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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Israel’s bitter lessons

Filed under: Israel Defense Forces (IDF)
Publication: Dore Gold Articles


It has become almost axiomatic for Western leaders who are aware of Israel’s acute military vulnerability to suggest that international forces be deployed to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has even been suggested that the IDF withdraw from strategically vital parts of the West Bank, like the Jordan Valley, and instead let international forces take their place. This was in fact proposed in the past by General Jim Jones, President Barack Obama’s first national security adviser.

Some Israelis have also proposed this idea; former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told The New York Times earlier this year that he wanted to deploy international forces in the West Bank, though he suggested they be led by the U.S. The last major experiment with international forces was actually attempted under the Olmert government at the end of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701. It is worthwhile to look back five years to see how that international force actually functioned before more proposals of this kind are put on the table in the future by the international community.

At the time, Israeli diplomacy was focused on instituting security arrangements that were intended to prevent the return of the military conditions along Israel’s northern border that had contributed to the outbreak of hostilities to begin with. Thus Resolution 1701 called for the creation of a larger UNIFIL force with a much more more robust mandate than before. It was not supposed to be just another U.N. force with underpaid third world soldiers, but rather European forces from France Spain, and Italy, like those who make up NATO, were deployed instead.

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The resolution also reiterated the importance of UNIFIL actually disarming Lebanese militias, like Hezbollah, in accordance with past U.N. resolutions. Resolution 1701 sought to prohibit the transfer of arms into Lebanon that were not authorized by the Lebanese Government, thereby making any further Iranian arms transfers to Hezbollah a violation of a U.N. Security Council Resolution. In order to implement this arms embargo, German naval ships were deployed to monitor the Lebanese coastline in September 2006.

But clearly the most important innovation that Resolution 1701 proposed was the establishment of a special area between the “blue line,” which demarcated the Israeli-Lebanese border, and the Litani River, in which the only weapons and military personnel permitted would be those of the Lebanese Army or UNIFIL. It was a kind of internationally sanctioned security zone, without Israeli troops. This last provision was supposed to keep Hezbollah units away from the Israeli border and make it more difficult for them to open fire on Israeli patrols or to kidnap Israeli soldiers right across the border.

Before the Second Lebanon War, there were approximately 5,000 Hezbollah terrorists in this area who were equipped with 10,000 rockets. Hezbollah had another 5,000 rockets north of the Litani River. These weapons would have to be completely eliminated from the security zone south of the Litani. At the time, Resolution 1701 was hailed in Israel as a great diplomatic achievement.

But what happened five years later to Resolution 1701 and the new, more robust international forces that it created? First, Hezbollah has returned to South Lebanon with a force similar to what it had prior to the Second Lebanon War. There are now close to 40,000 rockets in Hezbollah’s total arsenal in Lebanon, of which 30,000 are located south of the Litani, in the zone that was not supposed to have any weapons other than those of UNIFIL or the Lebanese Army.

Second, in late March 2011, the Washington Post published IDF maps showing that Hezbollah had established not just a few military positions in southern Lebanon, but rather hundreds of military sites throughout its villages, sites that contained weapons, storage facilities, underground bunkers and observations posts. In some villages, like al-Khiam, a Shiite village that is only four kilometers from the Israeli border, these facilities have intentionally been placed next to schools and mosques as well as within civilian homes.

According to Resolution 1701, UNIFIL should be going into the Shiite villages of southern Lebanon to remove the Hezbollah weaponry that is being stored there in violation of the provisions in Resolution 1701. The chances that even European troops would be willing to risk their lives and move into Shiite villages to take out weaponry is almost nil. Already in July 2011, France’s UNIFIL force came under attack, leading President Nicolas Sarkozy to threaten that he was going to pull out his troops from southern Lebanon.

What does this experience mean for international forces in the Jordan Valley safeguarding the demilitarization of a Palestinian state? If UNIFIL cannot guarantee the de-militarization of Southern Lebanon, how will international forces help guarantee the de-militarization of a Palestinian state in the West Bank?

Certainly, one of the main lessons of the Gaza Disengagement was that it was a cardinal error for Israel to withdraw from the Philadelphi Route. The Route became a corridor for Hamas to import huge quantities of rockets, explosives and even SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles into the Gaza Strip. Hamas used small, locally-made Qassam rockets before disengagement, but it only attacked Israel with longer-range Grad rockets for the first time in 2006, after the IDF was no longer operating against the smuggling in the Philadelphi Route.

In the case of the West Bank, the failure of UNIFIL in Southern Lebanon is only the latest reminder of why Israel must retain the IDF in the Jordan Valley as the front-line of its defense to the east. Anyone who proposes that Israel make its security dependent on international forces only has to look at what has happened in southern Lebanon over the last five years.