Lebanon welcomes extension of UN peacekeeping mandate

Jamie Prentis & Thomas Helm

The National  /  September 1, 2023

Resolution was passed after France and US reached compromise on language regarding the freedom of movement of troops.

Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati has welcomed the UN Security Council’s decision to renew the mandate of the UN peacekeeping force in the country, despite the terms not meeting all of the government’s demands.

Beirut sought a return to the terms of the 2021 renewal, under which the freedom of movement of soldiers in the UN Interim Force in Lebanon was more restricted than in 2022.

The resolution to extend mandate of UNIFIL, which patrols the UN-demarcated border between southern Lebanon and Israel, was passed after a compromise was reached between France and the US over the language regarding freedom of movement.

The debate over the renewal of the mandate, which was set to expire on Thursday, centred on whether UNIFIL had to notify Lebanese authorities before going out on missions.

The final text says “UNIFIL does not require prior authorization or permission to undertake its mandated tasks” and that “UNIFIL is authorized to conduct its operation independently, while continuing to co-ordinate with the government of Lebanon”.

Mikati welcomed the latter clause, saying it “takes into account a key element requested by Lebanon, concerning the role of UNIFIL to operate “in co-ordination with the Lebanese government”.

“What has been achieved is an essential step to safeguard Lebanon’s rights and sovereignty,” he said.

The Security Council resolution also calls for UNIFIL to be allowed unimpeded access to the UN-demarcated frontier between Israel and Lebanon.

Lebanon’s UN representative Jeanne Mrad said the “text unfortunately did not reflect all of our concerns”.

“This freedom of movement should be upheld, yes, but also should involve controls,” she said.

Hezbollah, the armed group that wields significant influence in south of the country, has faced accusations of impeding UNIFIL’s access to the area.

The role of UNIFIL has been a cause of debate on both sides of the border.

Orna Mizrahi, a former deputy national security adviser to the Israeli government, said “Israel is not satisfied with what UNIFIL soldiers are doing”.

“From our perspective they’re not fulfilling their mandate,” she said.

“The main purpose of their mandate was to restrict the presence of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. The reality today is that Hezbollah is on the border and southern Lebanon is full of weapons.”

UNIFIL, formed initially to ensure the withdrawal of Israeli troops after the invasion of Lebanon in 1978, had its mandate strengthened in 2006 after Hezbollah and Israel fought a month-long war.

Hezbollah has previously condemned any provision that would mean UNIFIL did not co-ordinate with Lebanese authorities. An official in the Iran-backed group did not respond to a request for comment.

Mizrahi said that “while UNIFIL troops are not fulfilling their mandate, it’s true that they are helpful sometimes”.

“They co-ordinate trilateral co-operation with Israel and Lebanon’s army, for example,” she said,

“They can also solve problems and get a close picture of what’s going on the ground.

“They occasionally act along the border and prevent escalation. Their usefulness is a big debate in Israel.

“I think they’re better than nothing. This is the strategy that the government is currently adopting. Rather than saying UNIFIL shouldn’t be there, it is trying to find ways to improve their mandate.”

Last December, an Irish UNIFIL soldier was killed and three others were injured when their vehicle came under fire in southern Lebanon – but outside of the normal area of operations for the peacekeeping mission.

The attack took place in a Hezbollah stronghold, although the group denies any involvement.

Jamie Prentis is a reporter at the London bureau of The National

Thomas Helm is Jerusalem correspondent at The National