July 26, 2006

Israel-Hizballah: Moving towards a ceasefire?

As the “core group” met in Rome to discuss how to resolve the Israel-Hizballah conflict in Lebanon, the fighting continues. Rockets are still hitting cities in northern Israel, Hizballah leader Shaykh Sayid* Hasan Nasrallah threatens increased rockets attacks on cities further south than Haifa, and the Israeli army is taking heavier casualties than expected while only a few kilometers inside the Lebanese border.

Against this backdrop, the core group is debating the modality of a cease-fire. First, for a ceasefire to work, both sides have to agree to it. Both the Israelis and Hizballah have stated they will accept a ceasefire, but under very different conditions. Hizballah said they would stop firing rockets on northern Israel and that the interested parties could then discuss Hizballah’s “issues.” The Israelis demand that before there can be a ceasefire, Hizballah must release the two soldiers seized on July 12 and all rocket attacks must stop. They further demand that Hizballah disband its militia as required by United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1559. Thus, both sides are far apart on agreeing to a ceasefire.

Assuming that there is a ceasefire and an international force is to be introduced into southern Lebanon, how will it be constituted and what will be its mandate? Will it be a United Nations force, or a United Nations-approved force? Will it have the mandate to merely observe and report like the ineffective United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) that has been there in its “interim” status since 1978? Will it be set up as an armed buffer force with the authority to fire on violators of the ceasefire? Will it be tasked to enforce the provisions of UNSCR 1559, in effect, overseeing the disarming of Hizballah and the disbanding of its militia? Will this lead to another United Nations Special Commission cat and mouse game like we saw in Iraq?

The United Nations has an abysmal (well-deserved) reputation in this part of the Middle East. The Israelis believe UNIFIL has Israeli blood on its hands - a few years ago UNIFIL officers observed and videotaped Hizballah seizing three Israeli soldiers. Not only did the officers do nothing more than sending in a report to New York, they further refused to give the tape to the Israel Defense Force for a year.

Israel is also demanding the establishment of a two-kilometer (1.2 mile) buffer zone inside Lebanon. Many analysts have stated – correctly – that this will not stop Hizballah from firing rockets into northern Israel. After all, Hizballah has rockets in its inventory that can reach as far as 100 miles, although it has only demonstrated the ability to strike about 30 miles thus far. If Israel’s demands are met, Hizballah will not have any rockets to fire.

Given how far apart the two sides are and the inability of the core group to bridge that gap, it does not appear that a ceasefire is imminent.

* Sayid is a title in Shi’a Islam bestowed on males who are direct descendants of the prophet Muhammad. Sayids wear a black turban.