European leaders are calling for a greater European role in enforcing the cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. They say their focus should be not only on rebuilding Gaza, but also on monitoring the demilitarization of Hamas and helping to secure the border crossings between the Gaza and Egypt to ensure that Hamas cannot be rearmed.
But if the European experience with Hezbollah in Lebanon is any indication, not only will Hamas not be disarmed, it will be rearmed as European monitors look on and do nothing.
French President François Holland, in a major foreign policy speech in Paris on August 28, said Europe should play a greater role in Gaza. "Since 2002, Europe has done a lot to rebuild and develop Palestine […] but it cannot simply be a cashier used to heal the wounds after a recurring conflict," he said.
Referring to a nascent proposal for creating a Gaza observer mission under the auspices of the European Union, Hollande added: "Gaza can no longer be an army base for Hamas, or an open-air prison for its inhabitants. We have to go towards a progressive lifting of the blockade and the demilitarization of the territory."
The EU observer mission—which is being promoted by Britain, France and Germany and would be established by a United Nations Security Council resolution—would be based at the Rafah border crossing, the main crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. The mission would be charged with preventing the smuggling of weapons into Gaza and ensuring that building supplies such as cement and metal products are used for civilian reconstruction projects and not for building tunnels and rockets.
According to German media reports, the mission would be "more political than military," which implies it would not be tasked with disarming Hamas.
The Israeli government has insisted that the reconstruction of Gaza must be linked to its demilitarization. "The process of preventing the arming of terror organizations must be part of any solution, and the international community must demand this aggressively," Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said on July 28.
This demand has been repeated by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. In an article entitled, "Take Away Their Guns—Then We'll Talk," published by Foreign Policy magazine on August 27, Lieberman wrote: "It should thus be entirely obvious that unless Hamas is disarmed and its only tools of control removed, there can be no peace and security." He continued:
Any discussion on opening up entry points into Gaza, increasing access to the sea for Gazans, or any steps necessary for the revitalization of the Strip and its inhabitants cannot take place while it is occupied and terrorized by Hamas.
Israel fully supports a broad international effort to provide all the necessary means to rebuild the civilian infrastructure and economy in Gaza, provided there is a concerted parallel effort to prevent Hamas from rearming itself with weapons systems and rebuilding its terrorist infrastructure. Hamas cannot be allowed to rebuild its military force and prevent the essential international aid being directed to the Palestinian residents.
Lieberman also pointed out that the disarmament of Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups has been an essential element of a long list of agreements and understandings between Israel and the Palestinians. These include the Oslo II Accord signed in 1995, the Wye River Memorandum negotiated in 1998, and the so-called Road Map accepted by the Palestinian Authority in 2003.
But the exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, has vowed that the group will never disarm. "The weapons of the resistance are sacred and we will not accept that they be on the agenda" of future negotiations with Israel, he said on August 29. "The issue is not up for negotiations. No one can disarm Hamas and its resistance."
Meshaal also said the conflict between Israel and Hamas is not over. "This is not the end. This is just a milestone to reaching our objective [of destroying Israel], we know that Israel is strong and is aided by the international community," he said. "We will not restrict our dreams or make compromises to our demands."
Hamas—an Islamist group whose raison d'être is the destruction of Israel—would probably resort to violence to thwart any attempts to disarm the group. It is therefore highly unlikely the Europeans would confront Hamas in any meaningful way.
The reluctance to disarm Hamas has much in common with the failure to disarm Hezbollah.
In September 2004, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1559, which, among other demands, called for the disarmament and disbanding of Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has flatly rejected Resolution 1559; he says he considers his organization to be a "resistance movement." Nasrallah has said:
We do not consider ourselves a militia. The Lebanese government does not consider us a militia, the parliament does not consider us a militia, and most of the Lebanese people do not consider us a militia. Therefore the resolution does not apply to us.
In May 2006, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1680, which reiterated the "call for the full implementation of all requirements of Resolution 1559 […] and called for further efforts to disband and disarm all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias and to restore fully the Lebanese Government's control over all Lebanese territory."
In August 2006, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1701, which ended the 34-day war that began when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid into Israel. During the war, Hezbollah fired more than 4,000 rockets and missiles against Israel, killing 44 civilians. The resolution called for the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon, including Hezbollah. It also called for the:
full implementation of the relevant provisions of the Taif Accords, and of resolutions 1559 (2004) and 1680 (2006), that require the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon, so that, pursuant to the Lebanese cabinet decision of July 27, 2006, there will be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese state.
Then—as now—world leaders seemed more concerned about preventing Israel from defending itself, than about disarming the Islamic terrorist groups that initiated the fighting in the first place by attacking Israel.
While visiting Haifa in July 2006, then French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy had to take cover from Hezbollah-launched Katyusha rockets. At the time, Douste-Blazy said: "The first condition for a cease-fire is of course the disarming of Hezbollah."
Then French President Jacques Chirac also warned against a continued Hezbollah armed presence in southern Lebanon. "It is absolutely normal to have a current which expresses politically what the Hezbollah part of Lebanese public opinion thinks," Chirac said in a radio interview in Paris. "What is unacceptable is to express it by the use of force, with armed militias. No country accepts that part of its territory be controlled by armed militias."
Chirac's defense minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, promised that French peacekeepers would be operating with "strong rules of engagement" so that the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon [UNIFIL] could act "with rigor and strongly if it is necessary." She said: "These are the conditions necessary for the Force to be credible and dissuasive."
But as soon as France assumed command of an "enhanced" UNIFIL, one that included a new contingent of 7,000 European troops, the disarmament of Hezbollah was no longer on the agenda. Apparently, French officials became afraid that Nasrallah might activate Hezbollah sleeper cells in the cities of France.
"The disarmament of Hezbollah is not the business of UNIFIL," the French commander of UNIFIL, Major General Alain Pelligrini, said in September 2006. "This is a strictly Lebanese affair, which should be resolved at a national level."
Several days later, France became Hezbollah's chief protector, as French Air Force jets were reportedly patrolling the skies over Beirut during Hassan Nasrallah's victory speech. The French were apparently seeking to protect Nasrallah from Israeli assassins.
In late September, four UNIFIL tanks manned by French soldiers shielded Hezbollah terrorists by blocking Israeli tanks trying to stop the firing of mortar shells into Israel. A few weeks later, commanders of the French contingent in UNIFIL warned that they would open fire on Israeli warplanes if they continued their reconnaissance flights over Lebanon to search for clandestine shipments of arms to Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, the UN Secretary General at the time, Kofi Annan, also disclaimed responsibility for disarming Hezbollah. "UNIFIL troops are not going in there to disarm, let's be clear," he said. "The understanding was that it would be the Lebanese who would disarm Hezbollah," he said, knowing full well that the Lebanese government—outmanned and outgunned by Hezbollah—lacked the power to do so on its own.
UNIFIL not only did nothing to disarm Hezbollah. UNIFIL also did nothing to prevent the group from rearming, even after Hezbollah's representative in Iran, Muhammad Abdullah Sif al-Din, bragged that Nasrallah had a new strategic plan to rearm ahead of the "next round against Israel."
Italian UNIFIL soldiers on the beach in Lebanon, September 2006. (Image source: Julien Harneis/Wikimedia Commons)
As early as October 2006, Terje Roed-Larsen, the special UN envoy for Lebanon, reported that "there have been arms coming across the border into Lebanon." In April 2007, Walid Jumblatt, a senior Lebanese politician, told Al-Jazeera television that Lebanese security agents were helping Hezbollah guerrillas smuggle weapons across the porous border with Syria. In June of that year, Roed-Larsen warned the Security Council of an "alarming and deeply disturbing picture" of "a steady flow of weapons and armed elements across the border from Syria."
At the same time, Hezbollah began to push back hard against UNIFIL. In June 2007, for example, six Spanish troops were killed by a car bomb, just days after Spanish peacekeepers discovered a secret Hezbollah weapons depot in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah's message to Spain was: mind your own business.
Less than a month after those killings, it emerged that Spanish intelligence agents had met secretly with Hezbollah operatives, who agreed to provide "escorts" to protect Spanish UNIFIL patrols. The quid pro quo was that Spanish troops would look the other way while Hezbollah was allowed to rearm for its next war against Israel.
In November 2009, Israel's Navy intercepted a ship carrying 500 tons of Iranian weapons, rockets and missiles intended for Hezbollah. In April 2010, former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that Hezbollah "has more missiles than most governments in the world." In March 2011, an IDF intelligence report revealed that Hezbollah had built close to 1,000 military facilities throughout Southern Lebanon. The installations included more than 550 weapons bunkers and 300 underground facilities.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah stepped up its attacks against European peacekeepers in southern Lebanon. In May 2011, six Italian peacekeepers were wounded by a roadside bomb in the southern city of Sidon. In July, five French troops were wounded by a bomb in the same area. In December, five French peacekeepers were wounded by a roadside bomb in the southern coastal city of Tyre.
In January 2012, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon demanded that Hezbollah be disarmed. "I am deeply concerned about the military capacity of Hezbollah and the lack of progress in disarmament," he said. "All these arms outside of the authorized state authority, it's not acceptable," he declared.
Nasrallah responded with mockery and contempt: "Your concern, secretary-general, reassures us and pleases us. What matters to us is that you are worried, and that America and Israel are worried with you," he said.
In July 2013, the European Union announced that it would place part of Hezbollah on its terrorism blacklist, ostensibly to cut off the Shiite militant group's sources of funding inside Europe. But in a classic European fudge, EU governments agreed only to blacklist the "military" wing of Hezbollah, thus maintaining the politically expedient fiction that a clear distinction can be drawn between Hezbollah terrorists and those members of the group's "political" wing.
Following the EU's decision, the editor of the pro-Hezbollah newspaper Al-Akhbar, Ibrahim al-Amin, issued thinly-veiled threats of "military" consequences for UNIFIL's European members, whom Amin said were now "operating behind enemy lines."
All the while, Hezbollah has continued to build an arsenal of ever-more powerful weapons that can reach deeper into Israel than ever before. According to the Israel Defense Force (IDF), Hezbollah has obtained sophisticated long-range surface-to-air missiles from Syria. The group has also acquired advanced guided-missile systems in preparation for its next conflict with Israel.
According to Brigadier General Itay Baron, director of military intelligence research for the IDF, Hezbollah now has around 65,000 rockets and missiles, many times the number it had on the eve of the 2006 war. Nasrallah hinted at this rearmament when he proclaimed that a future Hezbollah assault on Israel would "turn the lives of thousands of Zionists into a living hell."
During the past eight years of European leadership of UNIFIL, Hezbollah has more than fully rearmed itself while European soldiers have stood by and done nothing. What is clear is that European leaders have never been committed to honoring either the letter or the spirit of UN Resolutions 1559, 1680 and 1701, which were all aimed at preventing Hezbollah from rearming. So why would anyone now trust the Europeans to ensure that Hamas is disarmed or not rearmed?
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.