Lebanese environmental group helping Hezbollah’s military wing – US think tank

Lebanese environmental group helping Hezbollah’s military wing – US think tank

Washington Institute backs Israeli claim that ‘Green Without Borders’ is a front that let the Iran-backed terror organization use its sites for September 1 attack on IDF

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

An installation of the Lebanese agricultural NGO 'Green Without Borders' that the IDF says serves as an observation outpost for Hezbollah on the Israeli-Lebanese border, publicized on June 22, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)
An installation of the Lebanese agricultural NGO 'Green Without Borders' that the IDF says serves as an observation outpost for Hezbollah on the Israeli-Lebanese border, publicized on June 22, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

Kornet anti-tank missiles fired by Hezbollah at an Israeli military vehicle and position near the Lebanese border last September were launched from within territory in southern Lebanon controlled by an environmental organization, according to a report released Thursday that argues that the group is in fact a front for Hezbollah.

The group, Green Without Borders, has been accused of being a front for the Iran-backed terror organization several times in the past, by both the Israel Defense Forces and Israel’s delegation to the United Nations.

The paper, published by Matthew Levitt and Samantha Stern of the US-based Washington Institute, takes these allegations further, identifying eight new locations along the border that belong to the group and further demonstrating the non-government organization’s ties to Hezbollah.

Green Without Borders bills itself as being primarily dedicated to planting trees, fighting forest fires and environmentalism in general. At the same time, it also freely acknowledges its ties to the “resistance,” or Hezbollah. The trees it plants in southern Lebanon are expressly meant to block Israeli surveillance cameras, to act as “a veil on the eyes of the enemy in addition to a wall behind which the resistance fighters protect themselves,” the head of the organization, Hajj Zuhair Nahle, told Lebanon’s Daily Star news outlet in 2017.

Such was the case last month when the group planted a number of trees on the Israeli side of the internationally recognized Blue Line — but on the Lebanese side of the border fence — prompting the IDF to take the unusual step of crossing into the buffer zone to remove them. This led to a tense standoff near the Israeli town of Metulla between the IDF and Lebanese Armed Forces on April 14, which was mediated by UN peacekeepers who eventually trimmed back the trees themselves.

Israeli and Lebanese soldiers stand off against one another near the border, while UN peacekeepers attempt to mediate a resolution, on April 14, 2020. (Hezbollah media)

Levitt and Stern’s report does not include any newly discovered evidence unequivocally proving that Green Without Borders is a Hezbollah front in the form of admissions or documentation, instead making the case based on existing information from the organization, UN reports and conversations with Israeli military officials.

“There is no doubt,” Levitt told The Times of Israel ahead of the release of the report.

“By building surveillance posts, denying UNIFIL unrestricted access in southern Lebanon, and granting Hezbollah logistical and operational platforms from which to fire rockets into Israel, GWB has effectively become part of Hezbollah’s military infrastructure,” he and Stern wrote.

In the paper, the two detail the locations of eight previously unidentified Green Without Borders outposts, some of which contain watchtowers and other surveillance infrastructure, along the Lebanese-Israeli border. One of these newly identified GWB sites, east of the town of Yaroun, was apparently used in the September 1 attack. The other seven are located east of Aalma el-Chaeb, south of Dhayra, south of Rmeish, west of Yaroun, east of Houla, south of Kafr Kila, and east of Metulla.

A map created by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy identifying 16 ‘Green Without Borders’ locations along the Israeli-Lebanese borders, from a new report released on May 14, 2020.

The eight new locations are in addition to the eight GWB sites identified by Israel and the United Nations over the years.

In their report, Levitt, one of the world’s leading authorities on Hezbollah, and Stern also push for sanctions against Green Without Borders by the United States, which does not yet consider the organization to be a terror group.

The Washington Institute researchers also call for the UN, specifically its peacekeepers, the UN Interim Force In Lebanon, to take a greater role in monitoring the situation in southern Lebanon or at least to do a better job of reporting on violations of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

That resolution calls for all armed groups — save for the Lebanese Armed Forces and UNIFIL — to remain north of Lebanon’s Litani River, a requirement that Israel says is entirely unenforced, with Hezbollah members regularly operating in southern Lebanon — sometimes openly — and with massive caches of the group’s weapons believed to be stored in Shiite villages near the border.

A Lebanese man holds an Israeli drone that he allegedly shot down near the border on October 23, 2019. (Twitter)

Meanwhile, Lebanon regularly accuses Israel of violating the resolution by routinely flying planes and drones in Lebanese airspace, something Israeli officials do not deny but maintain is necessary to collect intelligence on Hezbollah’s illegal operations in Lebanon because the country’s own security services are not prepared to do so themselves.

In March, the United Nations released a report about the status of Resolution 1701, in which he discussed recent developments in the investigation into Hezbollah’s September 1 missile attack.

In the report, UN Secretary-General António Guterres wrote that UNIFIL “estimated that the missiles had been launched across the Blue Line” from two Green Without Borders sites near Aitaroun in southern Lebanon, but that the peacekeepers were “not provided access” to them.

In the attack, three missiles were launched into Israel from Lebanon. Two of them were fired at an armored vehicle that was being used as an ambulance, with five soldiers inside. They missed the vehicle, barely, striking the road just next to it. The other one struck near an army post.

Levitt said information provided to him by Israeli officials further supports the claim that the area from which the Kornet anti-tank missiles were fired belonged to Green Without Borders.

A location near the northern Israeli town of Avivim shows the site where an anti-tank missile fired by Hezbollah fighters hit a road on September 1, 2019, seen on September 10, 2019. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The report also noted that several of the group’s posts were in the same area as attack tunnels dug by Hezbollah into northern Israel, which were located and destroyed by the IDF in late 2018 and early 2019.

“It is unclear if a connection can be made” between the Green Without Borders locations and the tunnels, Levitt and Stern wrote.

In the paper, they accused UNIFIL and the UN of being overly coy and understated in their reports on Green Without Borders, specifically in 2017 when Israel first claimed the group was a Hezbollah front, leading to the use of the NGO’s territories as a launchpad for the September 1 attack.

A picture taken from the southern Lebanese village of Meiss al-Jabal on December 9, 2018, shows Israeli and United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) soldiers gathered on the Israeli side of the border between the two countries (Ali DIA / AFP)

In 2017, UNIFIL said it had “not observed any unauthorized armed persons at the location or found any basis to report a violation of the resolution,” but did not mention that unarmed Hezbollah members did appear to be operating in those areas and that other sites could not be inspected because UNIFIL troops were barred from visiting them by Hezbollah and Green Without Borders operatives.

“This failure by UNIFIL to remark on unarmed militants engaged in cross-border surveillance ultimately emboldened GWB to use two of its posts as platforms to carry out a cross-border missile attack,” Levitt and Stern wrote.

“The only reason UNIFIL had not directly observed such activity was that GWB and other Hezbollah personnel denied them access to the area.”

The two called on the UN to provide more detailed information about Green Without Borders’ activities in light of its clear connections to Hezbollah.

“At a minimum, UNIFIL reports should include the specific geographical, statistical, and chronological data related to violations and patrol routes, which UNIFIL already collects but does not make public,” they wrote.

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