On 4 August, Lebanese civilians attacked a UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) patrol in the south of the country after blocking a road in Majdal Zoun area. The UN Security Council expressed “the need for the conduct of a credible investigation to determine the exact circumstances of this attack” following the incident. Nevertheless, the southern area along the Blue (Armistice) Line calmed down shortly after the clash, according to a statement by UNIFIL’s spokesperson Andrea Tenenti. The Interim Force also announced its cooperation with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to look further into the details of the clash.
The incident happened ahead of the expiration date of UNIFIL’s current mandate on 31 August. Lebanon’s President Michael Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri have both urged the Security Council to extend the mandate for another year. Major General Stefano Del Col assumed command of UNIFIL on 7 August, succeeding Major General Michael Beary in the role.
UNIFIL’s mandate renewal is pivotal for Lebanon. The peacekeeping forces have played a significant role in stabilising the southern region, cooperating with the LAF and demining the area. A statement by the Permanent Representative of the Netherlands to the UN, HE Karel van Oosterom, on 15 August noted that negotiations are taking place to ensure that the mandate renewal will enhance stability. No mention was made about the issue of Hezbollah, which has shaken UNIFIL’s image and role in the area.
The UN Interim Force in Lebanon began its mission in 1978 with three main tasks that it failed to accomplish: to ensure the withdrawal of Israel from Southern Lebanon; to restore government authority over the entire country; and reinstate peace and security. Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended in 1990 following the Ta’if Agreement between the warring parties.
In 2006, following the 34-day July war between Hezbollah and Israel, the Security Council brokered Resolution 1701 which led to the cessation of hostilities with three main tasks: maintaining security along the Blue Line; reintroducing the Lebanese Armed Forces to the south; and ensuring that weapons in Lebanon are held by Lebanese government forces only. The resolution re-authorised UNIFIL’s presence with a robust role to operate along the Blue Line. Nevertheless, it did not task the Interim Force with disarming Hezbollah, but a more limited role under Chapter 6 of the UN Charter.
UNIFIL’s new tasks gave it more flexibility to operate between Lebanon and Israel. As a result, it initiated an agreement known as the Tripartite Forum. This became a successful example of conflict management in an extremely hostile area. Since 2006, UNIFIL has presided over hundreds of regular meetings between Lebanese and Israeli military officers. The process aims to mitigate any potential escalation in Southern Lebanon, clarifying misunderstandings and resolving minor incidents.
In August 2010, UNIFIL held a tripartite meeting after an exchange of fire between Israeli and Lebanese forces in El Adeisse, across the Blue Line, resulting in loss of life. The parties agreed to reinstate their commitment to Resolution 1701 and work with UNIFIL to avoid future escalations.
Moreover, UNIFIL acts as a vital arbitrator when Israeli forces seize Lebanese citizens if they violate the Blue Line. The Interim Force then coordinates with the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in order to defuse the tension and return the detainees to Lebanon. For instance, the IDF apprehended a Lebanese shepherd and a woman on 28 March and 2 May respectively this year. UNIFIL coordinated their release and return to Lebanon with Israel.
The peacekeepers have also played an important role in demining the south. In collaboration with UN Mine Action Services (UNMAS) and Lebanon Mine Action Centre (LMAC), the peacekeepers have removed explosives and landmines, and educated locals on mine-related problems. In 2017 alone, UNIFIL destroyed 317 antipersonnel mines around UN bases and educated 2,560 children about mine risks.
The LAF has been supported by UNIFIL in various ways, such as equipment donations and training, allowing the Lebanese troops to be able to serve the community more effectively and strengthen their own capabilities. Last year, for example, UNIFIL donated $400,000 worth of UN-owned assets which included logistical items, technical equipment and storage containers under the strategic dialogue process between the Interim Force and the LAF.
Furthermore, UNIFIL has played an important role in conducting numerous joint exercises and training for the LAF. After 2006, the Lebanese government deployed soldiers in the southern region between the Blue Line and the River Litany in response to Resolutions 1701 (2006) and 2373 (2017). The deployment played a role in accelerating the cooperation between UNIFIL and the LAF. The Estonian peacekeepers, for example, showed Lebanese soldiers the mechanisms to scan for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in July last year. A month later, UNIFIL’s Maritime Task Force conducted a joint exercise with the Lebanese navy to enhance the latter’s capabilities to safeguard the country’s territorial waters.
With almost 10,000 troops from 42 nations, UNIFIL has maintained around 13,500 intensive operations every month. Thus, its presence is crucial for the development and strengthening of the Lebanese Armed Forces and the stabilisation of the region. Furthermore, UNIFIL has a vital role in preventing the ongoing maritime dispute from escalating; Lebanon and Israel have contradictory claims over a 900 square kilometre patch of sea which has potential oil reserves and natural gas worth billions of dollars.
It is very clear that UNIFIL has become a vital factor in maintaining stability in Southern Lebanon. There is, therefore, a strong incentive to renew its annual mandate not only for next year, but for the years to come.