The UN Security Council resolution to extend the mandate of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) passed a vote on Thursday after eleventh-hour talks resolved differences between voting members.
UNIFIL, formed initially to ensure the withdrawal of Israeli troops after they invaded Lebanon in 1978, is present in south Lebanon along the border with Israel. The mandate was set to expire on Aug. 31.
But with Iran-backed Hezbollah and its Shia allies, the Amal Movement, having all but complete control over the southern part of Lebanon, they have blocked UN peacekeepers from carrying out their role on several occasions.
The US, UAE and UK were reportedly frustrated with the French-drafted resolution this year after Hezbollah voiced its opposition to language changes in the extension. One of the main sticking points Hezbollah criticized was authorizing UNIFIL troops to freely move and conduct operations without seeking permission or coordinating with the Lebanese government.
According to a draft resolution obtained by Al Arabiya English, after France initially removed allowing “unannounced patrols,” the following language was added back: “Demands the parties cease any restrictions and hindrances to the movement of UNIFIL personnel and guarantee the freedom of movement of UNIFIL, including by allowing announced and unannounced patrols.”
The resolution also urges Israel to expedite the withdrawal of its army from northern Ghajar and the adjacent area north of the Blue Line.
Lebanon’s caretaker foreign minister has been in New York lobbying voting members to help remove language that irked Hezbollah. After failing to convince the US and others, the minister turned to African countries, China, and Russia.
Diplomats and sources familiar with the discussions told Al Arabiya English that the voting states were prepared to abstain from voting during the scheduled session on Wednesday due to their frustration with what they saw as attempts to appease Hezbollah. The vote was delayed and shuttle diplomacy ensued.
An Emirati diplomat said that language restricting the movement of UNIFIL was unacceptable. “UNIFIL’s freedom of movement is absolutely paramount at a time when tensions in the area are rising to dangerous levels,” the diplomat told Reuters.
A State Department official said the US remained committed to UNIFIL’s mission and to the safety and security of UN peacekeepers. “UNIFIL’s independence and freedom of movement are absolutely critical elements of their ability to fulfill their mission and enshrined in the Status of Forces Agreement between UNIFIL and Lebanon, which has been active since 1995,” the State Department official told Al Arabiya English.
Asked about new efforts to expand the ability of UNIFIL to carry out its role, the State Department official said language added in last year’s mandate did not grant UNIFIL any additional authorities. However, the official said, it underscored the international community’s commitment to UNIFIL’s freedom of movement and access to key areas of concern, “which remains critical to mitigating instability along the Blue Line.”
Washington has called on Lebanon to ensure UNIFIL’s freedom of movement and access and to hold accountable those responsible for obstructing UNIFIL from implementing its mandate and for threatening the safety of UN peacekeepers.
Meanwhile, a paragraph from last year’s mandate, which allowed for additional non-lethal aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), has been removed. This aid was in the form of food and medicine for troops, who the economic crisis in Lebanon has severely impacted. Diplomats and sources told Al Arabiya English that the Lebanese government did not request this aid again and that foreign countries would not do Beirut’s bidding for them.