As tensions soar on northern border, Israel works to protect UN peacekeeper mandate

UN Security Council to vote this week on UNIFIL mission, as Hezbollah tries to limit international force’s freedom of action

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Screenshot from a video purporting to show UNIFIL peacekeepers and Israeli troops along the northern border with Lebanon on March 7, 2023. (Video screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Screenshot from a video purporting to show UNIFIL peacekeepers and Israeli troops along the northern border with Lebanon on March 7, 2023. (Video screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Israeli diplomats are optimistic that the United Nations peacekeeping force along the frontier with Lebanon will not be weakened when the UN Security Council meets to renew its mandate on Thursday, amid elevated tensions along the informal border.

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, has attempted to maintain calm in southern Lebanon since its creation in 1978, and is currently tasked with enforcing a UN resolution barring armed operations by Lebanese terror group Hezbollah near the ceasefire line that forms the de facto border.

The mandate, which expires on Thursday, includes a clause that says the peacekeeping force “is allowed to conduct its operations independently,” meaning without the Lebanese army.

Lebanon is working for the removal of that clause, added in 2022, while Israel is hoping that the UN will close a loophole restricting UNIFIL soldiers’ freedom of movement.

The leader of the Hezbollah terror group, Hassan Nasrallah, criticized the addition of that clause last year as “a violation of Lebanese sovereignty” and is also seeking to have it repealed.

“A foreign armed force that moves on Lebanese territory without authorization of the government and Lebanese army, without coordination with the Lebanese army, where is the sovereignty in all that?” Nasrallah said in a televised speech Monday.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in a speech broadcast on August 14, 2023, to mark the anniversary of the 2006 Second Lebanon War between his terror group and Israel. (Screenshot: Twitter/X; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Israeli officials believe that Nasrallah is trying to force UNIFIL to reduce the number and frequency of patrols, according to a diplomatic source. Given the Lebanese army’s funding and logistical woes, it can carry out far fewer patrols than UNIFIL troops.

Due to the state of its vehicles, it would also be largely limited to main roads, leaving large swaths of territory near Israel’s border safe for Hezbollah arms caches and rocket launchers.

Israel is pushing for another change to the mandate, which currently bars UNIFIL from carrying out patrols on private land. Accordingly, Lebanon has converted large tracts of land near the border with Israel into private land. Since the Trump administration, the US has joined Israel in advocating for the Security Council to strike this condition from UNIFIL’s mandate.

UNIFIL Major General Aroldo Lázaro Sáenz (L) and IDF Northern Command head Ori Gordin meet on April 7, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The United States and United Kingdom have been especially vocal in preliminary discussions pushing for UNIFIL’s freedom of action to be protected, diplomatic officials told The Times of Israel.

The UAE, a leading regional partner for Israel, is also on the Security Council. As the lone Arab country on the powerful body, it is informally tasked with representing the views of Arab countries, many of which are at odds with Israeli and Western positions.

Deliberations scheduled for Wednesday were pushed off to Thursday to give the Security Council member states more time to find common ground.

UNIFIL was first deployed in the wake of the IDF’s 1978 Operation Litani in southern Lebanon to monitor the withdrawal of Israeli forces after they invaded Lebanon. It has routinely coordinated patrols and movements in its area of operations in the south with the Lebanese army. But Lebanon’s government has also objected to the absence of a stipulation in the UN resolution that such coordination takes place.

Israel has sent senior members of the government and diplomats to lobby for a strengthened mandate. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant raised the issue during a meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at UN headquarters in New York on Monday.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) meets with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, at the UN headquarters in New York, August 29, 2023. (United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres)

Gallant told Guterres that the likelihood of an outbreak of violence with the Iran-backed Hezbollah was mounting, calling on UNIFIL to work to reduce the recently raised tensions.

The minister demanded an “immediate UN intervention in deescalating tensions” by strengthening and increasing the freedom of movement of UNIFIL, his office said.

Gallant showed the UN chief the deployment of dozens of Hezbollah posts along the border, including a tent erected within Israeli territory and increasing patrols and presence by terror group operatives in the area.

He also discussed the issue with senior US officials Barbara Leaf and Brett McGurk, who commuted from Washington to New York in order to meet him since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has barred most of his ministers from meeting with US counterparts in DC until he meets President Joe Biden.

The Foreign Ministry also deployed Amir Weissbrod, a senior diplomat who heads the ministry’s UN and International Organizations Division, to New York for talks.

On the other side, Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib met in New York with Guterres Monday to convey Lebanon’s position, the country’s official ANI news service said.

The US is also working to calm tensions. US energy envoy Amos Hochstein will reportedly meet with Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, House Speaker Nabih Berri and military chief Joseph Aoun. He will also conduct a rare visit by a US official to Lebanon’s southern border to examine UNIFIL’s presence there.

The meetings come amid a recent increase in Hezbollah activity along the border, including the erection of two tents on the Israeli side of the UN-recognized Blue Line in the Mount Dov area. The Iran-backed group later took down one of the tents, while threatening to attack if Israel moves to dismantle the other one.

Israelis soldiers returning from southern Lebanon August 15, 2006. (Pierre Terdjman/Flash90)

Other recent incidents on the Lebanese border have included camouflaged Hezbollah members walking along the border in violation of a UN resolution, and Hezbollah activists crossing the Blue Line (though not the Israeli border fence) on numerous occasions, including attempts to damage the border fence and army surveillance equipment.

Israel and Lebanon do not have a formal border due to territorial disputes; however, they largely abide by the Blue Line. The line is marked with blue barrels along the border and in some areas is several meters from the Israeli fence, which is built entirely within Israeli territory.

In April, dozens of rockets were fired from Lebanon at Israel, injuring three people and damaging buildings. Though Israel blamed the attack on the Palestinian terror group Hamas, it was seen as having been carried out with the tacit approval of Hezbollah, which maintains tight control of southern Lebanon.

Separately, in March, the IDF accused Hezbollah of sending a terrorist to infiltrate Israel from Lebanon and plant a bomb at a junction in northern Israel. The blast seriously wounded an Israeli man.

UNIFIL was beefed up in 2006 after Israel and Hezbollah fought a 34-day war, and the force, with more than 10,000 troops and naval personnel, is tasked with monitoring a ceasefire between the two sides.

Israel and Lebanon are still technically at war.

In December an Irish soldier with UNIFIL was killed and three colleagues wounded when their convoy came under fire in south Lebanon, a Hezbollah stronghold, near the Israeli border.

Days later Hezbollah handed over to Lebanese authorities a man suspected of being the main suspect, a security official said at the time. Hezbollah denied involvement in the killing of Private Sean Rooney, 23.

Considered a terrorist organization by many Western governments, Hezbollah is the only side not to have disarmed following Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, and it is also a powerful player in Lebanese politics.

Jacob Magid, Emanuel Fabian and AFP contributed to this report. 

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