UN Security Council extends peacekeeping mission in Lebanon for one year

Ismaeel Naar & Adla Massoud

The National  /  August 31, 2023

Vote follows row over whether UN troops must give Lebanese authorities advance notice of missions.

UN peacekeepers will remain in Lebanon for another year to police a fragile peace after last-minute crunch talks on Thursday.

The Security Council passed Resolution 2695 to extend the UN Interim Force in Lebanon’s (UNIFIL) deployment with 13 votes in favour, including the UAE. No state voted against the resolution, while Russia and China abstained.

The vote came after a compromise between France and the US on the language about the freedom of movement of UN troops, who have been deployed for decades between Israeli forces and Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah militia, with the two sides clashing repeatedly and fighting a brief but highly destructive war in 2006.

The vote centred on whether UNIFIL troops had to notify Lebanese authorities before going out on missions.

The UAE, the US and the UK had originally objected to the text of the draft resolution, which they saw as limiting the freedom of movement of UNIFIL’s forces inside Lebanon.

A UAE amendment to the resolution states that UNIFIL must have unimpeded access along the Lebanese-Israeli border and “condemns in the strongest terms” any attempt to deny access.

Lana Nusseibeh, the UAE’s ambassador to the UN, said following the vote that Hezbollah had been “hampering UNIFIL’s freedom of movement, and its ability to reach all important sites”.

“There were last-minute discussions on the language of France’s draft, who is the penholder of the resolution, and who agreed to make a slight edit to the text,” a diplomatic source told The National.

A planned vote on Wednesday to renew approval for the peacekeeping mission in Lebanon was delayed when France held several last-minute discussions with the US and the UAE.

UNIFIL, formed initially to ensure the withdrawal of Israeli troops after the invasion of Lebanon in 1978, is present in south Lebanon along the border with Israel. Its mandate was set to expire on Thursday.

The force was bolstered after the 2006 war, during which at least 1,000 Lebanese, mainly civilians, and 121 Israelis, mostly soldiers, died. Its expanded mandate allowed peacekeepers to help the Lebanese army keep parts of the south free of weapons and armed personnel other than those of the state.

That sparked friction with Hezbollah, which effectively controls southern Lebanon, despite the presence of the Lebanese army. Hezbollah is heavily armed and is Lebanon’s most powerful political force.

In December, an Irish peacekeeper was killed when his UNIFIL vehicle came under fire in southern Lebanon. A Lebanese military tribunal has accused members of Hezbollah of involvement in the killing, though the group has officially denied involvement.

According to the latest draft of the resolution, seen by The National before the vote, parties must “cease any restrictions and hindrances to the movement of UNIFIL personnel and guarantee the freedom of movement of UNIFIL”.

France had initially added language spelling out that peacekeepers should co-ordinate with the Lebanese government and deleted text from last year’s council resolution that demanded all parties allow “announced and unannounced patrols” by UN troops.

A source at the UN said that the French resolution was drafted in consultation with the Lebanese government through Lebanon’s acting representative to the UN Jeanne Mrad. France had expected less of an objection.

“Members had objected to the deletion of the texts involving announced and unannounced patrols but after much discussion, France had added it back in,” the source told The National.

Speaking following the vote, Nusseibeh harshly criticized Hezbollah, saying it had made “a mockery” of past UN Security Council resolutions “over the past year, on a daily basis”.

“It has erected concrete military outposts and observation towers, conducted military drills with live fire and prevented UNIFIL’s freedom of movement while brazenly attacking peacekeeping forces,” she told the council.

While it voted in favour of the resolution in its final form, the UAE said it would have preferred the resolution to have also included language addressing the movement of Lebanon-based organization Green Without Borders.

GWB, which was sanctioned by the US last year, has provided support to and cover for Hezbollah’s operations in southern Lebanon along the Blue Line between Lebanon and Israel over the past decade while publicly presenting itself as an environmental group.

We would have also preferred clear references to the increasing obstacles, hampering UNIFIL’s freedom of movement, and its ability to reach all important sites, including areas where containers are placed by the Hezbollah-affiliated Green Without Borders,” Nusseibeh said.

“The language around locations of interest should help UNIFIL monitor this activity more closely in future.”

The UAE said it was also eager to keep language surrounding the village of Al-Ghajar but was disappointed that it was removed as part of negotiations to ensure the passage of the resolution.

Al Ghajar is a border village partly claimed by Lebanon that has been fully enveloped into Israel by a fence.

“We are disappointed with the needless compromise to remove the unqualified reference to the Israeli occupation of Al-Ghajar, which was in previous drafts and, we think, enjoyed widespread support in this Council,” the UAE ambassador to the UN said.

Lebanon’s caretaker Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib met UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in New York on Monday to inform him of his country position, which was that it be notified before any action by UNIFIL.

Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah warned on Monday that even if the Security Council adopted the same language as last year on the freedom of movement of UN troops, it would “remain ink on paper”.

“The people will not allow [it],” he said in a televised address on Monday. “There is no intention to use weapons, but … people in the south will not allow a decision to be implemented despite the Lebanese government’s rejection of it.”

Following Wednesday’s delay on the vote, Israel’s permanent delegate to the UN warned that the country was close to carrying out a military campaign against Lebanon.

Israel is “the nearest to launching military action in Lebanon since the 2006 [war]”, Gilad Erdan told Army Radio, citing what he called Hezbollah’s escalation along the border.

Ismaeel Naar is The National’s Arab Affairs Editor

Adla Massoud is The National’s UN & NY Correspondent