However, analysts say that the civilian protests are being manipulated by Hezbollah to send messages to the international community warning of UNIFIL’s potential vulnerability should the actions of the peacekeepers threaten the Iran-backed party.
In a possibly related move, the Israeli army on Wednesday made public previously classified intelligence on Hezbollah’s alleged military preparations in the town of Khiam, which lies in the UNIFIL-patrolled zone. The release of the data comes after months of repeated allegations by Israel that Hezbollah has turned southern villages into military encampments in preparation for another war with Israel. The allegations have contributed to the rising tensions between local Lebanese and UNIFIL.
“Of course, the protests are Hezbollah-motivated, we all know that. But in this atmosphere, when the Israelis say the villages are targets and then UNIFIL enters the villages in force, what do you expect the residents to do?” asks Timur Goksel, a university lecturer in Beirut who served as spokesman and senior adviser with UNIFIL between 1979 and 2003.
UNIFIL has been present in Lebanon since 1978, following an Israeli invasion of south Lebanon. After the month-long war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, the force was expanded from some 2,000 peacekeepers to a present strength of 11,500, including contributions from leading European countries such as France, Italy, and Spain.