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Worried About Gaza? South Lebanon Will Be Worse

20 Oct 2023
By Dr Vanessa Newby
UNIFIL Peacekeeper Patrols

The Blue Line that separates Israel and Lebanon may at any point become the next place to witness an explosion of violence. The precariousness of the peace that exists between the two countries means that any act of disproportional violence in Palestine may ignite greater bloodshed. 

Researching in South Lebanon in 2016, I drove past well-kept villages, olive trees, and the ancient ruins of crusader castles. The people in this region were incredibly friendly, so happy to see outsiders visit their little corner of the world. They welcomed me into their homes and fed me some of the most delicious food I’ve ever eaten in all of Lebanon. On sunny days it was easy to imagine myself in a rural Mediterranean tourist destination.

But this is no ordinary part of the world; a couple of kilometres down the road lies one of the most dangerous fault lines in international politics: the Blue Line.  This is a line that has the potential to trigger a massive conflict that could engulf the Levant and the wider region, drawing in the Gulf States, Iran, and potentially some or all of the great powers.

Weaving its way through the grassy hills, the Blue Line (so called because it was originally drawn on the map in blue ink) demarcates the states of Israel and Lebanon. Based on historical maps and two earlier demarcated lines (the 1916 Sykes-Picot map and the 1949 Armistice Line), it was created in 2000 to verify Israel’s complete withdrawal from the “zone of security” which it had been occupying in South Lebanon since 1978. The truly terrifying part of the Blue Line is perhaps it’s appearance of tranquillity. But here things can go very bad very fast and when they do innocent lives are lost, property is destroyed, and lives are dismantled.

The Blue Line is not a border. Lebanon and Israel remain officially at war because there is no official peace agreement between the two states. Indeed there is not even a ceasefire. The Blue Line is simply a line of withdrawal between two militaries. At the political level there remains no contact between the Israeli and Lebanese governments in regards to progressing a permanent peace.

Initially the Blue Line was not visible to the eye in many parts. For the oft beleaguered United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), one of the biggest security challenges over the years has been ensuring that farmers and shepherds (and their flocks) don’t inadvertently cross the Blue Line as doing so risks being fired upon. Everything and anything can be classified as an act of war. Sometimes, the security incidents faced by UNIFIL have been almost farcical, such as building a little fence around a Lebanese farmers’ watering hole to prevent Israeli-owned cows from drinking from it.

Living close to the Blue Line means risking your life every day because you never know when things will turn violent again. Some local villagers see their very presence as an act of resistance to Israel. Israel has gradually built a high concrete wall on its side of the Blue Line, called “the technical fence” to secure its northern villages from random acts of localised violence and the bigger threats that lurk. In many places, where agreement between the parties can be reached, UNIFIL has helpfully provided blue barrels to mark the blue line.

The region is beset by actors not considered official parties to the conflict, including some Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine Northern Command (PFLP-Northern Command), and of course Hezbollah. Since the mid-1990s Hezbollah, backed by Iran, are believed to have been building a devastating ammunition store in Israel’s backyard, estimated to include around 150,000 precision guided missiles.

How have they done this? Through a combination of local support, committed recruits, estimated to be upwards of 50,000 men, Syrian and Iranian support, and a hamstrung Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) who are legally unable to order house-to-house weapon searches without giving significant prior notice. Furthermore, the political clout that Hezbollah wields in the Lebanese state through its political arm means calls for it to disarm from domestic opponents are easily brushed aside.

Since 2006, the only state-to-state contact has been between the LAF and the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), mediated by UNIFIL. This is in the form of the Tripartite Meetings, which have taken place since August 2006 in a small room on the Blue Line. In these meetings, the LAF and the IDF manage security incidents that have had the potential to trigger an escalation on the Blue Line that might ultimately include Hezbollah. These security incidents include wandering shepherds, hunters, young men throwing stones, public demonstrations, random acts of violence between individuals across the Blue Line, and rocket launches.

Since Israel’s withdrawal in 2000, a balance of terror between Hezbollah and the IDF has waxed and waned but the current conflict in Israel-Palestine has changed the strategic environment. Hezbollah, who are loosely aligned with Hamas, have increased their military activities along the border and a steady stream of fire has occurred between the IDF and Hezbollah since 7 October.  The tit for tat remains proportional but most commentators recognise that if Israel is seen as going too far in Gaza, Hezbollah may well feel compelled to act.

The risks posed to the region if this conflict escalates are (tragically) even costlier than the current situation in Gaza. If Iran is drawn into the fight, the Gulf states will be unable to remain neutral which could have global economic consequences. US commitment to the defence of Israel would force its hand, while the risk of nuclear escalation increases with at least two of the parties in possession, if not more.

Not for the first time, the villages bordering the Blue Line are rapidly becoming deserted. The future of the Middle East hangs in the balance on the Blue Line. Israel needs to decide at what cost it wishes to act upon the Palestinians.

Vanessa Newby is an Assistant Professor at Leiden University. Her focus areas are peacekeeping, peacebuilding, women, peace and security and the international relation of the Middle East. She is the author of Peacekeeping in South Lebanon: Credibility and Local CooperationHer next book, Peacekeeping in the Mediterranean: Narratives of Agency in Neglected Conflicts is under contract with Oxford University Press.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.