The UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution Friday extending the mandate for a peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon for another year, but will reduce the number of troops amid U.S. and Israeli criticism over the mission's efficiency, diplomats said.
The resolution also makes another concession to the Trump administration and Israel, calling on the Lebanese government to facilitate "prompt and full access" to sites requested by UN peacekeepers for investigation, including areas controlled by Hezbollah and tunnels crossing the UN-drawn Blue Line between Lebanon and Israel.
The UN Interim Force in Lebanon, known by its acronym UNIFIL, established in 1978, patrols Lebanon’s southern border with Israel. Washington regards Hezbollah, which supports the Syrian government and has a strong presence in south Lebanon, as a terrorist organization. Hezbollah and Israel have traded barbs in recent weeks, after an alleged Israeli air strike killed one of the movement's operatives in Syria.
A French presidential official, said before the vote that the move was "important for Lebanon and Israel," adding that "what was expected from Hezbollah is that it doesn't do anything that could lead to an escalation."
It also urges freedom of movement and unimpeded access for peacekeepers to all parts of the Blue Line, and condemns “in the strongest terms” all attempts to restrict UN troop movements and attacks on mission personnel.
The resolution gives the United States a symbolic victory, but it almost certainly will also be welcomed by many countries that view the UN mission as critical to maintaining peace in the volatile region and strongly support its current mandate which is largely maintained.
It also lowers the troop ceiling from 15,000 to 13,000, though one diplomat called that a symbolic change as only 10,500 troops are currently deployed. The mission's efficiency will also be assessed after 60 days, meeting another U.S. demand.
Israel's Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan said that "The Security Council's resolution is the last warning sign given to the Lebanese government. If Hezbollah continues using southern Lebanon as their base to instigate terrorism despite UNIFIL's presence, the Lebanese government will be held completely accountable for the escalation and harsh consequences that would follow."
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Erdan added that "Israel won't tolerate terror attacks emanating from Lebanese territory, and will forcefully respond to such crimes. Israel will monitor in the coming months whether UNIFIL's mandate is implemented and review whether there's justification for its presence."
According to UNIFIL, it currently has more than 9,400 ground troops and over 850 naval personnel assigned to its Maritime Task Force. In addition, the mission has about 900 civilian staff, both international and national.
The renewal of the UN mission comes as Lebanon grapples with a financial crisis, political deadlock and the aftermath of a blast that killed 180 people.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 15 members of the council voted by email, with a 3 P.M. EDT Friday deadline. Soon after, the Security Council president, Indonesia’s UN Ambassador Dian Triansyah Djani, sent a letter to council members, obtained by The Associated Press, saying “the draft resolution received 15 votes in favor ... (and) has been adopted as resolution 2539."
UNIFIL was created to oversee the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon after a 1978 invasion. The mission was expanded after a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah militants 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.
Israel has repeatedly accused Hezbollah, which is backed by its greatest foe Iran, of impeding the peacekeepers from carrying out their mandate, a view strongly backed by the Trump administration.
In 2019, Israel destroyed a series of what it said were attack tunnels, dug under the border by Hezbollah.
Israel’s former ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said in May that Israel would insist that peacekeepers have access to all sites, that they have freedom of movement and that any time they are being blocked the Security Council must be immediately informed.
U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft tweeted at the time that UNIFIL has been “prevented from fulfilling its mandate” and “Hezbollah has been able to arm itself and expand operations, putting the Lebanese people at risk.”
She said the Security Council “must either pursue serious change to empower UNIFIL or realign its staffing and resources with tasks it can actually accomplish."
Noa Landau contributed to this report.