Rise of Tensions on Israeli Border (starting January 25, 2015 till February 1, 2015)

Sunday, January 25, 2015 to Sunday, February 1, 2015

The UN’s Involvement in Lebanese - Israeli Conflicts.

The UN Security Council established the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in 1978 after Israeli forces entered Lebanon in action against the Palestinian Liberation Organization. UNIFIL troops were sent to ensure Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon to provide security and aid Lebanese governmental control of Southern Lebanon. Though after Israel’s 1982 invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon this involved UNIFIL providing security behind Israeli lines until 2000.

Whilst the border was relatively peaceful between 2000 and 2006, the situation dramatically worsened in July 2006. On the 12 of July, Hezbollah forces ambushed and captured two Israeli soldiers on the border and took them back into Lebanon, which may have been in the hopes of negotiating a prisoner swap. This sparked a full war between Hezbollah and the Israeli military inside Lebanon. This included the deaths of 43 Israeli civilians and over 1000 Lebanese. After 33 days of war, UN mediation managed to help end the conflict through passing Security Council resolution 1701.

UNIFIL’s mandate under 1701 was hugely expanded, including the deployment of thousands more UNIFIL and LAF troops in Southern Lebanon and an expanded variety of operations.These operations encompassed local security, enforcing a ban on all weaponry in the area and, also,humanitarian mine clearing. Monthly tripartite meetings take place between UNIFIL, the LAF and Israeli military to ensure communication and de-escalation of any tensions. The resolution does not include anyway for the international community to impose the disarmament of Hezbollah.  Rather, this is left as a matter for Lebanese resolution. The resolution also does not allow punitive action from the UN when 1701 is breached.

There is no official border between Lebanon and Israel. An operational line of withdrawal known as the ‘blue line’ is being marked with blue barrels and may not be crossed by either side nor UNIFIL. A contentious region of this line is the Shebaa farms, a small territory in the northern Golan heights which are Syrian but occupied by Israel. However, both Lebanon and Syria claim that Shebaa farms are Lebanese. The UN disagrees, saying that they are Syrian, and accordingly the blue line marks them under Israeli control. This territory is often the source and site of conflict between the Israeli Military and Hezbollah.


Clashes and Breaches of National Sovereignty

Both Hezbollah and the Israeli military have repeatedly violated the cessation of hostilities and respect for national sovereignty called for in 1701. The resolution is not legally binding and thus, whilst the UN can condemn violations and foster negotiations to de-escalate violence, it cannot ‘punish’ it as such. Bi-annual reports to the UN Secretary General review the implementation of 1701. The report of February - June 2015 cites many ongoing violations. In regards to Israel, this primarily involves frequent breaches of Lebanese airspace, and continued occupation of northern Ghajar, an area north of the Blue Line. Israel maintains that Hezbollah have much military infrastructure in southern Lebanon, including rocket batteries. However UNIFIL’s report claims that it has not found any such equipment, although it is important to note that UNIFIL’s mandate does not allow UN troops to enter buildings to search for weapons unless given direct evidence. The prior report of June - November 2014 does acknowledge rocket fire against Israel coming from inside the UNIFIL area of operations, but suggests that these were the actions of individual ‘amateurs’ not official Hezbollah representatives or members acting on behalf of Hezbollah.

One of the most serious post-2006 outbreaks of violence came on the 28th of January 2015 when Hezbollah attacked Israeli military forces inside Ghajar. Five anti-tank missiles were fired at Israeli forces inside civilian cars.As a result of this, 2 were killed and 7 were injured. In response, Israel fired artillery into nearby Lebanese villages, killing a Spanish UN peacekeeper. Hezbollah’s attacks were in response to an Israeli airstrike in Syria, 10 days prior. The strike killed 6 members of Hezbollah who were travelling with an Iranian general. Other Israeli airstrikes have taken place within Syria, often on reported supply caches, with one in July reportedly killing a Hezbollah member. However the actual identities of casualties from the attack were contentious, with Hezbollah denying any members’ involvement. Furthermore, there was no Hezbollah retaliation as seen in January.

There is evidence to suggest that Hezbollah’s operations with the Syrian army are securing territory in the Golan, which is of great concern to Israel as it would give a new 114 mile border with Israel from which Hezbollah could conduct operations.  According to a United Nations Disengagement Observer Force  report from September 2015, conflict in the area involving militant groups and Hezbollah is still ongoing. Lebanese media sources from early November cite a large buildup of Hezbollah forces in preparation of a new offensive. However, the Golan is beyond the remit of UNIFIL and 1701, and thus the UN is not in a position to directly intervene in this.


A comparative analysis of Hezbollah and the Israeli Military

The January 2015 incident is perhaps the closest the two sides have come to another war with ongoing Israeli strikes in Syria and rhetoric from both sides has keeping tensions high throughout 2015.

Aside from UNIFIL mediation, the technical capabilities of both sides and the high costs of the 2006 war seem to be preserving a state of mutual deterrence. However, both sides have increased their capabilities since 2006, presenting new unknowns for how a future war may unfold, potentially with much higher costs.

In regards to Hezbollah, UNIFIL cites them as currently having 100,000 missiles and rockets capable of striking Israel. In comparison it fought the 2006 war with just 13,000 missiles and rockets. Furthermore their involvement in Syria has given them operational and tactical experience fighting as a conventional force. However, the diversion of resources and cost of life is taking focus, and potentially deterrence capability away from the Israeli border. This might be exemplified in recent weak responses from Hezbollah after Israeli airstrikes, as Hezbollah is currently too vulnerable to risk escalation of the conflict. Of course an actual cost-benefit analysis of this is not possible at this time.

Israel has developed some potentially crucial technological developments in regards to missile defence. In 2006, Israel’ Merkava tanks took significant damage from Hezbollah’s ATGMs. This had a strong impact on military theory at the time of demonstrating the potential strength of relatively cheap, individual-portable missiles. The capacity for these to seemingly destroy heavy armour could potentially alter the tactics for dealing with guerrilla forces worldwide, whereby conventional forces would no longer be able to rely on the advantage of armoured vehicles. Since that time however Israeli tanks have been fitted with new ‘active protection systems,’ capable of shooting down incoming missile and rocket threats. This has proven combat effectiveness in Gaza against the less well equipped Hamas. Regardless, Israeli operational knowledge gained from facing Hezbollah in 2006, along with Israel’s new defence mechanisms against anti-tank missiles, undermines the skills, weaponry and experience Hezbollah has obtained since 2006.

On a strategic level, Israel initiated its Iron Dome program in 2011, this is a system capable of shooting down incoming rockets and missiles fired into Israeli territory that may otherwise hit population centres. The success of this system remains uncertain though it has so far proved effective in shooting down Palestinian rockets fired from Gaza. However, recent reports have stated that whilst the system is quite capable of hitting an incoming rocket, it often fails to destroy the warhead itself, which will still eventually explode on the ground. Thus, it seems that it is still safety protocol and shelters for civilians that minimise casualties.  It is unclear, however, to what extent Hezbollah’s more technically advanced and numerous rockets and missiles would be capable of overwhelming the Iron Dome system, though the system’s likely continual improvement presents issues for strategic calculus.

Assessment for potential future clashes.

Outbreaks of violence along the Lebanese-Israeli border seem unlikely in the near future. Israel currently has no political motive to escalate violence inside Lebanon and they would need some form of ‘self-defence’ justification to avoid international repercussions. Equally Hezbollah lacks immediate motive for instigation and its operations may well be limited by the UNIFIL presence and their focus being taken by operations in Syria. Israel has stated that it shall treat hostility from Hezbollah as hostility from the Lebanese government as a whole, thus expanding the scope for its response and serving a deterrence purpose through threat of escalation. Neither side will wish to needlessly bring their civilians into the line of fire through escalation. Notably, after the 2006 war Nasrallah stated that Hezbollah would not have orderd the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers that provoked the war had they expected such a strong Israeli military response.  

However, given Israeli airstrikes targeting Hezbollah supplies in Syria, as well as Hezbollah's push towards the Israeli border in the Golan Heights, fears of direct escalation in this territory seem possible, especially as it is beyond the remit of the UNIFIL force and 1701. The character that this conflict may take remains unknown, it is dependent on a vast amount of factors across the region. Regardless, it seems unlikely that this would escalate into Lebanon for aforementioned reasons. Hezbollah would be unlikely to use its strategic missiles and rockets to target Israeli infrastructure as part of a conflict in the Golan, as this would only provoke a much larger and potentially justifiable ‘self-defence’ response by the Israeli military, which would perhaps target greater Lebanon. Furthermore the effectiveness of this may well be limited by the Iron Dome system.

[Article last updated in October 2015]

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