On Aug. 28, the United Nations Security Council unanimously voted to renew its peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, called Unifil, for another year. This unanimity, however, masked what had been a series of heated informal discussions on the nature of Unifil and the interpretation of its mandate. The United States, essentially representing Israel, threatened to veto the renewal resolution unless it included aggressive language to make the peacekeeping force more intrusive in search of “terrorist” Hezbollah weapons in its area of operation south of the Litani River to the UN demarcation line, called the Blue Line.
The remaining 14 Council members, led by the penholder, France, on behalf of Lebanon and supported by UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s recommendations, insisted that the mandate should remain, more or less, as is. Maintaining the status quo was particularly urgent, given Lebanon’s unprecedented yearlong national crisis. The country has been rocked by economic and financial collapse and a steep rise in poverty, unemployment and rampant inflation. Popular protests have helped bring down two governments and prompted a flurry of international diplomatic interventions led personally by French President Emmanuel Macron.
Moreover, on Aug. 4, a massive ammonia-nitrate blast ripped through Beirut’s port. The single-largest nonnuclear explosion on record globally and heard all the way to Cyprus, it devastated surrounding neighborhoods and traumatized a large portion of Beirut’s population. The last thing that any member state in the Security Council wanted, other than the more extremist elements in the Trump administration, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, was a destabilization of southern Lebanon, a relatively calm region patrolled by Unifil.
The mission was established in 1978 to oversee the Israeli army’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon, a process that took 22 years and created an unprecedented dilemma for a peacekeeping force operating under an occupation that, in turn, produced various leftist, nationalist and Islamist resistance groups. Hezbollah emerged as the most effective such resistance and, in the absence of the Lebanese army, came to dominate southern Lebanon in the 1990s and liberate it in 2000. It was the only time the Israeli army was forced to withdraw from Arab land essentially by force.
Unifil’s scope, budget and mandate were greatly expanded by UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which was passed in the aftermath of Israel’s unsuccessful but devastating 33-day war on Lebanon in 2006, ostensibly to crush Hezbollah. The resolution’s main objective was to ensure Israeli withdrawal from occupied land, support Lebanon’s assertion of full sovereignty in southern Lebanon and ensure there would be no weapons without the consent of the Lebanese government.
This latter provision, which essentially refers to Hezbollah’s weapons, is generally seen in the West as the most significant element of Resolution 1701. However, it is also the most misunderstood; and from the internal Lebanese context, it is the most divisive aspect. Hezbollah is a major political party in Lebanon, dominates elections in southern Lebanon and has participated in every Lebanese government since 2005.
Moreover, Hezbollah has so far succeeded, to the anger of its domestic foes, in officially legitimizing its “Resistance” status as part of the state and in support of the Lebanese Armed Forces.
Resolution 1701 also beefed up Unifil’s numbers to a maximum of 15,000 troops, a large number of which now includes European Union contingents, to work in tandem with the Lebanese army and deployed for the first time in southern Lebanon since Israel fully occupied it in 1982. Notably, given Israel’s failure to achieve its stated military objective in Lebanon to eliminate Hezbollah, the US was forced to abandon its (and Israel’s) plan to convert Unifil into an “enforcement” operation under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Instead, it accepted that Unifil would remain a more traditional peacekeeping force operating with the consent of the host nation.
For a decade after 2006, Unifil’s expanded mandate was renewed annually without much fuss in the Security Council. However, after the election of US President Donald Trump, the mandate-renewal discussions became much more heated. In 2017, the Unifil leadership held its breath until the last second before the Security Council renewal vote, as Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN at the time, had launched a scathing attack — working closely with Israel — on what she called a “blind” Unifil unable to “use its power” to uncover evidence of Hezbollah weapon stockpiles that, in fairness to Unifil, even the Israelis or Americans could not find either.
The US and Israel had to make do in 2017 with compromises to the annual mandate renewals, which included a shift in tone but not real substance. The changes largely revolved around greater efficiency and visibility — more patrols, more aggressive posturing and more evident acceleration of the Lebanese Armed Forces’ deployment of a “model regiment” to the south. The US (with Britain, another permanent Security Council member that has recently designated Hezbollah a terrorist group) have long desired a Lebanese army that might work as an anti-Hezbollah force, but that is simply impossible within Lebanon’s traditional political and social structure: the Army would split along political or sectarian lines as it did during Lebanon’s civil war, from 1975 to 1990.
In contrast, the 2018 and 2019 renewals were relatively calmer efforts, media excitement notwithstanding. The theme became more about Unifil’s effectiveness in carrying out its mission, and the Unifil renewal can was kicked down the road.
Unifil’s 2020 mandate renewal resembled the controversial one in 2017 in tone and results. Israel tried to increase pressure by loudly protesting two recent incidents — viewed in Lebanon as fabricated publicity stunts — along the Blue Line, and even launching airstrikes just days before the mandate vote, in what it claimed were Hezbollah infiltration attempts. Hezbollah and Lebanon denied this, and Unifil’s continuing investigations have found no evidence of Hezbollah movements along the Blue Line on those days, nor have they received conclusive evidence from Israel itself.
As with other such Israeli and American claims about Hezbollah weapons over the years, Unifil’s last report repeated its usual response: “While taking allegations of arms transfers seriously, the United Nations is not in a position to substantiate them independently.”
With the threat of a US veto — or reducing the renewal period to six months from a year — looming until the final day of the Unifil mandate, the US backed down and accepted a third revised French-drafted text, supported by Lebanon, all other Security Council members and Secretary-General Guterres.
So what was new? The resolution reduced the Unifil troop ceiling to 13,000 (the US wanted 11,000), though it does not change much, given that current numbers are just over 10,000. It also called for a follow-up assessment report within 60 days, based on the secretary-general’s June 2020 report, which listed recommendations to enhance Unifil’s work. However, some potentially controversial recommendations, including “enhanced technologies” of surveillance and drones were mitigated by watered-down language that the recommendations would be carried out “as appropriate” and in consultations with the host country.
Most notably, the resolution’s key themes were access and investigation. The resolution condemned “in the strongest possible terms all attempts to restrict [UNIFIL’s] freedom of movement” and “full access to sites requested by UNIFIL for the purpose of swift investigation.”
The latter was a reference to the December 2018 discovery of abandoned tunnels close to the Blue Line and a few incidents where villagers prevented Unifil patrols from entering their land to investigate suspected arms caches. The resolution wants the Lebanese authorities to finalize investigations, including one related to a brief August 2018 armed clash, and to “bring to justice” the perpetrators.
From Lebanon’s side, it is regularly noted that while these rare incidents blocking Unifil access are enumerated and condemned in mandate renewal resolutions, the daily Israeli violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty and Resolution 1701 are barely — and vaguely — mentioned. The latest UN report, in July 2020, for instance, noted that Unifil observers “recorded a daily average of 3.7 airspace violations, with 11 daily overflight hours.”
Israel also uses Lebanese airspace to attack locations in Syria and continues to occupy areas along the Blue Line. For residents in Unifil’s area of operation in southern Lebanon, Security Council indifference to their welfare and security — as the victims of decades of occupation, invasions and daily intimidation — is taken for granted, further solidifying their support for Hezbollah.
Overall, by accepting compromise and nonsubstantive amendments to the 2020 mandate, the US agreed once again to kick this can down the road. The status quo has been maintained.
Why, then, has the core substance of Unifil’s mandate repeatedly remained intact despite major pressure by the US and Israel? The reality on the ground that everyone, including the Israelis, understood was twofold: first, Unifil could never be a peace enforcement operation against Hezbollah or southern Lebanon’s civilian population, which overwhelmingly supports Hezbollah and its demonstrable success in resisting Israeli threats.
Second, Unifil’s main success has been what peacekeepers do best: keeping the peace and maintaining the status quo. Over the past decade, southern Lebanon has generally been the most peaceful region in the country. This is not because of any proactive strategy or action on Unifil’s part. Rather, Hezbollah managed after its seminal success in the 2006 war to establish a deterrence to the Israelis. As a result, neither Israel nor Hezbollah has been interested so far in war despite occasional bellicose rhetoric.
Within such a balanced deterrence, Unifil plays an important role in embodying a reassuring international presence; negotiating agreed-upon points along the demarcation line, or Blue Line; and providing useful reporting and conflict-resolution tools to help prevent border incidents — usually involving shepherds or farmers from accessing their land — from escalating.
With the US presidential election occurring on Nov. 3, the US clearly has other things to worry about than Unifil and southern Lebanon. It has allowed France, and President Macron, to force squabbling Lebanese politicians to form a new government that notably includes Hezbollah. A Joe Biden victory in the US would likely bring some calm to Lebanon and renewed negotiations with Iran over a regional deal, thus lowering the pressure on Unifil.
If Trump wins, however, we might see more battles in the Security Council to tighten the screws on Hezbollah (including pushing Unifil to its limits) and its patron, Iran. Many observers view the evangelical Pompeo and some lingering neocons in the Trump administration as the primary war advocates, given their ideologically anti-Iran and Hezbollah position. However, as Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, recently observed, Trump oscillates dramatically between two “carefully nurtured” self-images: “as a dealmaker and as a militarist.”
As such, given Trump’s unique style of rule, seemingly free of party or ideological restrictions, we might also see Pompeo and the extreme anti-Iran elements within his administration silenced or jettisoned and a deal with Iran concluded and more peaceful prospects in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Unifil will continue to patrol southern Lebanon as it has, more or less, been doing successfully for more than a decade.
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This is an opinion essay.
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Karim Makdisi is an associate professor of international politics at the American University of Beirut and a co-editor of “Land of Blue Helmets: The United Nations and the Arab World” (University of California Press, 2017). He was interviewed by PassBlue for its podcast episode on the Aug. 4, 2020, Lebanon blast. To listen: https://soundcloud.com/user-936032402/ep-28-lebanon-explosion