The United Nations on Friday reported “blatant” security violations in its area of operations in southern Lebanon, as tensions between the Hezbollah terror group and Israel climbed due to a dispute over an offshore gas field.
The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has long been deployed in southern Lebanon, a Hezbollah stronghold, to maintain a barrier with Israel, as the two countries technically remain at war.
UNIFIL said on Friday that it has recently observed at least four illicit shooting ranges in its area of operations and has informed the UN Security Council.
Lebanon’s Armed Forces confirmed to UNIFIL that it did not operate the shooting ranges.
Individuals “dressed in combat attire” were seen conducting live fire exercises on the ranges, UNIFIL told The Times of Israel.
“The presence of weapons and the training activities that appear to be taking place are blatant violations of UN Security Council Resolution 1701,” which ended the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon, the UNIFIL spokesperson’s office said.
UNIFIL said it has asked the Lebanese military to conduct a joint visit to the sites, but that has not happened yet. Lebanese authorities are responsible for enforcing Resolution 1701, with the assistance of UNIFIL, but some of its stipulations have never actually gone into effect.
UNIFIL also said its peacekeepers’ freedom of movement has been increasingly restricted, including along the Blue Line, the internationally recognized dividing line between Israel and Lebanon. In some instances, individuals claimed the peacekeepers were on private property, and in others put up “physical or human barriers,” UNIFIL said.
“UNIFIL has underscored concerns to Lebanese political and security authorities at the highest levels and submitted formal requests to follow up and facilitate investigations to ensure accountability,” the spokesperson’s office said.
The organization said physical threats against its personnel have decreased in recent months, and that their freedom of movement is usually respected.
Passed unanimously by the UN Security Council in August 2006, Resolution 1701 effectively ended 34 days of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, known as the Second Lebanon War. The document called for the disarmament of all groups, including Hezbollah, and a ban on all armed forces except UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army in southern Lebanon, two stipulations that were never implemented.
UNIFIL was originally created to oversee the withdrawal of Israeli troops after a 1978 invasion. The mission was expanded in Lebanon under the UN-brokered truce after the devastating monthlong war between Israel and Hezbollah.
The UN Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland on Thursday also warned of the tensions in South Lebanon, and said ongoing Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace violated Resolution 1701.
The warnings came as Israel and Hezbollah threatened each other over a disputed gas field in the Mediterranean Sea.
Israel and Lebanon have been engaged for over a year in rare US-brokered talks aimed at resolving a dispute over rights to offshore fields thought to hold riches of natural gas, and the sides are said to be nearing an agreement.
Both countries claim some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon also claims that the Karish gas field is in disputed territory under ongoing maritime border negotiations, while Israel says it lies within its internationally recognized economic waters.
Hezbollah has upped its rhetoric in recent months as Israel and Lebanon have engaged in talks. It remains vociferously opposed to any concessions with Israel.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has consistently threatened to target Israeli offshore installations. In July, the IDF said it downed three unarmed Hezbollah drones launched at a gas rig in Karish.
On Monday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned Hezbollah that any attack on its assets could spark war, after the terror group threatened to “sever” Israel’s hands if it taps the disputed offshore field.
Gantz’s warning came after reports saying Israel’s security forces were on high alert near the northern border amid fears Hezbollah could attack in order to sabotage the negotiations.
The dispute over the maritime border is more than a decade old. In 2012, Lebanon rejected an American proposal to receive 550 square kilometers (212 square miles), or almost two-thirds of the area, while Israel would have received the remaining third.
Lebanon badly needs an agreement over the maritime border in the Mediterranean as it hopes to exploit offshore gas reserves to try to alleviate what has become the worst economic crisis in its modern history.