It’s time to talk about the Blue Line: Constructive re-engagement is key to stability
The Blue Line, stretching for 120km along Lebanon’s southern frontier, is a key to peace in the region. It is not a border, but a “line of withdrawal.” It was set by the United Nations in 2000 for the practical purpose of confirming the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the south of Lebanon. It is without prejudice to future border agreements between these two UN member states.
The Blue Line has always been temporary, and UNIFIL peacekeepers are its temporary custodians. Whenever Israeli or Lebanese authorities wish to undertake any activities close to the Blue Line, such as maintenance works or security activities, UNIFIL requests that they provide advance notice. This allows UNIFIL to keep authorities on all sides informed, to minimize any misunderstandings that could lead to increased tensions. Ultimately, it is up to Israel and Lebanon to determine the exact path of a future border. In the meantime, UNIFIL is focused on maintaining calm and stability along this fragile frontier and avoiding unnecessary provocations and incidents that may lead to crisis and potentially to a conflict. The Blue Line needs to be respected in its entirety by the parties. Any crossing of the Blue Line by any side constitutes a violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 and, as UNIFIL, we deal with all violations in the same manner.
The Blue Line is based on various historical maps, some going back almost 100 years. The line the UN derived from these maps in 2000 does not always translate to clarity on the physical ground. Following the 2006 war, the Blue Line became one of the central elements of Resolution 1701 and since 2007, UNIFIL has worked with the parties to install visual markers – our famous “blue barrels” – showing the precise path of the Blue Line. Each one of the 272 blue barrels that currently mark the line was placed only after complex scrutiny and agreement from both sides. Through UNIFIL’s good offices and liaison and coordination mechanisms, the Blue Line is one of the few areas on which the parties have continued to engage. Each of the blue barrels represents a carefully negotiated consensus upon which current stability in the region has been built. Yet, half the length of the Blue Line remains unmarked on the ground today.
While much of the territory is rugged, it is not deserted. On the Lebanese side in particular, the activities of farmers and villagers bring them close to, and sometimes across, the Blue Line. Due to the lack of visual markings in places, people and animals can cross from one side to the other without necessarily being aware of it. Each crossing, even if unintentional, is a violation of Resolution 1701, which UNIFIL duly records and reports to the Security Council. However, not all violations of the Blue Line are accidental. Some, like Israel’s ongoing occupation of the northern half of the village of Ghajar, are well known and continuous. Others are less predictable – and even hostile. Any unilateral action carried out by the parties becomes a source of considerable tension.
In the last 14 years, thanks to level heads and a commitment to stability on both sides, many incidents have been quickly resolved. Many other incidents have no doubt been avoided by the clear marking of the Blue Line.
But the peace is fragile. Although we now have relative calm, this can shatter in an instant, as the people living along the Blue Line know all too well. The fundamental reasons for the conflict have not gone away. Someday, a simple mistake at a tense moment could cause this latent volatility to erupt – and bring the current fragile stability, which we have all worked so hard to secure, to an end. The possible consequences of such a mistake are what keep me, and many of my peacekeeping colleagues, awake at night.
Mistakes can be avoided by respecting the Blue Line in its entirety. Marking the remaining parts of the Blue Line will help avoid accidental and unnecessary provocations that could escalate into conflict, which could in turn cause immense human suffering. It is undeniably in everyone’s interest to move forward on this. Both sides have set aside their very real differences to engage constructively on marking parts of the Blue Line in the past. We now need to finish the job. We need to re-engage on this issue and build on that past success and the recent framework agreement signed by the parties.
To do so will take political will. It will take courage. I know that both sides have it; now is the time to act. And UNIFIL stands ready to help.
- Op-Ed by UNIFIL Head of Mission and Force Commander Major General Stefano Del Col -