With the U.N. Security Council due to meet on Wednesday to renew the mandate of its peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah has raised its rhetoric in opposition to certain changes under discussion.
The U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, better known as UNIFIL, is a multi-national force operating in southern Lebanon that has monitored the Israeli-Lebanon border since 1978. Never intended to be a long-term presence, UNIFIL’s mandate requires the Security Council’s annual renewal.
The Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar reported that the renewal will include a series of changes that will allow UNIFIL’s activities to be coordinated in advance with the Lebanese government and army.
“There are extensive [Hezbollah] efforts behind the scenes to prevent a change in the wording of the mandate of the UNIFIL force in southern Lebanon,” Israeli officials said.
Strengthening UNIFIL’s freedom of action was among the issues Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant raised in a meeting with Secretary General António Guterres at the U.N. headquarters in New York on Tuesday.
“The potential for a violent escalation on Israel’s northern border is growing, as a result of flagrant violations by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah,” said Gallant. “The U.N. must act immediately.”
Blocking the expanded mandate would be a victory for Hezbollah, which has worked for years to restrict UNIFIL’s ability to operate.
UNIFIL was created in 1978 following cross-border attacks by Palestinian terrorists and a week-long Israeli military incursion (“Operation Litani”) into southern Lebanon.
UNIFIL’s mandate expanded after the Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. The U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1701, which called for the disarming of Hezbollah, particularly in southern Lebanon between the Litani River and the Israeli border. That disarmament has not happened.
In the past, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah called UNIFIL a “foreign force, which operates on Lebanese land without approval.”
The “blue helmet” force is currently made up of nearly 10,000 soldiers from 49 countries.
The debate over UNIFIL’s mandate comes at a complex time for both Israel and Lebanon.
In mid-August, Israel’s Security Cabinet authorized the Israel Defense Forces to take more proactive measures against Palestinian terrorists. The move was widely viewed as a threat specifically targeting the Lebanon-based Saleh al-Arouri, who commands Hamas terrorist cells in Judea and Samaria and is positioning himself to become the organization’s supreme leader.
Responding to the Cabinet decision, Nasrallah vowed that any targeted killings by Israel on Lebanese soil “will be met with a harsh response.” The Iran-backed terrorist group is the strongest force in Lebanon and is believed to have as many as 200,000 rockets.
However, some in Lebanon hope that the start of gas exploration in Lebanese waters will restrain the parties and prevent renewed hostilities. Exploratory drilling in the Kana field is expected to commence soon.
US envoy Amos Hochstein, who mediated a resolution to the Israeli-Lebanese maritime border in 2022, arrived in Beirut on Wednesday in a bid to calm the tensions. While the Lebanese government hopes Hochstein can succeed, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian is also visiting Lebanon. His visit is widely regarded as Tehran’s message against Washington’s mediation efforts.
“There is no doubt that Iran is behind the political moves that find expression in Hezbollah’s behavior and certainly in the question of the border disputes and the mandate of UNIFIL in southern Lebanon,” an Israeli source said.
The IDF bolstered its forces in the North after Hezbollah established an outpost on the Israeli side of the border.
A blurred border
The Blue Line demarcating the 120 km.-long border was created in 2000 by U.N. cartographers to verify Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, which the Security Council later certified as complete. The border runs from Rosh Hanikra on the Mediterranean coast to Mount Dov, where the Israeli-Lebanese border converges with Syria. Hezbollah does not recognize the Blue Line and disputes numerous points along the border.
Among those points is a strip of land on Mout Dov, which Israel captured from Syria. Hezbollah claims the area called Shebaa Farms belongs to Lebanon. Syria has not commented on the matter.
Hezbollah has in the past year constructed no fewer than 27 military posts along the border.
The posts were built under the guise of Green Without Borders, a Hezbollah-affiliated organization that poses as an environmental non-governmental organization. Hezbollah launched the project in parallel to Israel’s construction of a fortified perimeter fence along the entire border. Israel’s effort to fortify the border was prompted by the discovery of Hezbollah cross-border attack tunnels in 2018, a discovery that also damaged UNIFIL’s credibility in Israel.