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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

New Congress bill to 'disarm Hezbollah' and put pressure on UN force

Scrutiny of how group is getting arms could lead to funding cut for UN mission in Lebanon: expert

A Hezbollah fighter stands in front of anti-tank artillery at Juroud Arsal on the Syria-Lebanon border July 29, 2017 during an offensive against Syrian rebels groups. Ali Hashisho / Reuters
A Hezbollah fighter stands in front of anti-tank artillery at Juroud Arsal on the Syria-Lebanon border July 29, 2017 during an offensive against Syrian rebels groups. Ali Hashisho / Reuters

A bill to seek a US intelligence report on Hezbollah’s arsenal and to evaluate the effectiveness of the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon is gaining support from both parties in the US Congress.

The Disarm Hezbollah Act requires the director of national intelligence (DNI) to produce, within 90 days of its passage, a report detailing Hezbollah’s “capabilities, arsenal, and the illicit supply routes it uses to procure weapons”, according to a final draft obtained by The National.

The six-page bill does not include punitive measures against either Hezbollah or the Lebanese government but the DNI report will be used to evaluate the role of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil).

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To read the final draft bill, click here

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“For decades, Hezbollah has continued to present a clear and present danger to the United States and our allies, and despite sanctions on this terrorist organisation, they continue to grow and sow chaos in the Middle East,” Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger said while introducing the bill with Democrat Tom Suozzi.

He specified its goals as strengthening the role of the UN force in Lebanon and establishing ways to block Hezbollah’s access to arms.

Mr Souzzi also emphasised the growing threat from Hezbollah. The group’s increased capabilities “threaten our Middle East interests and allies, particularly Israel”, he said, adding that the bill would “help improve our intelligence community’s understanding of a serious ongoing threat on the doorstep of one of our allies”.

The bill deems Hezbollah, designated as terrorist organisation by the US in 1997, a “grave danger" to the US and its interests and allies.

It accuses the Iran-funded and backed group of “conducting armed interference in multiple conflicts, most notably those of Yemen, Iraq, and Syria”.

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The bill also examines the role of the UN force and whether its mandate to assist the Lebanese army in establishing an arms-free area in South Lebanon has been successful. The force has come under intense scrutiny from the Trump administration and Israel for failing to demilitarise the area it operates in.

“It’s time the Security Council puts teeth in the Unifil operation,” the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said in August. “We don’t need to be giving terrorists a pass.”

She said the 10,000-strong force was “not doing its job effectively”, and that its commander “seems to be the only person in south Lebanon who is blind” to weapons passing into or through the area of its control.

Randa Slim, a director of conflict resolution at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told The National she saw the bill as “laying the groundwork for Congress to stop funding Unifil".

The Trump administration has already sought a 42 per cent cut in funds allocated for the force in the 2019 budget, down to $84.2 million from about $146m in previous years.

While the bill, if enacted into law in its current form, could be used to cut funding or exert pressure to strengthen Unifil's mandate, Ms Slim did not expect it to end the UN peacekeeping mission altogether in Lebanon. Despite the problems, “the trilateral forum mediated by Unifil between the Israeli and Lebanese armies' personnel has been quite effective in addressing conflicts related to land borders”, she said.

“It has also proven effective at preventing misperception or miscalculation on the Hezbollah and Israeli sides and another war since 2006.”

The bill could put political pressure on Hezbollah or its allies in Lebanon's government if it led to funding cuts for either the army or the Unifil mission, Ms Slim said.

But as far as disarmament is concerned, she said, “there is no force that can disarm Hezbollah if Hezbollah does not want to disarm itself”.