home?
The answer is unclear. No sane person wants to return home when the army cannot guarantee his security. The Mayor of the Upper Galilee echoed this in a recent radio interview. He recently built an elementary school for all of the towns in the Upper Galilee. This school is in clear view of the Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil. “Do you really think any parent will send his children to this school given the security situation?” The only way that these residents will return to their homes is if the IDF can guarantee their security, and the only way the IDF can guarantee their security is if UNR-1701 is implemented.
Two potential paths for implementing UNR-1701 could be considered: the direct path and the indirect path. The direct path goes through Hezbollah and the Lebanese government while the indirect path goes through Iran, the country that provides backing and sponsorship to Hezbollah. Once the address is determined, the method must be determined: the carrot or the stick. Let’s start with the stick. Israel is already embroiled in a battle in Gaza, such that it prefers to stay out of a two-front war if at all possible. That said, a large number of people in the Knesset and in the army are proponents of a preemptive strike against Hezbollah. Alternatively, the U.S. could consider withholding financial support for Lebanon unless it made strides in implementing UNR-1701. Taking the indirect route, a western strike against Iran is something that has been discussed at great length over the past two decades. While Israel’s capability to inflict damage on Iran is debatable, America’s capability is not. On October 18, President Biden issued a warning to any nation who might consider taking advantage of the situation in Israel: “Don’t.” To back up this threat, the U.S. has brought two carrier groups in the Middle East: The Gerald Ford in the Mediterranean Sea and the Dwight Eisenhower in the Persian Gulf. These two carrier groups pack a considerable punch. For example, they could easily destroy Iranian oil production facilities, and the threat of such action could entice the Iranians to convince Hezbollah to implement UNR-1701.
I suggest that the carrot is the better way ahead, and here the U.S. has much to offer. In August 2022, American envoy Amos Hochstein brokered a treaty in which Israel and Lebanon agreed on the location of the sea border between the two countries. While the Hezbollah did not sit at the same room as the Israelis, nor, for that matter, did it even acknowledge their right to exist, a precedent was set.
How could Hezbollah be enticed into implementing UNR-1701?
One potential source of leverage is natural gas. As part of the above mentioned treaty between Israel and Lebanon, Israel retained control of the Karish natural gas field while Lebanon was given control over the adjacent Qana gas prospect, which is thought to contain up to 100 billion cubic meters of gas. But while Israel is already pumping natural gas from Karish, the Lebanese have been unsuccessful at extracting anything meaningful from Qana. In return for Lebanese implementation of UNR-1701, the U.S. could provide financial and technical assistance to Lebanon to make Qana profitable. Further, the U.S. could work with Lebanon and her neighbors to create a Middle Eastern network of natural gas that would include producers such as Israel, Cyprus, Lebanon, and potentially Gaza, along with users such as Greece, Turkey, and Italy and perhaps more European countries. Besides fueling the nearly nonexistent Lebanese economy, this network would go a long way in reducing European dependence on RussianN natural gas. The sky is really the limit.
The current situation in the Middle East has exposed an opportunity to solve a long-standing problem in a way in which all sides attain peace and prosperity. The only unknown is whether Hezbollah wants peace and prosperity or whether, like Hamas, it seeks only the destruction of Israel. The burden of proof lies entirely in Lebanon.