Israel has launched new accusations that Lebanon’s Hezbollah is operating observation posts along the Blue Line under the cover of an NGO, Green Without Borders, in breach of a UN resolution. But what is Hezbollah really up to, asks Nicholas Blanford

 

The Israeli army has again accused Lebanon’s Hezbollah organization of flouting a United Nations Security Council Resolution by operating “military” observation positions along Lebanon’s southern border with Israel.

The Israelis say that Hezbollah has established a sixth observation position near the border village of Addaisseh under the guise of Green Without Borders, a Lebanese NGO that is openly affiliated with the Lebanese party and says its mission is to plant millions of trees in south Lebanon. The new alleged observation post joins five others that Israel says it identified last year.

“This NGO [Green Without Borders] isn’t concerned with planting trees, it’s a front” for Hezbollah to monitor Israeli troop movements and positions along the Blue Line, an Israeli army officer told reporters during a briefing.

Israel says that the presence of the border positions breaches UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which helped bring an end to the month-long war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006. The resolution, in part, calls for “the establishment between the Blue Line and the Litani river of an area free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL…”. The Blue Line is the UN’s name for a boundary that corresponds to Lebanon’s southern border.

The presence of unarmed men in civilian clothes lounging around huts daubed with the logo of Green Without Borders is not a direct breach of 1701. UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti said in response to the Israeli accusations that the peacekeepers have “not observed any unauthorized armed persons” at the position [in Addaisseh] and “continues to monitor activities closely,” including those of Green Without Borders.

Nevertheless, the characteristics of the positions, their locations, the NGO’s affiliation with Hezbollah and the lack of evident tree-planting around the sites all understandably serve to raise eyebrows.

“The Israelis may claim to have discovered a sixth position at Addaisseh but it seems they have overlooked another nine of them.”

The Israelis may claim to have discovered a sixth position at Addaisseh but it seems they have overlooked another nine of them. There are presently an estimated 15 Green Without Borders positions identified by security sources in south Lebanon, most of them running close to the Blue Line between Ras Naqoura on the coast and Addaisseh, which lies opposite the Israeli settlement of Misgav Am overlooking the plain of northern Galilee. It may not be entirely coincidental that most of these positions are located at, or close to, where Hezbollah manned open observation posts between 2000 and the outbreak of war in 2006, offering good views of the Blue Line, Israeli military positions and settlements. The facilities generally consist of simple cinder block structures or portacabins although, in some places they include what are clearly observation towers, some fitted with mirror windows facing the Blue Line. Routes to the positions are usually blocked with padlocked gates or chains. UNIFIL patrols have sometimes been denied access on the grounds that it is private property, according to security sources in south Lebanon.

The establishment of such positions so close to the Blue Line and their overt appearance as observation platforms may not be an oversight by Hezbollah but a deliberate attempt to attract attention. If Hezbollah wanted to keep its observation of Israeli activities and positions along the Blue Line covert, it could easily adopt less detectable monitoring methods. The reasons for such obvious activity could be two-fold: first, to needle the Israelis by an evident presence of Hezbollah along the Blue Line, but one that does not actually breach Resolution 1701 (regardless of the opinion of Israeli military spokesmen). Hezbollah is a master of information operations and psychological warfare and spares no effort at trying to keep the Israelis second-guessing and on their toes. Around two years ago, Hezbollah began a comprehensive survey of the Blue Line, painstakingly measuring Israel’s technical fence, taking photographs, even measuring the gradients of slopes leading to the fence. All this was conducted under the watchful eye of the Israeli military, which at the time had just begun erecting physical barriers along the Blue Line to try and thwart future Hezbollah penetrations into Israel. As a reminder of Hezbollah’s future cross-border battle plan, on one occasion last year, a Hezbollah fighter deliberately dragged a pair of bolt cutters along the technical fence in front of an Israeli army patrol.

Israeli soldiers (top L) and UN peacekeepers (top R) look at Lebanese Hezbollah supporters attending a rally against the US and Israel on January 28, 2018, in the southern Lebanese village of Alma al Shaab (Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP)

The second reason why Hezbollah may want to display its presence in such an open fashion is to switch attention from other areas where it may be operating on a more covert level. Before 2006, Hezbollah manned a number of sealed-off security pockets in the southern Lebanon border district. Their locations were well-known, although Hezbollah’s activities within these remote wooded valleys were shrouded in secrecy. After the 2006 war, Hezbollah abandoned the security pockets as the Lebanese army and an expanded UNIFIL moved into the area between the Blue Line and the Litani River. Israel claims that Hezbollah has concentrated its post-2006 military build-up in the urban, rather than rural, areas of the south. That may be true, but who is to say that Hezbollah is not still quietly operating in its old stamping grounds, its activities hidden beneath the dense canopy of oak trees that smother the valleys of south Lebanon’s border district, while the Israeli military, UNIFIL and others focus on the activities of Green Without Borders along the Blue Line.

“The simple truth is that, despite the posturing, neither side fully observes the requirements of Resolution 1701.”

The simple truth is that, despite the posturing, neither side fully observes the requirements of Resolution 1701. Hezbollah’s breaches may be subtler and less visible but the party is not going to allow a UN resolution to prevent it from preparing for another – likely much more violent – encounter with Israel. The same is true of Israel, although its breaches are more apparent with near daily overflights in Lebanese airspace by reconnaissance drones and aircraft, from where they sometimes launch strikes at nearby targets in neighboring Syria. The Israeli army also has refused since the 2006 war to pull its forces out of the northern, Lebanese, half of Ghajar, a village divided by the Blue Line, despite repeated calls by the UN.

The Israelis, doubtless, will continue to raise the issue of Green Without Borders (especially if they spot the so far overlooked nine additional positions) in order to keep up the pressure on UNIFIL and by extension the international community about not doing enough to curb Hezbollah.
But in the greater scheme of things, Israel’s complaints about Green Without Borders are of little consequence. Israel’s main worry regarding Hezbollah is the party’s acquisition of ever more accurate long-range missiles to threaten the home front, not a handful of Hezbollah men in T-shirts eyeballing Israeli soldiers through binoculars along the Blue Line.

Nicholas Blanford is a veteran Beirut-based correspondent and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center of International Security at the Atlantic Council