Iran-backed Hezbollah wary of US pressure over UN peacekeepers

Hezbollah fears the US will finally succeed in imposing changes to UNIFIL's mandate.
Thursday 28/05/2020
A UNIFIL armoured vehicle is parked under a portrait of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah  near the Lebanese border with Israel, last January. (AFP)
A UNIFIL armoured vehicle is parked under a portrait of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah  near the Lebanese border with Israel, last January. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Debate over the role of UN peacekeepers in southern Lebanon is raging again as the UN Security Council prepares to vote to renew the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon's (UNIFIL's) mandate.

The debate comes at a time when Hezbollah fears the US will finally succeed in imposing changes to UNIFIL's mandate.

Hezbollah’s concerns were evident on Tuesday when the head of the Iran-backed Shia movement rejected a US request to empower the UN peacekeeping force patrolling the border with Israel.

“The Americans, as the result of Israeli demands, are raising the issue of changing the nature of UNIFIL’s mission,” Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said in a radio interview to mark 20 years since Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon.

“Lebanon has refused to change UNIFIL’s mission, but Israel wants… it to have the right to raid and search private properties, and the Americans are pressuring Lebanon on this matter,” Nasrallah said.

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab, however, after visiting the UN peacekeepers in the country’s south near the border with Israel a day later, described their presence as “necessary and urgent” in light of ongoing “violations by Israel of Lebanon’s sovereignty by land, sea and air.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab reviews the honour guard of the United Nations peacekeepers, upon his arrival at their headquarters in the southern coastal border town of Naqoura, Lebanon, May 27. (AP)
Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab reviews the honour guard of the United Nations peacekeepers, upon his arrival at their headquarters in the southern coastal border town of Naqoura, Lebanon, May 27. (AP)

The quibble over UNIFIL's mandate comes up every year before it is renewed in the summer.

Israel is calling for major changes to the way the mission in southern Lebanon operates on the ground, demanding that it have access to all sites and freedom of movement, and that it report back to the Security Council if it is being blocked.

In August last year, the UN Security Council voted to renew UNIFIL’s mandate for a year.

But the resolution included a requirement — on the insistence of the United States, diplomats said — for the UN secretary-general to conduct an evaluation of the UNIFIL mission and its staff before June 1, 2020.

“We are not against UNIFIL staying,” Nasrallah said. But “the time of deeming Lebanon to be weak is over, and Israel cannot impose conditions on Lebanon, even behind an American mask.”

In early May, US ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft claimed UNIFIL was being “prevented from fulfilling its mandate” and Hezbollah had “been able to arm itself and expand operations, putting the Lebanese people at risk."

The Security Council “must either pursue serious change to empower UNIFIL or realign its staffing and resources with tasks it can actually accomplish,” she wrote on Twitter.

Nasrallah spoke after a dispute broke out late May 25 in the southern village of Blida between Finnish peacekeepers and residents, after a UNIFIL military vehicle hit two cars and a motorbike, the National News Agency reported.

Young men cut off the road in protest, and the Finnish peacekeepers had to be escorted out by the Lebanese army, it said.

 On May 26, surrounding villages in a joint statement accused the patrol of “entering and searching people’s vineyards and private properties," describing such actions as unacceptable.

Lebanon and Israel technically remain at war and Israel has repeatedly accused Iran-backed Hezbollah of impeding the peacekeepers from carrying out their mandate.

The peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon was originally created to oversee the withdrawal of Israeli troops after the 1978 invasion.

The mission was expanded after a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah militants so that peacekeepers could deploy along the Lebanon-Israel border to help Lebanese troops extend their authority into their country’s south for the first time in decades.