Today’s crisis in Lebanon is a crisis of the Lebanese state. It is this structural crisis that must be addressed if the violence is to stop.
When Israel withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon in 2000, the international understanding was that the Lebanese government would re-assert its authority in the evacuated area. Hezbollah, which led the armed struggle against Israeli occupation, was to disarm and re-invent itself as a political force, representing the Shiite community that was historically marginalized by Lebanon’s ruling Maronite, Sunni, and Druze elites.
None of this happened. Instead of deploying its forces in southern Lebanon, the weak government in Beirut acquiesced in Hezbollah’s determination to turn the area into a staging ground for attacks against Israel. Over the last six years, Hezbollah established a virtual state-within-a-state: its militia became the only military force in southern Lebanon, setting up outposts along the frontier with Israel, sometimes only a few meters away from the border. Occasionally, Hezbollah shelled Israel, and its leader, Hassan Nassrallah, continued his blood-curdling invective, not only against Israel and Zionism, but against all Jews.
UN Security Council resolution 1559, which explicitly called for the disarming of all militias and the reassertion of Lebanese government authority in the south, went unheeded. After the much-heralded “Cedar Revolution” of 2005, Hezbollah even joined the Lebanese government, while at the same time maintaining its armed militia and control of the south.
Israel, for its part, still reeling from the trauma of its ill-begotten war in Lebanon in 1982, chose not to respond to Hezbollah’s attacks and hoped that the attacks would not escalate. Yet such absurd situations tend to explode, as occurred with Hezbollah’s abduction of two Israeli soldiers within Israeli territory.
The continued existence of Hezbollah’s illegitimate state-within-a-state can no longer be tolerated. Yet Lebanon itself is too weak to assert its sovereignty. On the other hand, Israel will not allow Hezbollah to re-establish itself along its border, or to maintain its missile capability.
To achieve any reassertion of effective Lebanese sovereignty in southern Lebanon, a robust international effort is needed, beyond the current hand wringing and rhetoric. The main elements of such an international solution are the following:
- Hezbollah is to free immediately, and without conditions, the two Israeli solders;
- Israel is to stop its military activities in Lebanon;
- Lebanon’s government is to ask for international assistance in implementing resolution 1559;
- For this purpose, a robust and adequately armed international implementation force is to be established.
To succeed, this force must act very differently from the UN’s previous failed efforts in Lebanon. The existing UN force in southern Lebanon, UNIFIL, is a sad joke. Like the UN presence in Srebrenica during the Bosnian war, UNIFIL has given the UN a bad name: it never stopped terrorists from attacking Israel, nor did it stop the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
What is needed is a military delegation that has a clear mandate to use force. It should be international, with the UN’s blessing, but it should not be a UN force. It could be based on NATO capabilities, with a strong European ingredient. To add legitimacy for its delicate mission within an Arab country, soldiers from Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Pakistan, should be added.
The mission of such a force should be to help deploy – by force, if necessary – the Lebanese Army in southern Lebanon, to participate in disarming Hezbollah, and to patrol the Israeli-Lebanese border, ensuring that no incursions take place from either side.
Last but not least: it is not widely known that one anomaly of Lebanon’s status until this very day is that Syria has not fully recognized its existence as a sovereign nation (in Syrian school textbooks, Lebanon figures as part of Greater Syria). Consequently, there are no normal diplomatic relations between the two countries – no Syrian embassy in Beirut and no Lebanese embassy in Damascus.
This is absurd and dangerous, and the hapless Arab League has never truly addressed it. To bolster Lebanese independence and security, and in line with UN resolution 1559, which brought about the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, Syria should be pushed to recognize Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence.
Hezbollah’s existence as a mini-state in southern Lebanon is a flagrant violation of Lebanese sovereignty. That vacuum of legitimate authority created the present crisis, and it must be extirpated. Lebanon itself cannot establish its sovereignty in the country’s south, and Israeli military force is incapable of doing it. Empty words from St. Petersburg, Brussels, or UN headquarters will not suffice, nor will a mere ceasefire, as that would simply return the area to square one.
Instead, fundamental change is needed. Only an effective military force, with international legitimacy, can supply it. Otherwise, we are all condemned to the continuation of the present cycles of violence.
Shlomo Avineri, a former Director-General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, is Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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