The series of subterranean explosions that shook Khirbet Selim in mid-July merely seemed to confirm what everyone knew but preferred to ignore — that Hezbollah has amassed arms and munitions in the border district patrolled by the United Nations Interm Force In Lebanon, despite UN Security Council Resolution 1701.
There had been past hints. In May 2008, an armored patrol of Italian peacekeepers came across a tractor and trailer driving between the villages of Jabal Butom and Siddiqine in the south in the middle of the night. When the patrol turned around to follow the truck, two Mercedes overtook the UN vehicles and stopped between them and the fleeing tractor, blocking the road. A tense stand-off ensued until the Lebanese army arrived on the scene, by which time the mysterious tractor had disappeared.
The Khirbet Selim explosions apparently emanated from an underground Hezbollah bunker stuffed with weapons and ammunition. Hezbollah said the blasts were from old Israeli munitions dumped inside the building, although no explanation was given why the arms were being stored in the first place rather than destroyed by the Lebanese army. What triggered the blast is unknown, but it is not the first time that a suspected Hezbollah arms dump has accidentally exploded. One blew up in a garage outside a village near Tyre in 2004, apparently caused by a short circuit in the building’s electrical wiring. A year earlier, a huge explosion rocked the eastern Bekaa when a suspected arms cache exploded. Hezbollah said that it was a controlled blast of old Israeli land mines collected from the south.
The Israelis, predictably, seized upon the Khirbet Selim explosions to demand a tightening of Resolution 1701 to grant UNIFIL authorization to search at will buildings suspected of containing weapons. Presently, UNIFIL’s principal mandate is to support the Lebanese state in implementing Resolution 1701, rather than acting unilaterally. Although the resolution leaves some wiggle room for UNIFIL to undertake some independent action, the tone of the document calls for the peacekeepers to assist the Lebanese army in fulfilling the provisions of 1701. And that is how it has been interpreted by UNIFIL itself.
“We are here to help the Lebanese army implement Resolution 1701, for the interest of the southerners,” UNIFIL spokesperson Yasmina Bouziane told Al Balad newspaper.
The Khirbet Selim incident doubtless will feature in the UN secretary general’s next report on the implementation of Resolution 1701, but the Israelis will not get their way.
There are two reasons for this. First, UNIFIL, frankly, does not want the headache that comes with the authority to search houses in its area of operations. Such a step will bring it into direct confrontation with Hezbollah and the local people of the south. The throwing of stones at French peacekeepers who attempted to search the facility that blew up in Khirbet Selim is just a small taste of what UNIFIL could expect if its mandate was strengthened. UNIFIL is able to operate in south Lebanon because of the goodwill of local residents. That has been the case since the UN mission arrived in Lebanon back in 1978. If UNIFIL loses the support of the local population, it might as well pack up its bags and go home. It does not mean that UNIFIL has to compromise to the extent that it overlooks the obligations of 1701, but it does require a healthy dose of realism when it comes to finding the best means of fulfilling its mandate.
Secondly, it is hard to take seriously Israeli grievances with Hezbollah’s alleged violations of 1701 when Israel continues to flout the resolution on a near daily basis with its overflights in Lebanese airspace and its continued reluctance to withdraw from the northern end of Ghajar, the border village split by the Blue Line.
The bottom line, which Hezbollah and the Israelis tacitly recognize in each other despite the accusatory rhetoric, is that neither side is going to allow a UN resolution to impede preparations for what both believe will be an inevitable future conflict. That’s why the Israelis still fly drones and jets over Lebanon, cling to northern Ghajar and ignore advice to pull out of the Shebaa Farms.
After all, Hezbollah can argue — with some justification — that it was not Resolution 425 of 1978 that finally forced the Israelis to leave south Lebanon, but the actions of the resistance. Similarly, Resolution 1701 will not prevent a fresh war from erupting if such circumstances arise.
Any preparations Hezbollah is undertaking, both south and north of the Litani, are in line with its conviction that another war with Israel is inevitable, if not imminent.
“As an Islamic Resistance, we underline the importance of preparedness due to our belief that Israel is treacherous and always plans wars when it has the opportunity,” Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy leader, told me in a recent interview.
The Israelis have learned the lessons from the 2006 war and are finding new means of dealing with the threats posed by Hezbollah. Hezbollah, too, has undergone a post-action assessment and drawn up new battle plans which it hopes will keep it one step ahead of its Israeli foe.
“Hezbollah has been absorbing the lessons of the July  war,” Qassem said. “We have developed the positive aspects [of the military performance in 2006] and dealt with its negative aspects. I can say that the preparations of Hezbollah today, at all levels, are much better than they were before and during the July aggression.”
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London