The underlying reality in Lebanon is profoundly troubling and, despite the wishfulness of many international actors, is becoming increasingly hard to ignore.
For an international community eager to see signs of calm and progress in Lebanon, the election victory of the March 14th camp and the hints of Syrian-Lebanese diplomatic ‘normalization’ have been seized on as positive signals of hope and stability. But the underlying reality in Lebanon is profoundly troubling and, despite the wishfulness of many international actors, is becoming increasingly hard to ignore.
Denials that Hizbullah has been aggressively re-entrenching itself in southern Lebanon, which had already been sounding feeble and unconvincing, were dealt a further blow on July 14, when a series of explosions ripped through a Hizbullah weapons cache in Khirbat Salim, a Shiite village South of the Litani River.
Under UN Security Council resolution 1701, which put in place the cease fire arrangements following the Israeli withdrawal in 2006, southern Lebanon is to be free of all weapons other than those of the Lebanese Armed Forces and UNIFIL troops. Yet when UNIFIL inspectors arrived to investigation the explosions, they were barred entry by LAF soldiers until Hizbullah could remove the evidence of their presence.
What Hizbullah was unable to remove, however, was the sense of betrayal and frustration felt by the Lebanese residents if Khirbat Salim. In an open letter to the President of Lebanon (Al-Mustaqbal, 16/7) they declared: "The explosion of the arms depot in our town … exposes to the air of the world that which everyone is trying to obscure, to blur and ignore, and that is the illegal weaponry and its storage in our areas and our children’s basements." Turning to Hizbullah, the residents wrote: "We have had enough of the pains and disasters of the ‘victory’ of 2006! If you, as you claim, relate your activities to religion and to Allah, then you must empty the residential areas of weapons and ammunitions and of everything that poses a menace to our lives."
All indications are that the quantity of weapons smuggled into Lebanon through the Syrian-Lebanese border has not only replenished Hizbullah arsenal, but significantly increased it. In an interview to the Financial Times, Hizbullah Deputy Secretary General Sheikh Naim Qassem, refused to confirm "but would not deny … that we have three or four times the arsenal we had in 2006".
Along with Hizbullah’s increased weaponry comes increased bravado. Just three days after the arms cache explosions, a group of Hizbullah sympathizers led by MP Qassem Hashem of the Shiite Movement Amal, crossed the Blue Line into Israel, to plant Hizbullah flags on the Israeli side of the border. Hashem added to the spirit of incendiary recklessness in an interview to Lebanese television (ANB, 18/7) in which he ominously averred that the incident was "just a warning" and vowed that "an important step would be taken" within a week.
The tools for addressing the growing Hizbullah threat and ensuring the stability of Lebanon’s are already in place. Not only did the Security Council in resolution 1701 set out clear principles for the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon and the securing of its borders against the smuggling of weapons, but it also created a reinforced UNIFIL force, numbering 12,000 highly professional troops to implement its arrangements on the ground. To date, however, UNIFIL has been prevented from acting to the full extent of its mandate, with the inevitable result that Hizbullah has grown in both strength and daring.
There is little appetite in the international community for addressing Hizbullah’s increasingly overt provocations, and for taking a firmer stand against its backers, Syria and Iran. But as events this past week have made abundantly clear, Hizbullah is back as a force to be reckoned with – one that would be perilous to ignore.