Debate is raging in Lebanon over the extension of the term of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) that operates in the South. The UN Security Council is expected to meet soon to issue a resolution that would extend the term for another year.
Beirut appears at a loss over whether to commit to the international push to expand the duties of the peacekeepers that would grant them the authority to operate independently from or with prior coordination with the Lebanese army.
Such a move would be seen as a provocation to Hezbollah that is wary of UNIFIL and believes that it is spying on its activities in the South and inspecting whether the party was storing weapons in houses in border villages.
Caretaker Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib is in New York where he is trying to persuade concerned countries of the need to maintain the cooperation between the army and UNIFIL.
A ministerial source told Asharq Al-Awsat that caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati is in contact with Bou Habib and has been clear that the government would reject any resolution that would undermine security and stability in the South.
The source said a return to the resolution that was adopted before 2022 would protect the Lebanese people and UNIFIL. It would limit clashes that have taken place between parties and civilians with the peacekeepers in their area of operation.
“The UN troops in the South are peacekeepers, not deterrence forces that would impose their will on the Lebanese people,” remarked the source.
Experts agree that any resolution that goes against Lebanon’s interest will have security, political and legal implications on both the people and UNIFIL.
Military expert Dr. Hisham Jaber warned that any amendment to UNIFIL’s duties will be a “major provocation” to Hezbollah and “may expose the international troops to danger.”
In remarks to Asharq Al-Awsat he urged the Lebanese negotiator to reject the amendment, which “is primarily an Israeli demand.”
Expanding the duties of the international forces will be interpreted as allowing them to carry out espionage and violate the privacy of people’s homes, as well as the people’s freedoms, he went on to say.
Jaber underlined the Lebanese state’s right to impose its conditions given that UNIFIL is deployed on Lebanese territories.
Moreover, he dismissed the peacekeepers’ importance in preserving Lebanon’s security, noting: “They have never guaranteed Lebanon’s security. They have been deployed in the South for 45 years and could not prevent the Israeli invasions of 1978, 1982 and 1996.”
Furthermore, he warned that any change to the peacekeepers’ duties would be a challenge to the international community and a test to its ability to carry out its resolutions given Hezbollah’s opposition to the resolution.
“If the duties are expanded and the UN forces enter villages, then Hezbollah will lie in the shadows and leave the people the freedom to confront them on the ground,” he predicted.
Last year, a soldier from UNIFIL’s Irish contingent was killed after a convoy of two armored utility vehicles carrying eight personnel traveling to Beirut came under small arms fire.
Residents of the southern town of al-Aqbiyah, just outside UNIFIL’s area of operations in the South, confronted the convoy for taking a different route than the usual one.
Jaber added that if the amendment is inevitable, then the Lebanese state must demand a condition that stipulates that it would not be held responsible for any clash between the peacekeepers and the residents.
Meanwhile, international law professor at the American University of Beirut Dr. Antoine Sfeir said Lebanon’s rejection of the resolution would not prevent it from being implemented given that it is tied to international security and peace.
He warned that if the resolution is issued under Chapter 7, Lebanon would be exposed to “all sorts of dangers and could face dire consequences.”
He urged the government to intensify its contacts with friendly nations, such as Saudi Arabia, France and Britain, to contain the situation.
Even if Lebanon were to demand that UNIFIL’s mission be terminated, that does not mean that the UN would comply, he added.