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US should sanction Hezbollah-controlled govts. to counter attack tunnels in Lebanon

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Last month American and U.N. ambassadors toured a Hezbollah attack tunnel stretching from Lebanon into Israel and designed for killing and kidnapping Israelis. These officials saw Hezbollah's earthworks up close, which is more than can be said for the 10,500 U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon (UNIFIL) who apparently were unaware of five tunnels being dug under their feet. These discoveries underscore it is time to get serious about addressing Hezbollah's massive military buildup in southern Lebanon.

The tunnels point to larger failures by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and UNIFIL to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701. To help end the 2006 Lebanon war, this resolution mandated the LAF remove Hezbollah's armed personnel, assets and weapons from southern Lebanon - with peacekeepers playing a supporting role.

Before the IDF unearthed these tunnels, UNIFIL regularly dismissed Israeli intelligence showing Hezbollah's unauthorized military buildup. Ironically, under UNIFIL's watch Iran and Syria have serially violated Resolution 1701 by providing Hezbollah over 100,000 rockets, missiles and other advanced weapons.

Despite the fact these illicit arms are stored in civilian sites in over 200 southern Lebanese villages, UNIFIL argues it lacks legal authority to search private property for weapons.

This has long frustrated Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officials who complain UNIFIL's self-imposed restrictions enable Hezbollah to deepen its military presence in the country. Tellingly, when the IDF sealed these cross-border tunnels, cement gushed out from unsearched private properties in nearby Lebanese villages.

But UNIFIL's failure doesn't absolve the LAF of its three-decades-old responsibility under Resolution 1701 to ensure there will be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the state.

However, Hezbollah and the Lebanese state were already becoming indistinguishable before the terrorist group joined the Cabinet and, along with its political allies, assumed control over two-thirds of the key ministries. As a recent report by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) explains, the two exchange intelligence and conduct joint operations, and LAF forces actively hinder UNIFIL patrols when peacekeepers stray too close to Hezbollah operatives.

Therefore, even though the United Nations declared the tunnels in violation of Resolution 1701 - the first time it has acknowledged a violation - UNIFIL is denied access to their entrances on Lebanese soil.

Clearly, stronger efforts are necessary to address Hezbollah's illegal military buildup. These attack tunnels were only the tip of the spear it plans to unleash in the next, likely incredibly intense, war on Israel's northern front.

The ideal, but diplomatically challenging, solution would be to reauthorize UNIFIL's mandate under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. This move would legally empower UNIFIL to find and neutralize Hezbollah's illegal military infrastructure throughout southern Lebanon, independently of the LAF.

There are precedents for reauthorizing existing U.N. peacekeeping mandates under Chapter VII to address deteriorating security conditions. This happened in Somalia and Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Congo in the 2000s and most recently in Mali. Even UNIFIL representatives have said a new mandate is not unreasonable.  

Yet while possible, reauthorization appears implausible. When the United States pushed to strengthen UNIFIL's mandate in 2017, France balked and Russia threatened to veto any major changes. Israel also recognizes a new mandate is a longshot.

As a more pragmatic first step, American diplomats should push for a Security Council declaration condemning Hezbollah unambiguously for violating Resolution 1701. The council's statement last month tiptoed conspicuously around the issue, calling for disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon without mentioning Hezbollah by name.

Condemning Hezbollah explicitly could lay the diplomatic groundwork for strengthening UNIFIL's mandate. It also would provide the foundation for a U.N. sanctions regime against Hezbollah, similar to existing Security Council measures against its Iranian patron.

Washington also must address its relationship with Beirut, in light of its own diplomats' concerns about the LAF's increasing symbiosis with the terrorist group. Since 2006, the LAF has received $1.7 billion in advanced U.S. military equipment.

The United States should condition this aid on the LAF no longer obstructing UNIFIL's mission and making verifiable progress in fulfilling its obligation to dismantle Hezbollah's illegal military infrastructure. The Trump administration recently placed comparable conditions on its far larger military aid package to Pakistan.

Though such conditions ultimately could risk reducing America's sway in Lebanon, currently unconditioned aid is not fulfilling its intended goal of curtailing Iranian and Hezbollah influence. In fact, U.S. weapons are now more likely to be used against Israel in a future war.

American policymakers could develop additional leverage and reinforce potential new U.N. measures by considering sanctions against Hezbollah-controlled government ministries and its political allies in Lebanon.

Beirut professes its commitment to implement Resolution 1701 and its desire to avoid war with Israel. The discovery of Hezbollah's attack tunnels should be the perfect opportunity for serious diplomacy to test that commitment.

Jonathan Ruhe and Harry Hoshovsky are Associate Director and Policy Analyst, respectively, at JINSA's Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy.

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