In 2006 the Hezbollah movement based in Lebanon abducted two Israeli soldiers. The incident sparked a brutal war between Lebanon and Israel, destroying much of southern Lebanon and resulting in over 1,200 fatalities. In the wake of the war, UN Security Council Resolution 1701 mandated the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to monitor and support the cessation of hostilities. UNIFIL also monitors the Blue Line demarcating the border between the two countries, established after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in1978. The tripartite forum convened regularly by UNIFIL is the only place where Israeli and Lebanese army officers can communicate directly each other. The UN Secretary-General has also appointed a UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon (UNSCOL).
Since 2006, Lebanon and Israel have remained formally in a state of war, with a persistent risk of escalation and violence. Hezbollah maintains a large weapons arsenal directed at Israel, Israeli aircraft regularly overfly Lebanese territory, there are frequent Blue Line violations, and the delineation of certain Blue Line areas is disputed. Hezbollah’s engagement in the Syrian war since 2012 has heightened the risk, and Israel has taken military action to stop weapons transfers to Hezbollah in Syria.
In January 2015, an Israeli airstrike on a convoy near the Golan Heights killed six Hezbollah members, including a senior commander and an Iranian general.Hezbollah responded by firing missiles at an Israeli Defence Force (IDF) convoy, killing two Israeli soldiers and injuring others. The IDF returned fire into Lebanon, triggering more launching of rockets from Lebanon into Israel.
UNIFIL viewed these incidents as a high-risk situation that could easily and rapidly escalate into a full-blown war. The adversaries were not clear on each other’s intentions and, aside from the tripartite forum, had no official contact with each other. The imperative for the UN was to facilitate communication quickly with the aim of easing the tension.
As in previous moments of escalation along the Blue Line, the UN strategy was to contain the heated rhetoric, afford UNIFIL time to do its verification and tripartite work on the ground, and ensure that all sides were aware of the intentions of the others. The UN Special Coordinator immediately called senior political and military officials in Israel, Iran, Lebanon, and Hezbollah. She assured them that none of the parties wanted a return to war and stressed the need for all of them to avoid further military action and inflammatory public statements. UNIFIL convened an emergency tripartite meeting, at which Lebanese and Israeli officers confirmed their desire to avoid further escalation. UNIFIL also passed messages directly to Hezbollah and the IDF, reinforcing the consensus that none of the parties wanted war. Within hours of the tripartite meeting and the phone calls made by UNSCOL, the crisis abated.
In research conducted subsequently, representatives of the conflict parties agreed that the UN had achieved de-escalation in this incident and at previous escalatory moments. Israeli officials were grateful that UNSCOL had relayed messages to Hezbollah and Tehran, and regarded UNIFIL’s role via the tripartite forum as critical. Similarly, officials from Hezbollah and Tehran emphasized the value of being able to relay messages directly to Israel regarding their desire to avoid military confrontation.
The UN was able to defuse the crisis through its monitoring, verification, communication and confidence-building roles. This was feasible in January 2015, as in prior incidents, because the parties were caught up in an escalatory dynamic but did not actually want to embark on a war. The success of UNIFIL and UNSCOL derives largely from the fact that they are standing mechanisms. They have set up agreed upon procedures and structures for dealing with tensions across the Blue Line and have developed good relationships with key officials in all the conflict parties, including the Lebanese and Israeli army officers most immediately involved in decisions to escalate. This enables the UN to move swiftly to check escalation and provides a platform of stability and predictability in volatile situations.
The presence of international troops along the Blue Line is itself a deterrent, raising the political costs of military confrontation between Israel and Lebanon since the international troops might be caught in the crossfire. In addition, UNIFIL’s presence and functions offer the parties a face-saving basis for de-escalation: the parties can avoid escalation on the grounds that they waiting for UNIFIL to fulfill its functions of monitoring, verification, and communication through the tripartite forum.
It is especially important that the UN mechanisms have political buy-in on both sides of the border and are perceived by all the conflict parties to be serving their respective interests. Unlike many short-term preventive diplomacy missions, this obviates the need for the UN to overcome the parties’ resistance to its engagement. The standing mechanisms also have the benefit of generating a cumulative effect: each successful intervention builds the parties’ confidence in the UN’s role in subsequent crises.
Adam Day is the Head of Programs at the UN University’s Centre for Policy Research in New York.