It’s no secret that UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon, has never done the job it’s supposedly there to do. But this week, we learned that UNIFIL isn’t merely useless; it’s counterproductive. By the very fact of its existence, the organization deters the European Union from listing Hezbollah as a terrorist organization—something which, unlike UNIFIL, would genuinely impede Hezbollah’s operations.
This dirty little secret came out after Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini called Hezbollah “Islamic terrorists” during a visit to Israel on Tuesday. The Italian Defense Ministry promptly issued a press statement blasting Salvini for “embarrassing” Rome by calling a spade a spade. “These statements obviously put in a very difficult position our men who are deployed on that southern border,” the statement warned, referring to the Italian contingent of UNIFIL deployed along Lebanon’s border with Israel.
It doesn’t take an Einstein to realize that if Italy’s Defense Ministry fears repercussions to its troops from a single minister daring to call Hezbollah “terrorists,” it would be terrified of the consequences should the EU ever formally declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Thus, Italy’s significant involvement in UNIFIL—it currently contributes over 10 percent of UNIFIL’s manpower, including its commanding officer—constitutes a major deterrent to consenting to such a step.
Nor is Italy unique in this regard. Several EU countries make significant troop contributions to UNIFIL, including France, Germany, Spain, Ireland, Austria, and Greece. Europe also usually supplies the force’s commander. The previous commander was Irish, the two before him were Italian, the one before that was Spanish, etc.
It’s no coincidence that the major contributors to UNIFIL also oppose listing Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organization. The only EU country that does blacklist the entire organization is Holland, which has exactly one soldier in UNIFIL.
The EU and its other member states blacklist only the military wing, not the political wing. And that’s fine by Hezbollah because, as the organization itself admits, any distinction between its political and military wings is purely fictitious. Thus as long as the political wing is legal, Hezbollah can still fundraise and recruit freely in Europe.
A complete ban, however, would genuinely hurt Hezbollah. According to a 2017 German intelligence report, Germany alone has some 950 Hezbollah operatives actively fundraising and recruiting for the organization. Much of that money is raised through charitable donations, but another significant source is organized crime. An EU report published in August described “a large network of Lebanese nationals offering money laundering services to organized crime groups in the EU and using a share of the profits to finance terrorism-related activities of the Lebanese Hezbollah’s military wing.”
Indeed, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said openly that being blacklisted in Europe “would dry up the sources of finance” and “end moral, political, and material support,” while also pressuring other countries—“especially the Lebanese state”—to do the same. An EU ban on Hezbollah would put a serious crimp in its operations.
UNIFIL, by contrast, hasn’t put the slightest crimp in them. In 2006, the force was significantly expanded to better carry out the provisions of Security Council Resolution 1701, which included “the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon” and ridding southern Lebanon of “any armed personnel, assets, and weapons” not belonging to the Lebanese Army or UNIFIL. We all know how that worked out.
Today, Hezbollah’s arsenal is ten times larger than it was then, with around 150,000 missiles stockpiled in civilian areas, troops deployed throughout southern Lebanon, and dug cross-border tunnels clearly intended for offensive purposes. As Salvini said in reply to his Defense Ministry’s statement, “I don’t think [Hezbollah] dug tunnels dozens of meters underground to go shopping.”
To be fair, expecting UNIFIL to stop Hezbollah was never realistic. As a senior Israeli official acknowledged this week, few countries would be willing to contribute troops to a mission that actually involved fighting Hezbollah.
What’s inexcusable, however, is that UNIFIL has never even reported any of Hezbollah’s activities to mobilize international action against the organization. On the contrary, whenever Israel complains, UNIFIL insists it has seen no sign of hostile activity.
This might even be true because UNIFIL has learned not to look anywhere Hezbollah doesn’t want it to look. Back in 2010, after a French unit made the mistake of actually trying to do its job by conducting searches and using sniffer dogs, Lebanese “civilians” clashed with UNIFIL troops, seized their weapons and threw stones at them until UNIFIL’s commander forbade such searches. Today, the UN confines itself to meaningless statements about how “allegations of illegal arms transfers … warrant serious concern” and would violate Resolution 1701, but “the United Nations is not in a position to substantiate them independently.”
And even when turning a blind eye becomes impossible—like when Israel took UNIFIL officers on a guided tour of the cross-border tunnels—the organization is careful never to blame Hezbollah. As the blogger Elder of Ziyon reported last week, UNIFIL’s press statement about the tunnels didn’t accuse anyone of responsibility; it never mentioned Hezbollah at all. In fact, the post continued, “the UNIFIL website has not mentioned the word ‘Hezbollah’ or ‘Hizbollah’ since the 2006 war!
In contrast, UNIFIL has no problem making accusations against Israel. The same November report that couldn’t “substantiate” Hezbollah’s arms transfers declared that UNIFIL had recorded 550 Israeli violations of Lebanon’s airspace and demanded their “immediate cessation.”
So the international community is spending $500 million a year on a “peacekeeping” force that hasn’t stopped Hezbollah’s military buildup, hasn’t even reported it in an effort to mobilize international action and serves as a deterrent to a measure that really would hurt Hezbollah: being blacklisted by the EU. Its only useful function is serving as a communications channel between the Israeli and Lebanese governments, and one man with a cellphone could accomplish that. To call this a waste of money is a colossal understatement. And it’s not likely to change, given that efforts to reform UNIFIL have repeatedly failed.
The better solution would be to dissolve UNIFIL, put those $500 million to some better use, and focus instead on getting the EU to blacklist Hezbollah. Admittedly, that might not happen even if UNIFIL disappears. But it definitely won’t happen as long as UNIFIL exists.
Originally published in Commentary on December 13, 2018