UNIFIL 'is not fulfilling its purpose,' ambassador writes

Hezbollah carried out border shooting under peacekeepers’ noses, Israel tells UN

In letter to Security Council, Israeli envoy Gilad Erdan warns that escalation of violence could have ‘terrible consequences for Lebanon’

Illustrative: The Israeli military fires flares into the sky over the Lebanese border on August 25, 2020. (Courtesy)
Illustrative: The Israeli military fires flares into the sky over the Lebanese border on August 25, 2020. (Courtesy)

Israel’s envoy to the United Nations demanded on Wednesday that the world body crack down on its peacekeeping force in Lebanon and deliver meaningful action against Hezbollah following a Tuesday night exchange of fire between the Israel Defense Forces and the terror group.

“The last attack directed at IDF forces, together with Hezbollah’s strengthening and its activities in south Lebanon, raise the chances of escalation on [Israel’s] northern border that could have terrible consequences for Lebanon and the entire region,” Ambassador Gilad Erdan wrote in a letter to the UN Security Council.

He demanded “immediate steps” be taken by the UN to urge the Lebanese government and international peacekeeping force UNIFIL to act, according to a statement to the press by the Israeli mission to the world body Thursday morning.

Erdan attached to his letter an aerial photo with Hezbollah’s estimated firing position marked out.

Aerial photo showing the Israel-Lebanon border area near the town of Manara detailing the positions of forces during the August 25, 2020, altercation between a Hezbollah cell and IDF troops, as submitted to the UN Security Council by Israel on August 27. (Courtesy Israel’s UN mission)

The Hezbollah force, according to Israel, was situated right in between two UN posts, barely 110 yards from the closer one.

The photo “shows UNIFIL’s powerlessness and the fact that it is not fulfilling its purpose,” Israel’s UN mission said Thursday.

The IDF on Wednesday night also released aerial footage from the border showing the location from which the sniper cell opened fire at the soldiers, between the two UN posts.

For its part, UNIFIL announced on Wednesday it was launching an investigation into the incident, just as the UN is set to vote on extending its peacekeeping mandate in southern Lebanon.

“I have launched an urgent investigation and I call on both parties to fully cooperate with UNIFIL to help determine the facts,” UNIFIL commander Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col said in a statement.

Then Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan at a ceremony to install his replacement Amir Ohana, held at the Public Security Ministry in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the IDF’s initial investigation of the incident, at 10:40 p.m. on Tuesday Hezbollah snipers fired two shots from a small arms weapon at IDF combat intelligence troops operating near the Israeli community of Manara near the Lebanese border. The shots, fired from 200-300 meters (660-990 feet) away, missed their target, hitting a nearby object.

In response to the Hezbollah attack, Israeli artillery fired a number of flares and smoke shells into the air as troops searched the area for potential border breaches. A short while later, Israeli aircraft bombed a number of Hezbollah observation posts near the frontier, the military said.

What appeared to be the first Israeli airstrikes against Hezbollah targets inside Lebanon since the 2006 Second Lebanon War were meant to indicate to the terror group that the IDF would react more forcefully to attacks than it has until now, yet were not so aggressive that Hezbollah would be forced to retaliate and risk all-out war.

Spanish UN peacekeepers patrolling along the Lebanese-Israeli border pass a Hezbollah flag, in the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Kila, September 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

“The situation along the Blue Line has since returned to calm and UNIFIL is maintaining continuous presence in the area in coordination with the parties,” according to UNIFIL.

Earlier Wednesday, Erdan submitted a request to the UN Security Council to strengthen UNIFIL’s mandate, allowing it to more effectively enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War and demanded all armed groups besides the Lebanese military remain north of the country’s Litani River.

Under its current mandate, UNIFIL is not able to enter private property without permission, which Erdan said makes the peacekeeping force “neutered” as it is not able to ensure Hezbollah is not building up arms and forces in private homes and land.

Israel and the US have been pushing for the Security Council to both cut the size of the peacekeeping force and bolster its ability to do its job, when a yearly extension of the UNIFIL mandate comes up for a vote at the Security Council on Friday. The US had reportedly threatened to veto the mandate if changes, resisted by Lebanon and other Security Council members, were not adopted.

Tuesday night’s exchange came amid lingering tensions along the border after Hezbollah last month swore revenge for the death of one of its fighters in an airstrike outside Damascus on July 20 that was widely attributed to Israel.

The Lebanese military said Israel launched 117 flare shells and about 100 shells, some of them explosive and the rest for smoke screens along the Lebanese border. Some of the shells, as well as igniting fires in forests in the area, caused material damage to a house and a goat shed, according to the LAF. The IDF acknowledged firing dozens of artillery shells into southern Lebanon as flares and for smoke screens.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, left, speaks with head of the Northern Command Maj. Gen. Amir Baram, center-right, and commander of the Galilee Division Brig. Gen. Shlomi Binder, right, in the Northern Command’s headquarters in Safed on August 26, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi visited the Northern Command on Wednesday to discuss the exchange of fire with Hezbollah, the military said.

“The chief of staff was impressed by the operational and intelligence capabilities of the troops in the field and commended the troops level of readiness,” the military said.

Tuesday night’s exchange was not the first incident along the Lebanese border after the death of the Hezbollah operative on July 20.

On July 27, the IDF said it thwarted an apparent Hezbollah sniper attack, driving the terrorist operatives back across the border before they could open fire at Israeli troops. In the weeks that followed, the military also said it prevented at least one other infiltration and brought down a Hezbollah drone flown into Israeli territory from Lebanon.

After initially bracing for a retaliation by Hezbollah by deploying additional troops along the border, the IDF began scaling down its reinforcements following the massive explosion at the Beirut Port earlier this month. The military believed that the terror group — a major power broker in Lebanese politics — would focus its energy on Lebanon’s domestic issues rather than carry seek to exact revenge on Israel, though Hezbollah maintained that its retaliation was still to come.

Israeli soldiers stand near artillery howitzers deployed near the Lebanese border in northern Israel on August 26, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The Tuesday night clash also came exactly one year after the IDF killed two Hezbollah members in an airstrike on an Iran-controlled facility in Syria that the military said was used to launch attacks on Israel with explosives-laden drones.

In response to the deaths of the two Hezbollah operatives, the terror group conducted an anti-tank guided missile attack on Israeli military targets a week later. One missile narrowly missed an IDF armored ambulance with five soldiers inside.

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