Analysis

Are UN Peacekeepers Still Keeping the Calm Between Israel and Lebanon?

A report published in June on the UN observer force describes necessary reforms, but also applauds UNIFIL’s efficiency at preventing clashes between Israel and Hezbollah

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A U.N. peacekeeper at his post in the village of Markaba, southern Lebanon, April 17, 2020.
A U.N. peacekeeper at his post in the village of Markaba, southern Lebanon, April 17, 2020. Credit: AZIZ TAHER/ REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The home page of UNIFIL, the United Nations observer force in Lebanon, describes the aid package it has offered regional commanders in the city of Tyre, which includes 510 COVID-19 test kits. It described the sports facilities in the town of Kaoukba that got a facelift courtesy of UNIFIL’s Indian contingent, including a basketball set-up, security fences and the painting of some of the buildings. A lengthy article tells about the important contribution of the Nigerian unit, in which both men and women serve, to ensuring security along the Blue Line that separates Israel and Lebanon.

But the most important report is a controversial one, found in a link and published in early June, about the successes and failures in implementing Resolution 1701, which was passed at the end of the 2006 Second Lebanon War. The resolution grants UNIFIL military authority to ensure that the area south of the Litani River remains demilitarized, to prevent arms smuggling across the border with Syria, and to report violations of the resolution by Israel and Lebanon.

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This report came about following the decision about a year ago to renew UNIFIL’s mandate, under which the organization was required to describe the extent of success in implementation of the resolution. There’s not much that is new in this call for those who follow UNIFIL’s activities in Lebanon, but the focus on “the challenges” facing the force once again brings up the question of whether UNIFIL, which costs about half a billion dollars a year (about a quarter of which is paid by the United States), is still necessary.

Among other things, the report tells of major difficulties in access for its personnel seeking to enter the villages and towns in southern Lebanon. Farmers expanding their cultivated land put up fences, thus preventing UN vehicles from entering. An environmental protection group established by Hezbollah has closed many areas claiming that they are nature reserves, and in some of the villages the heavy vehicles of the UNIFIL blue helmets are not allowed in because they are said to ruin infrastructure. The force is also not allowed to enter suspect factories, such as the cement factory in Kafr Kila, which was the point of access to one of the tunnels Hezbollah dug toward the Israeli border.

Lebanon also didn't meet its obligation to station 15,000 soldiers to work alongside UNIFIL’s approximately 10,200 troops, and it is unlikely to be able to do so, considering the severe economic crisis in that country and the moratorium on the draft. At the same time, the report presents the Israeli infractions, which include almost daily flights in Lebanese air space and use of Lebanese air space to attack Syria and neighboring countries. That is in addition to the Israeli shrug in response to Lebanon’s demand to complete the negotiations over its objections to marking of the Blue Line.

The report recommends reforms, including reducing the number of UNIFIL bases and personnel, and instead greater use of drones and sophisticated cameras that can cover territories that at present UNIFIL can’t reach.

UNIFIL soldiers patrol the border between Israel and Lebanon in an armored personnel carrier, south Lebanon, March 2, 2007
UNIFIL soldiers patrol the border between Israel and Lebanon in an armored personnel carrier, south Lebanon, March 2, 2007Credit: Reuters

On the other hand, the report speaks extensively of UNIFIL’s efficiency at preventing clashes between Israel and Hezbollah, its ability to mediate between the two sides, especially by means of the three-way committee that meets frequently at Rosh Hanikra and the understandings the committee has been able to reach between Israel and Lebanon.

In late August the extension of the UNIFIL mandate for another year will come up for discussion, and Washington is already hinting that President Donald Trump may not support such an extension or continue to fund the organization without strict and efficient implementation of Resolution 1701 by UNIFIL. This is a threat over the heads of the Lebanese government, which about a month ago hastened to announce that it would approve the force’s mandate, while Israel has presented objections, whose seriousness is unclear.

Lebanon fears that the cancellation of the mandate will cause direct friction between Israel and Hezbollah, which might grow into a violent conflict. Hezbollah also supports extending the mandate, because so far it has managed to maneuver the observer force even without open military deployment in southern Lebanon and it can manage the region as it pleases. It is believed that Hezbollah no longer needs to deploy missiles in southern Lebanon because it has enough medium- and long-range missiles north of the Litani that can reach targets in Israel, so UN oversight doesn’t much bother it.

According to Resolution 1701, UNIFIL is supposed to assist the Lebanese government in guarding the border with Syria against arms smuggling, if the Lebanese government asks it to. So far the Lebanese have not done so, and Hezbollah has had a free hand importing its military necessities from Syria, with only Israeli assaults disrupting it.

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab reviews the honor guard of the United Nations peacekeepers, Naqoura, Lebanon, May 27, 2020.
Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab reviews the honor guard of the United Nations peacekeepers, Naqoura, Lebanon, May 27, 2020. Credit: Dalati Nohra,AP

The reasons not to extend UNIFIL’s mandate are ostensibly weightier than those in favor of it. But the importance of the UN force can’t be measured only in the number of violations it prevents or its inability to oversee areas that Hezbollah has closed to it. UNIFIL and the UN resolution from which it derives its powers represent diplomatic agreement between Israel and Lebanon that allows coordination and discussion between the two sides. This coordination is very important, not only in protecting the border, but also on other essential issues like marking the marine economic zones between the two countries.

Cancellation of the mandate will not give Israel greater freedom of military action, but it could abolish the one viable pact between Israel and Lebanon.

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