Israel welcomes mandate change for UNIFIL peacekeeping force

Foreign Ministry hails decision calling on UN troops to act more ‘decisively’ against Hezbollah weapons smuggling, thanks Trump administration for its backing

A Spanish UNIFIL peacekeeper drives an armored vehicle in the Lebanese town of Adaisseh, near the border with Israel, on January 19, 2015. (AFP/Mahmoud Zayyat)
A Spanish UNIFIL peacekeeper drives an armored vehicle in the Lebanese town of Adaisseh, near the border with Israel, on January 19, 2015. (AFP/Mahmoud Zayyat)

Israel on Friday said it welcomed the changes to the mandate of a UN peacekeeping force operating in Lebanon, saying the modifications will help stymie Hezbollah’s power and influence in the country’s southern region.

The longtime UN peacekeeping operation in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, was extended Wednesday with new directions to conduct more patrols with Lebanese forces and report when peacekeepers run into roadblocks in Hezbollah strongholds in the country’s south.

The UN Security Council unanimously approved the plan for the mission, extending it another year after a flurry of negotiations over US and Israeli desires to do more to keep Hezbollah from gathering illegal weapons.

Israel and the US sought a more robust mandate for UNIFIL to tackle what they say is a blatant, unauthorized arms buildup by the Iranian-backed militant group in southern Lebanon, which both countries consider a terror group.

Other nations, including Lebanon, didn’t want major changes in a peacekeeping force seen as playing an important role in the area’s decade of relative stability.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday that the importance of the resolution “lies in the call for UNIFIL to act more decisively and in a meaningful way to prevent Hezbollah from gaining strength in southern Lebanon.”

The Foreign Ministry also thanked the administration of US President Donald Trump for its “leadership” in pushing for the changes and expressed its gratitude to US envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley, for her “determination and commitment to fight terror and improve the situation in southern Lebanon, and for her friendliness toward Israel.”

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley is seen at a UN Security Council meeting on August 29, 2017. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley is seen at a UN Security Council meeting on August 29, 2017. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

Haley said Wednesday after the vote that “the status quo for UNIFIL was not acceptable, and we did not accept it. Haley, who has made a priority of scrutinizing the effectiveness and expense of UN peacekeeping missions, said the changes will help ensure UNIFIL “has the power and the will to do its job.”

For example, she said, Hezbollah sometimes bars peacekeepers from entering certain areas. Now, UNIFIL is being asked to provide “prompt and detailed” reports on where and why its troops were stopped.

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.

But this year, the annual exercise of renewing UNIFIL became unusually fraught.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised his criticisms of the mission personally — and publicly —with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during a joint news conference Monday, and Haley and UNIFIL’s commander openly clashed last week. The commander, Maj. Gen. Michael Beary, told The Associated Press there was no evidence of the arms traffic and stockpiling that the US and Israel describe in Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon.

Haley said his remarks show Beary is blind to a “massive flow of illegal weapons.”

This file photo taken on July 19, 2016 shows Head of Mission and Force Commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), Major General Michael Beary of Ireland (AFP/Mahmoud Zayyat)

Lebanon, which rejects the claims that Hezbollah is stashing weapons in the south, called Tuesday for renewing UNIFIL’s mandate unchanged. Its UN mission didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment after the vote. Neither Lebanon nor Israel is on the 15-member Security Council.

Council members largely wanted to keep UNIFIL as is, said French Deputy Ambassador Anne Gueguen, whose country was in charge of drafting the renewal resolution. France didn’t want to put “the delicate balance” of southern Lebanon into question, Gueguen said.

“UNIFIL, of course, can do better and can do more, but no one within this council can imagine, for one second, the environment (of stability) existing there without UNIFIL,” she said.

Italian Ambassador Sebastiano Cardi, whose country is among the biggest contributors of troops to UNIFIL, said it was important not to blur lines between peacekeepers’ duties and those of Lebanese forces.

“Promoting confusion in that regard undermines UNIFIL’s operation and strips the Lebanese authorities of their own sovereign prerogatives,” Cardi said. He said his nation was concerned about the changes but accepted them for the sake of Security Council unity.

The secretary-general has stressed that under UNIFIL’s mandate, it is primarily the Lebanese military’s responsibility to ensure the south is free of unauthorized weapons.

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