Israel and the United States are pushing for the United Nations to increase the scope of action for peacekeepers in Lebanon, saying they are being rendered practically useless by the Hezbollah terror group, as the world body meets to extend the mandate of the mission.
The UN Security Council is set to vote Thursday to extend the mandate for UNIFIL, a move that comes at a time of increased tension along the Israel-Lebanon border, with Hezbollah vowing to strike back at Israel for a Beirut drone attack it blames on Jerusalem.
Israel and the US, which both consider Hezbollah a terror group, have long sought to give the peacekeepers real teeth in dealing with the Shiite group, a necessity that was highlighted Wednesday when Fox News showed footage of Hezbollah men attacking a UN peacekeeper vehicle and setting it on fire.
In the video the men can be seen attacking the armored vehicle with rocks and hammers, before dousing it with gasoline and setting it on fire. They then took the weapons from the soldiers. The incident took place a year ago, but was aired for the first time Wednesday.
“Hezbollah restricts UNIFIL from carrying out its role as a UN peacekeeping force, and the footage published today showing Hezbollah terrorists attacking a UNIFIL patrol in Southern Lebanon is just the latest example of many,” Elad Strohmayer, spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy in Washington wrote in blog post on The Times of Israel.
“The fact of the matter is that UNIFIL is currently not doing its job. The Security Council must guarantee UNIFIL’s freedom of movement and allow access to all sites in UNIFIL’s mandated area,” wrote Strohmayer. “Every incident where UNIFIL’s access has been prohibited must be fully investigated and transparently reported.”
“With this upcoming vote at the UN Security Council we have the opportunity to actually give UNIFIL the ability to do what it is supposed to rather than, yet again, automatically renewing its mandate,” he wrote.
With a current 10,500-member force and 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.
The Ynet news site reported that the US was also pressing to expand the mandate of the force, specifically demanding that they have free movement in Lebanon and report on Hezbollah infractions in real-time.
In previous years, former US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley lead a campaign tget UNIFIL to actively counter Hezbollah and tackle a blatant, unauthorized arms buildup by the Iranian-backed group in southern Lebanon.
There have been periodic skirmishes along the UN-monitored demarcation line between Israel and Lebanon, who are technically still at war with each other.
In the last week tensions along the border have skyrocketed.
The Lebanese military said it opened fire on three Israeli drones that entered the country’s airspace on Wednesday night, prompting the aircraft to return to Israeli territory.
The Israel Defense Forces largely confirmed the Lebanese Armed Forces’ claims, but would not comment on where the drones had been flying at the time of the incident.
The altercation came amid soaring tensions between Israel, Lebanon and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror group, following an IDF strike on an Iranian base in Syria that killed two Hezbollah operatives on Saturday night and a drone attack in Beirut early Sunday morning that reportedly targeted two pieces of prized equipment belonging to the Iran-backed organization.
In a fiery speech on Sunday night, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vowed to blow Israeli UAVs out of the sky if they were to ever cross into Lebanese airspace.
“The time — in which Israeli planes come and bombard a place in Lebanon and the usurping entity of Palestine remains secure — has ended,” he said. “From now on, we will confront the Israeli drones in Lebanon’s skies… and we will take action to bring them down.”
Lebanese President Michel Aoun referred to the strike in Beirut as a “declaration of war” by Israel, and the country’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, said his government would be filing an official complaint to the United Nations Security Council over the “clear Israeli violation of Lebanese sovereignty,” the Lebanese news site Naharnet reported.
IDF soldiers in northern Israel have been on high alert this week over fears of a reprisal attack from Hezbollah or another Iranian proxy following Israeli airstrikes against Iran-linked targets and threats against Israel from officials in neighboring countries.
Israel warned Beirut, through US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, that the Lebanese state would be targeted by the IDF if Hezbollah is allowed to carry out attacks from Lebanese territory.
In general, Israeli officials considers the Lebanese government to be complicit in Hezbollah’s actions in the country, as it does not make a significant effort to curb the group’s activities and, according to the IDF, actively cooperates with the Iran-backed terrorist militia along the border with Israel.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report