The announcement could not have come at a more sensitive time. Mohammad Ayad, the main suspect arrested as part of the investigation into the death of Sean Rooney, a young Irish United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) soldier, was released on bail last week by Lebanon’s Military Courts.
Ayad’s release comes amid conflict along Lebanon’s southern border, where Hezbollah maintains a “support front” for Hamas in its war against Israel, much to the dismay of the international community.
Since the start of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood on Oct. 7, calls for compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 1701 have multiplied. Resolution 1701 ended the July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah and outlined the latter’s withdrawal beyond the Blue Line. It also called for the deployment of the Lebanese army and UNIFIL along the border area. But Hezbollah does not see the resolution as valid, and seems determined to make this known.
‘It doesn’t help us’
In December, Rooney was killed and three other UNIFIL force members were wounded when their vehicle was attacked near the village of al-Aaqibiya, in southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah has a strong presence. Ten days later, the Iran-aligned group handed over Mohammad Ayad, a party member suspected of being the main perpetrator of the attack, to the authorities. Several months later, Ayad and four other fugitives were charged by the military court with “intentional homicide.”
However, Ayad was released on bail on Nov. 9, after being questioned twice, a judicial source told AFP. According to the same source, the military courts have “no proof” that Ayad killed the soldier.
However, in Lebanon, this court is often accused of collusion with Hezbollah. After Ayad’s release, opposition MP Ashraf Rifi expressed his disapproval. “The military court is in the hands of Hezbollah, and it is Lebanon that is paying the price,” he wrote on X.
Consistent sources told L’Orient-Le Jour, that Ayad’s release is officially linked to his health conditions and that the investigation should continue normally.
Ayad reportedly paid bail of LL1,200,000,000 the equivalent of nearly $13,500.
“Since handing him [Ayad] over to the authorities following the al-Aaqibiya incident, Hezbollah has promised to release him from prison and pay the bail,” an informed source told L’Orient-Le Jour. Hezbollah did not reply to L’Orient-Le Jour’s request for comment.
But why now? “It has to be said that the timing is peculiar and does not help us in our efforts to consolidate stability in southern Lebanon,” said a Western diplomatic source.
The decision comes amid conflict between Israel and Hezbollah on both sides of the border — strife that turns a deaf ear to calls for compliance with Resolution 1701.
During his whirlwind visit to Beirut a fortnight ago, Amos Hochstein, President Joe Biden’s envoy, underlined the US administration’s commitment to resolution 1701 in an indirect message to Hezbollah via Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and the former General Security Chief Abbas Ibrahim.
Similarly, UNIFIL Head of Mission, Major General Aroldo Lazaro Saenz, expressed his “deep concern” over the situation in southern Lebanon after a meeting with caretaker Prime Minister, Najib Mikati and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri on Tuesday. Saenz expressed regret that Resolution 1701 was “under severe strain.” Meanwhile, Hezbollah considers that the UN resolution is “now behind” the party and says it does “not understand what the Blue Helmets are still doing in Lebanon.”
Could Ayad’s release be a way of showing UNIFIL the door? “There are actors on both sides working to undermine the mission of the peacekeepers,” said the Western diplomat. “When they see peacekeepers being murdered with impunity, some countries will be less and less inclined to send troops and aid.”
This is added to the fact that UNIFIL bases have already been hit several times since hostilities began on Oct. 7. Two weeks ago, a Nepalese soldier was wounded near Naqoura by an Israeli shell that failed to explode.
These developments take place in an unfavorable international context. While the annual renewal of UNIFIL’s mandate has been almost automatic since 2006, over the last two years, this renewal has become increasingly thorny.
In August 2023, Russia and China, permanent members of the UN Security Council with veto power, abstained from the vote to extend the peacekeepers’ mandate — a first. The two countries expressed reservations — as had Hezbollah — about the wording of the UN resolution, which gives the peacekeepers the right to conduct patrols without prior coordination with the Lebanese army.
In reaction to Ayad’s release, UNIFIL issued a statement recalling that “The Government of Lebanon has on several occasions stated its commitment to bring the perpetrators to justice.” “We continue to urge that all perpetrators be held accountable and for justice for Private Rooney and his family,” it added.
“As far as we are concerned, it would be unacceptable for the investigation not to continue,” a UNIFIL source told L’Orient-Le Jour. “In the current context, the international community is more aware than ever of the importance of our mission, which will be seriously jeopardized if the truth is not revealed.”
Unfortunately, in Lebanon, the truth is rarely revealed.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.