IF NOT PEACE, THEN QUIET
While Israel and Lebanon signed an armistice treaty in 1949, they have never signed a peace treaty and Lebanon to this day considers itself at war with Israel; all diplomatic interactions are done via a third party. For many years tensions were only of a modest sort, however, as Lebanon has a large Christian (mostly Maronite) minority — which at that point was dominant — and was westernized.
By 1970, however, the PLO, thrown out of Jordan, had moved into southern Lebanon and began to use this as a base for terrorist attacks inside Israel. In 1978, Israel went into Lebanon in search of PLO strongholds.
UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon) was then established by the UN Security Council — with a mandate to monitor the withdrawal of Israel to the international line (the Blue Line) and assist the Lebanese army in establishing its authority in southern Lebanon. Israel did withdraw, but arranged for the South Lebanese Army (SLA) — essentially a Maronite militia — to remain as a buffer.
By 1982, with Lebanon embroiled in a long-term civil war (which ran from 1975 to 1990), the Palestinians had succeeded in gaining considerable strength in Lebanon. (Lebanon, with its diverse population of indigenous Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Christians, and Druze, plus Palestinians present since 1948, has historically experienced a great deal of instability. Various coalitions have formed at different times, and the long-term hegemony of Syria, which persisted until 2005, greatly exacerbated the situation.)
Israel again invaded Lebanon, this time with a more substantial operation: The goal was destroying Arafat’s presence there, and indeed the PLO was driven out (to Tunisia).
When the PLO left, however, it was replaced by a new Lebanese Islamist guerilla force, Hezbollah (Party of God), aided by Iran and drawn from the Lebanese Shiite community. Recognized by Israel and the U.S. as a terrorist organization, its declared mission has been fighting the Israeli occupation; its founding document states: “We recognize no treaty with [Israel], no ceasefire and no peace agreements, whether separate or consolidated.” It developed a social-political network (with substantial representation in the Lebanese parliament since 1992), and maintained strongholds in the Bekaa Valley and south Lebanon. Sheikh Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah became secretary-general in 1992; spiritually it follows Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
This time, after a major military campaign that lasted three years, Israel did not withdraw entirely from Lebanon, but maintained a presence within a security buffer zone at the southern border of Lebanon.
In 1993, Israeli military efforts heated up again with the 17-day “Grapes of Wrath” campaign aimed at eliminating both guerilla attacks by Hezbollah against the IDF in Lebanon and Hezbollah’s launching of Katyushas into northern Israel.
UNIFIL was seen to ignore its mandate to be an objective observer of the situation. It consistently demonstrated a pro-Hezbollah bias, even allowing Hezbollah to shoot at Israeli forces from near its posts, which served Hezbollah as cover.
In May 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak made the decision to pull the IDF out of Lebanon. He did so precipitously, however, and Hezbollah heralded this as a victory for them. By July 2000, the United Nations confirmed that Israel had withdrawn fully to the international border and was in full compliance with international stipulations.
According to Security Council Resolution 425, the Lebanese army and UNIFIL were to deploy in the south of Lebanon and all foreign militias were to be removed; the Lebanese army was to prevent incursions or attacks emanating from the south of Lebanon into northern Israel. (This echoed an earlier agreement — the Taif Accords of 1989, which — in an attempt to end the civil war — had restructured the government to provide a balance between Christian and Muslim elements, and called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces, the dismantling of all militias, and the extension of Lebanese government sovereignty over all of Lebanon.)
None of this happened as mandated and Hezbollah continued to maintain a strong presence in south Lebanon. What is more, Hezbollah claimed that Israel was still an occupier of Lebanese territory in Shabaa farms. Shabaa farms, a strategic high point in the Golan Heights, was declared by the U.N. to be part of Syria (or Israel, from an Israeli perspective, as the Golan has been annexed). This fiction provided Hezbollah with a pretext for continued existence and continued attacks.
In the six years that followed, Hezbollah, assisted extensively by Iran and Syria, did massive build up of resources and strength in south Lebanon — this included the importation of some 12,000 rockets and building of deep bunkers for hiding them, as well as local recruitment and training in Iran of guerilla forces. While Israel had military intelligence on this, at the political level a decision was made — in deference to international wishes — not to respond militarily in a preemptive fashion. Occasionally there were incursions into Israel by Hezbollah, with killing of soldiers, or shooting of rockets into northern Israel. Israel, eager to avoid “heating things up at the northern border,” responded only in a perfunctory or minimal fashion, leading Hezbollah to believe that Israel was weak and that actions taken were not likely to have serious consequences.
LEBANESE GOVERNMENT FAILURES
In 2004, with the withdrawal of Syrian troops imminent, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1559, which called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces and, once again, the disbanding and disarmament of all militias, including Hezbollah. The disarmament of Hezbollah, needless to say, never occurred and the Lebanese army did not assert its sovereignty in the south of the country. Had the government acted as it was mandated to, the Hezbollah attack on Israeli soil in 2006 would not have occurred.
Routinely, the government is envisioned as having been too weak to respond to Hezbollah. However, evidence points to a lack of will on the part of the government to hinder Hezbollah actions. Rockets and other war materiel was routinely smuggled into Lebanon with the government’s knowledge: via the airport and across borders, both fully under Lebanese government and army control. Lebanese President Emile Lahoud is pro-Syrian and a supporter of Hezbollah.