WASHINGTON – With 48 hours left to extend UNIFIL’s mandate in Lebanon, the US and Israel demand the UN Security Council reform the peacekeeping force, giving it greater freedom of movement and access to areas that are suspected of harboring terrorist activity.
For well over a year, Israel and the United States have been jointly working on getting the United Nations Security Council to upgrade the mandate of the international peacekeeping force based in southern Lebanon, and provide it with greater authority in an effort to weaken Hezbollah.
The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was established in 1978 and beefed up in 2006 after the Second Lebanon War ended with the passing of Security Council Resolution 1701. UNIFIL’s mandate is renewed annually in August.
Last year, the Security Council voted to renew the mandate to August 2020. The renewed mandate includes a call on the Lebanese government to allow access to UNIFIL forces and increased reporting on the transfer of weapons to terrorists in Lebanon.
A spokesperson for the US Mission in the UN told The Jerusalem Post that the Trump administration wants an effective and accountable UNIFIL, but it is long past time to ask the difficult questions about what the mission has and hasn’t achieved.
“The shadow of Iran looms large over this mission,” the spokesperson said. “With Iran’s support, Hezbollah in Lebanon has flourished, built up its arsenal of weapons, fired missiles into Israel, dug attack tunnels underneath the Lebanon-Israel border, and more.”
“Real reform of UNIFIL is an urgent necessity, and the United States is urging council members to seize this opportunity to chart a new course for the mission,” he added.
Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, sent a letter to members of the Security Council to make “a significant change” to UNIFIL’s mandate, so it could have access to the areas in which Hezbollah is operating. “There is no justification to have a powerless mission in Southern Lebanon, while Hezbollah is building its power,” he said. “Only a significant change to UNIFIL’s operation could justify its existence.”
Erdan warned that Hezbollah’s actions undermine the stability in the region and could lead to disastrous outcomes. He attached a map of Southern Lebanon with areas in which Hezbollah’s tunnels were found. Israel made the case that there is a clear correlation between areas in which UNIFIL access is denied and terror activity.
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, told the Post that the mandate should be terminated.
“This is an organization that employs 10,000 people and has a budget of a half-billion dollars,” he said. “And it cannot fulfill even the most basic functions that it has been assigned.”
“It’s throwing good money after bad,” Schanzer said. “There is no scenario in which UNIFIL will become more effective. There is no situation where the money can be better spent. There maybe could be an argument for a small office of 20 people that facilitate discussions between Lebanon and Israel.”
He said that the peacekeeping force does not aggressively look for weapons. “They don’t deter the smuggling of weapons,” Schanzer said. “They don’t challenge Hezbollah. They appear to be content with the status quo and the status quo continues to favor Hezbollah and its smuggling operation.”
“UNIFIL has done nothing to prevent Hezbollah’s build-up [of] weaponry,” he added. “By all accounts, this is an organization that has a military rivaling European military equivalents. It is basically the dominant power in Lebanon. These facts will lead any rational person to conclude that UNIFIL has failed in fulfilling its mandate in virtually every way imaginable.”
Stephane Dujarric, the spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, told reporters in New York, that “discussions on UNIFIL are really going down to the wire.” UNIFIL fulfills “a critical role,” he said, adding that “the secretary-general has been very clear on the role that UNIFIL plays.
Wednesday morning’s violent incident along the Israeli-Lebanese border highlights the need for UNIFIL, he said.
UNIFIL has said it is investigating the incident. According to Israel, the IDF struck Hezbollah posts in an aerial raid in southern Lebanon.
UNIFIL said that “the IDF informed UNIFIL that there had been small arms fire from Lebanon directed against an IDF patrol in the general area of Menara.”
Dujarric said that in the aftermath of that incident, UNIFIL Head of Mission and Force Commander Maj.-Gen. Stefano Del Col was able to liaison between both Lebanon and Israel. That kind of dialogue is very important, he said.
“It would be hard to imagine what would happen if UNIFIL was not there,” Dujarric said. “We very much hope that member states come together.”
When asked about a contingency plan if UNIFIL’s mandate was not renewed, Dujarric said, “it is pretty clear that either there is a mandate or there isn’t a mandate.”
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.