BEIRUT // Hizbollah instigated several confrontations with French peacekeepers over the past 10 days after the group decided the UN-led force was engaging in espionage-style activities, according to Hizbollah and Lebanese military officials. United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) officials have denied that any of the roughly 12,000 soldiers from more than 20 countries tasked with maintaining calm along the Israel-Lebanon border have undertaken any such activities. But a Hizbollah military official said the evidence was clear and required an immediate response via protests from local villagers.
According to the Hizbollah military commander, who cannot give his name to the media but has repeatedly provided accurate information to The National, French peacekeepers entered small villages around the town of Kabrikha over the past month to photograph and investigate potential Hizbollah military emplacements, which they are specifically prohibited from doing without being accompanied by the Lebanese army.
On Wednesday evening, top officials from the Israeli Defense Forces said in a briefing for reporters that Hizbollah had fortified more than 160 Shiite villages in southern Lebanon without any interference from Unifil and showed fairly detailed photographs and surveillance videos to support their claim. After an escalation of tensions due to what villagers and Hizbollah officials considered illegal raids, a series of protests orchestrated by the Shiite militant group - which continues to be the most powerful force in south Lebanon - led to at least three confrontations that saw windows smashed, peacekeepers disarmed and in several cases, minor injuries to soldiers and protesters alike.
"We consider these villages to be closed military zones that Unifil is only welcome to enter with the assistance of the Lebanese army," the commander said. "We discovered unescorted French Unifil members taking photographs in alleys and of houses used by the resistance, so we now demand they be confined to their bases unless they are escorted by the army." The incidents led to a flurry of international diplomatic manoeuvring, with French diplomats arguing to the UN leadership for more robust "rules of engagement", a request that will be a non-starter when the Security Council discusses the clashes and the overall Unifil mission today.
The UN Special Envoy for Lebanon, Michael Williams, as well as top Lebanese army and Unifil military commanders have spent the past few days meeting top Lebanese officials, including the prime minister, Saad Hariri, yesterday. Mr Williams expressed vague optimism after a meeting with Hizbollah's International Relations Officer, Ammar Moussawi, yesterday. "Moussawi made it clear that Hizbollah was committed to Resolution 1701 and underlined the importance of co-ordination between Unifil and the Lebanese armed forces. We also agreed on the importance of freedom of movement for the peacekeeping troops," he said.
The head of Unifil, Maj Gen Alberto Asarta Cuevas, appealed yesterday for cooperation from residents in the south. Lebanon's parliament was scheduled to discuss the issue last night. For its part, Hizbollah's Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc, a coalition of its political wing and allies, issued a statement in support of Unifil remaining in south Lebanon despite the tensions, but also lauded the villagers for protecting their communities.
"Unifil - with which everyone is keen on the best positive relations - will remain an object of appreciation and welcoming, given that it is a force that provides backup to the Lebanese army and commits to its prerogatives under Resolution 1701," the statement issued on Wednesday evening read. It added that "overbidding the residents of the South and its defiant people - in terms of keenness on stability in their region and on preventing the Zionist enemy from achieving its hostile and malicious schemes - will not benefit anyone".
But Fares Soaid, the secretary general of Hizbollah's main rivals, the March 14 Movement, decried the role the group has taken in the discussions. "Hizbollah is trying to take the place of the Lebanese government in negotiations with Unifil and thereby has imposed itself as an alternative, and the government and the military have to adapt to Hizbollah's conditions and behaviour," he told a local radio station yesterday.
email@example.com * With additional reporting by Reuters