Its purpose is to diffuse tensions between neighbors that have long been in a state of war. But the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, known simply as UNIFIL, can’t save Lebanon from itself.
Last week, the UN Security Council held closed consultations on UNIFIL’s implementation, as well as the impending August 31 expiration of its yearly mandate and almost-assured renewal. Forty-three years after its birth, the “interim” portion of UNIFIL has become somewhat of a misnomer, and it does not look like it will end anytime soon.
Select security experts fear that Lebanon’s downward spiral, which some lay at the feet of the Hizbullah terrorist organization, may spark a conflict with Israel as Hizbullah seeks to shift blame or assert further control. The commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces – perhaps the only institution left in Lebanon that is respected by the Lebanese people – said recently that his country’s military is on the verge of collapse, unable to pay its soldiers’ salaries. If that were to occur, then UNIFIL, which mainly serves as a tripartite deconfliction mechanism between the Israel Defense Forces, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the United Nations, may have trouble reaching anyone in Beirut should local sectarian militias rise in the wake of the LAF’s fall.
“Given the state that Lebanon is in right now, it is unlikely that any type of change will be made to UNIFIL. There will almost certainly be a straight technical rollover from last year’s mandate,” David Schenker, former US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told The Media Line. Schenker is now the Taube Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and formerly the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel) country director in the US Defense Department under then-President George W. Bush.
“There have been some defections (from the LAF). The pay was $800 a month for enlisted officers. It’s now worth less than $70 a month. The Qataris are delivering around 80 tons of food a month to keep the army fed,” said Schenker, who also said he believes talk of the LAF’s imminent collapse is overblown.
Lebanon is currently in a state of economic free fall and political paralysis, which are intertwined.
On Monday, Lebanese billionaire businessman Najib Mikati secured enough votes in parliamentary consultations to be designated the next prime minister, tasked with navigating Lebanon’s sectarian, power-sharing structure to secure an agreement on a cabinet equipped to address the country’s financial meltdown. Lebanon has been run by a caretaker administration for nearly a year, after the government’s resignation in the wake of a huge port explosion that tore through large parts of Beirut. In addition, the country’s currency collapsed, leading to massive job losses. It is Lebanon’s worst financial crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war. A succession of prime minister-designates have handed in their mandates after failing to form a cohesive government, and world powers have refused to prop up the economy until there are at least some signs of stability.
Last year, Schenker led negotiations between Israel and Lebanon – hosted by the UN – on their disputed maritime borders, the resolution of which could have led to a major influx of oil and gas revenues for Lebanon. But, after several positive rounds of talks, the Lebanese side shifted its demands, and the ballooning area of the Mediterranean Sea that it suddenly claimed as its own led to a collapse in discussions.
“Lebanon never ceases to disappoint. It could use the money, and we were hoping they would compromise based on previous negotiations, but Hizbullah and other allies looking to profit directly from this got in the way,” Schenker said.
Given the state that Lebanon is in right now, it is unlikely that any type of change will be made to UNIFIL. There will almost certainly be a straight technical rollover from last year’s mandate
Just last week, two rockets were fired at northern Israel from Lebanon. The IDF responded by firing artillery shells at the source of the launches. A UNIFIL official told The Media Line that “both the Israeli and Lebanese sides were responsive” to the incident and that there were no delays from Beirut, despite the military’s predicament. It is still business as usual, and all parties continue to communicate through the liaison mechanism,” the official said the day after the latest incident.
“The rhetoric that the media is pushing doesn’t reflect the reality on the ground,” said the official, demurring when asked whether UNIFIL has any plan in place should the LAF collapse or the overall security situation deteriorate.
On Monday, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, met with UN Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix, informing him that “Lebanon desires to extend the mandate of international forces operating in Southern Lebanon, without any modifications in number and missions, because of the benefit in maintaining security and stability in the South.”
Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab also met with Lacroix and a host of UNIFIL officials on Monday.
UNIFIL was created as a peacekeeping mission by a pair of United Nations Security Council resolutions in March 1978 to confirm Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon, restore peace and security, and assist the Lebanese government in restoring its authority over the area. It followed an Israeli invasion in the area, on the heels of a Palestinian insurgency of south Lebanon and the Lebanese Civil War. On March 11, 1978, Palestine Liberation Organization operatives carried out the Coastal Road massacre within Israel, killing 38 Israeli civilians, including 13 children on a hijacked bus. In response, Israeli forces invaded southern Lebanon, from which the PLO operated regularly during the 1970s. Israel Defense Forces troops occupied the entire southern part of the country except for the city of Tyre and its surrounding area in what is known as Operation Litani.
Following the 2006 Lebanon War, the Security Council adjusted UNIFIL’s mission, adding mandates for, among other things, monitoring the cessation of hostilities, accompanying and supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces as they deployed throughout the south of Lebanon, and extending its assistance to help ensure humanitarian access to civilian populations and the voluntary and safe return of displaced persons.
UNIFIL troops, numbering around 10,250 from 44 countries, are largely based in southern Lebanon between the Litani River in the north and the Blue Line – the disputed border between Israel and Lebanon – in the south. UNIFIL also has a Maritime Task Force that operates along the entire length of the Lebanese coastline.
But, UNIFIL has failed in one of its core missions, as evidenced by Hizbullah’s effective control over south Lebanon. The Iranian proxy and designated terrorist organization has developed a state-within-a-state, growing more powerful than the Lebanese Armed Forces. Hizbullah has threatened Israel with war countless times, and its formidable arsenal of rockets, along with the terror tunnels it digs into Israeli territory, have the region on a near-constant edge. Hizbullah doesn’t recognize the validity of the Blue Line, claiming Lebanon has been cheated out of rightful territory.
“UNIFIL is still not being provided access to all of south Lebanon. Hizbullah constantly obstructs its operations and, as a result, it’s not able to carry out its mandate,” said Schenker, echoing long-standing complaints of UNIFIL’s impotence in the face of Hizbullah.
Last year, with Schenker leading the charge from his position at the State Department, the US pushed for major change to the UNIFIL mandate. In the end, a Security Council agreement mainly brought a symbolic reduction in the maximum number of troops, which already had been below capacity.
“The French are the penholders [the member of the Security Council that leads the negotiation and drafting of resolutions on a particular Council agenda item] on UNIFIL, and they are reluctant to make any changes to the mandate. Secretary Pompeo threatened to veto the mandate if there weren’t some changes made last year,” said Schenker, referring to the then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“The other thing we pushed for was additional reporting requirements, and we continued to press UNIFIL to implement recommendations and install technical equipment to aid its surveillance. All of it is being obstructed by Hizbullah. This is what we’re paying $125 million a year for,” said Schenker, approximating the US contribution to UNIFIL’s $475 million annual budget. Schenker is scheduled to testify about Lebanon before a congressional committee later this week.
UNIFIL is still not being provided access to all of south Lebanon. Hizbullah constantly obstructs its operations and, as a result, it’s not able to carry out its mandate
The Israeli Mission to the UN provided The Media Line with a copy of a letter that Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan sent to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last week, in advance of discussions on UNIFIL’s mandate renewal.
“Since the adoption of Security Council Resolution 2539 (2020), Hizbullah, the Iranian proxy in Lebanon, continued its presence and undisturbed military entrenchment in UNIFIL’s Area of Operation, and along the Blue Line. Hizbullah’s precision-guided missiles program is the most alarming expression of these efforts, which are carried out in blatant violation of Security Council Resolutions including 1701 (2006) and 1559 (2004). Hizbullah’s terrorist activity poses a threat not only to Israel and its citizens, but also to the people of Lebanon, by purposely placing its weapons and ammunition warehouses in the midst of civilian population,” the letter said.
Erdan sent Guterres an accompanying map, ostensibly to demonstrate a correlation between the areas to which UNIFIL is repeatedly denied access and the areas from which Hizbullah conducts its terrorist activities. The map cites Guterres’ own reports on UNIFIL’s restricted movements, showing a strategic overlap with areas which have served as ground for anti-tank missile attacks, attempted terror attacks and cross-border tunnels. The map also infers that Green Without Borders, which calls itself a Lebanese environmental organization that plants trees along the border, operates a number of forward facilities which Hizbullah uses for its own activities. Green Without Borders has long been accused of being a front for Hizbullah military operatives disguised as civilians and in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, while UNIFIL reports continue to claim that no evidence has been found of violations in Green Without Borders facilities.
For its part, Lebanon accuses Israel of repeated violations of various resolutions, most often when Israel uses Lebanese airspace in order to conduct airstrikes in Syria.
Even with sporadic deadly incidents, there have been no major hostilities between the two sides since the 34-day-long 2006 Lebanon War, when Hizbullah operatives fired rockets at Israeli border towns as a diversion for an anti-tank missile attack on two armored Humvees patrolling the Israeli side of the border fence, which resulted in the killing of eight Israeli soldiers and the kidnapping of two others. This led to massive Israeli airstrikes and a ground invasion that aimed at ending Hizbullah’s control but which only seemed to strengthen it. At the time of the conflict, UNIFIL had a small peacekeeping force. The war led to a Security Council mandate to disarm Hizbullah and a bolstered UNIFIL troop presence to go with it. While some correlate UNIFIL’s increased operations with the relative calm since 2006, others say it’s mere coincidence.
“Hizbullah will make its decisions with or without UNIFIL, which has not played a substantial role in maintaining peace. In fact, Hizbullah may use UNIFIL troops as human shields in the next conflict,” Schenker assessed.
The Security Council will meet in late August to again renew the interim force’s mandate. This will come weeks after the anniversary of the Aug. 4, 2020 Beirut port blast, which some fear could trigger renewed protests over government dysfunction and lack of accountability, placing the spotlight once again on the inability of the LAF and UNIFIL to disband Hizbullah.