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Sunday, January 2, 2011
Analysts: Peace Between Israel And Hizbullah Rests With Stability, UN Forces
Fresh conflict unlikely in 2011 but some at UN see outcome of Special Tribunal vital
By Patrick Galey
This article was published in The Daily Star on 03/01/2011
BEIRUT: Israel and Hizbullah are unlikely to seek a fresh conflict in 2011, although much depends on Lebanon’s internal stability and the competence of international peacekeeping forces, military and political analysts told The Daily Star Sunday.
Retired Lebanese Army General and political science lecturer at the American University of Beirut Elias Hanna said that recent intensive military training exercises performed by Israel were a deliberate demonstration that its military was capable of defeating Hizbullah.
“The saying is: ‘If you want peace prepare for war.’ [Israel is] implementing the worst case scenario,” Hanna said. “Moreover, it is their message to the US, Iran and Syria that they are ready to go and do it themselves. When they move, Hizbullah have to move.”
It emerged Sunday that Israeli military chief Gabi Ashkenazi had advised US diplomats in late 2009 that he was preparing for a “large-scale” war, according to documents released by WikiLeaks and reported by a Norwegian paper, the Aftenposten.
Hanna said, however, that Israel would think twice before attacking Hizbullah inside Lebanon again. “It was a catastrophe for the Israelis in 2006 and they do not want a repeat of that,” he said.
In addition, Hizbullah – so long as the current security situation in south Lebanon persists – lacks motivation to strike Israel preemptively, according to Hanna. “From time to time we might have some unknown missiles fired into Israel but there will never be a major issue to disturb the status quo, which is based on what Hizbullah wants and what Iran and Syria wants.”
As well as tough choices for the two principal combatants, the new year brings with it challenges for the 13,000-strong United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), according to former long-term force adviser Timur Goksel.
Last year saw a spate of attacks on French peacekeepers by southerners, something Goksel attributed to miscommunication. He welcomed the announcement that Ireland and Finland will again contribute troops to UNIFIL in 2011.
“Irish and Finns were very popular in the south [during their last deployments] … They are not aggressive types and are good for peacekeeping,” Goksel said.
Goksel added that it would be likely the two nations would share the UNIFIL area south of Tibnin, a sector previously manned by French troops and which saw some altercations between peacekeepers and southerners last year.
“This will mean some redeployment from the French contingent. Either the French will reduce their numbers in UNIFIL or they will give up the idea of deploying in a specific area. Whatever it is, [the French] giving the area up is a good thing for UNIFIL,” he said.
“The French contingent has a different approach to peacekeeping. It’s not easy to be peacekeepers if you trained as a fighting force.”
As for a repeat of 2010’s attacks on the force, Goksel said he didn’t anticipate any major future clashes, although he warned problems were possible if Hizbullah was to be implicated in the UN-backed probe into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
“What worries most at the UN is the impact of the [Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL)], if there was a negative outcome for Hizbullah and what impact that will have on UNIFIL,” he said.
Sahar Attrache, Middle East and North Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group, said it was possible – if unlikely – that attacks on UNIFIL could follow public court indictment announcements.
“The situation [with UNIFIL] will depend on the situation with the whole country. I don’t suspect that UNIFIL will be the first target,” she said. “In some way, UNIFIL in the view of Hizbullah represents the international community. The whole situation is so unpredictable but if Hizbullah controls the situation then the predicament of UNIFIL will be very different in 2011.”
She added, however, that: “Hizbullah doesn’t want to confront the international front as well as Israel.”
Hanna argued that since troop contributing countries had voiced their support for the STL, UNIFIL soldiers were in a difficult position concerning Hizbullah.
“[UNIFIL’s] countries are totally supporting the tribunal and their physical presence is within the Hizbullah area,” he said. “The relationship between UNIFIL and the people in the south is dependent on how far the force interferes with Hizbullah’s plans for the south and endangers its strategic military designs on the region.”
Hanna also ruled out the possibility of Hizbullah commencing hostilities with Israel as a smokescreen to smother indictments. “Would Hizbullah go to war in order to avoid [the STL fallout]? No. Because it is not a local decision, it is a regional one,” he added.
Goksel also pointed out the potential confusion which could result from new troop arrivals. The Finns and Irish will bring the number of contributing countries to 33 for 2011.
“Why bring more and more countries in? This is unheard of in UN history and one of the reasons it hasn’t worked is that there are all these countries,” Goksel said. “It doesn’t make the force better or more professional; it just makes things harder for the troops on the ground. As long as its peaceful it’s fine but if things get serious it can be unmanageable.”
Two southern issues dominated discussions in 2010, both in Beirut and among the international community: the Blue Line demarcation and Ghajar.
In August a dispute which began over maintenance work on a tree close to the Blue Line at Adaysseh village resulted in the death of two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist, as well as a senior Israeli officer in the worst violence seen along the de facto border since August 2006.
The incident prompted calls for a hastening of Blue Line demarcation, which Goksel said would occur this year.
A potential source of friction were the announcements by both Lebanon and Israel that their governments would seek to protect and exploit fossil fuel resources in the east Mediterranean.
Goksel said it was unlikely UNIFIL would be involved in the demarcation of a naval “border,” given the potentially lucrative nature of any separation.
“Demarcating the sea is far more complex than land borders. It is a completely different calculation and UNIFIL will not be capable of doing it themselves. I don’t see the UN, with its limited capacity, getting involved,” he said.
Both Goksel and Hanna gave short shrift to Israel’s announced intention to remove its troops from the northern sector of Ghajar village, in line with international guidelines.
“Ghajar is a minor issue for the future. The rhetoric was high at the beginning and has waned. It was political propaganda and was meant to be believed but the Israelis won’t give something for free,” Hanna said.