UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon to Up Border Patrols Against Hezbollah, as Mandate Extended

UNFIL will add more patrols in bid to fight what Israel and U.S. say is arms buildup by Hezbollah, as Security Council votes to extend mandate

Lebanese army soldiers train on the deck of the Brazilian warship UNIAO, part of the UNIFIL Maritime force, during a joint exercise between the Lebanese army and UNIFIL, to apprehend the smuggling of illegal material, off the coast of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017. The head of the U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon says his force has no evidence that weapons are being illegally transferred in the country's south, rebuffing criticism the mission is failing to stem their spread. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
Hussein Malla/AP

The longtime UN peacekeeping operation in Lebanon was extended Wednesday with new directions to conduct more patrols with Lebanese forces and report when peacekeepers run into roadblocks in Hezbollah strongholds in the country's south.

The UN Security Council unanimously approved the plan for the mission known as UNIFIL, extending it another year after a flurry of negotiations over U.S. and Israeli desires to do more to keep Hezbollah from gathering illegal weapons.

The two countries sought a more muscular approach for UNIFIL to tackle what they say is a blatant, unauthorized arms buildup by the militant group in southern Lebanon. Some other nations, including Lebanon, didn't want major changes in a peacekeeping force seen as playing an important role in the area's decade of relative stability.

In the end, the U.S. and Israel emerged pleased with what they saw as important changes, while other nations noted that the mission's overall mandate hadn't changed.

"The status quo for UNIFIL was not acceptable, and we did not accept it," said U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has made a priority of scrutinizing the effectiveness and expense of UN peacekeeping missions. She said the changes will help ensure UNIFIL "has the power and the will to do its job."

For example, she said, Hezbollah sometimes bars peacekeepers from entering certain areas. Now, UNIFIL is being asked to provide "prompt and detailed" reports on where and why its troops were stopped.

(FILES) This file photo taken on July 19, 2016 shows newly-appointed Head of Mission and Force Commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), Major General Michael Beary of Ireland applauding during a handover ceremony at the UNIFIL headquarters in the southern Lebanese village of Naqura.
MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP

Now a 10,500-member force with a $489 million budget, UNIFIL was originally created to oversee the withdrawal of Israeli troops after a 1978 invasion. The mission was expanded after a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah so that peacekeepers could deploy along the Lebanon-Israel border, to help Lebanese troops extend their authority into their country's south for the first time in decades.

But this year, the annual exercise of renewing UNIFIL became unusually fraught.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised his criticisms of the mission personally — and publicly —with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during a joint news conference Monday, and Haley and UNIFIL's commander openly clashed last week. The commander, Maj. Gen. Michael Beary, told The Associated Press there was no evidence of the arms traffic and stockpiling that the U.S. and Israel describe in Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon. Haley said his remarks show Beary is blind to a "massive flow of illegal weapons."

Lebanon, which rejects the claims that Hezbollah is stashing weapons in the south, called Tuesday for renewing UNIFIL's mandate unchanged. Its UN mission didn't immediately respond to a request for comment after the vote. Neither Lebanon nor Israel is on the 15-member Security Council.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres (L) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, August 28, 2017.
Amos Ben Gershom, GPO

Council members largely wanted to keep UNIFIL as-is, said French Deputy Ambassador Anne Gueguen, whose country was in charge of drafting the renewal resolution. France didn't want to put "the delicate balance" of southern Lebanon into question, Gueguen said.

"UNIFIL, of course, can do better and can do more, but no one within this council can imagine, for one second, the environment (of stability) existing there without UNIFIL," she said.

Italian Ambassador Sebastiano Cardi, whose country is among the biggest contributors of troops to UNIFIL, said it was important not to blur lines between peacekeepers' duties and those of Lebanese forces.

"Promoting confusion in that regard undermines UNIFIL's operation and strips the Lebanese authorities of their own sovereign prerogatives," Cardi said. He said his nation was concerned about the changes but accepted them for the sake of Security Council unity.

The secretary-general has stressed that under UNIFIL's mandate, it is primarily the Lebanese military's responsibility to ensure the south is free of unauthorized weapons.