The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) sought to assure Lebanese authorities after amendments were introduced to its mission last month.
In a statement on Tuesday, it said: “Our peacekeepers remain committed to security and stability in south Lebanon and continue to work closely with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), as we have done since the passing of Security Council resolution 1701 (2006).”
“UNIFIL has always had the mandate to undertake patrols in its area of operations, with or without the Lebanese Armed Forces. As always, our operational activities, including patrols, continue to be coordinated with the Lebanese Army,” it added.
At the request of the Lebanese government, the UN Security Council extended UNIFIL’s mandate for another year on August 31, with the adoption of Resolution 2650, but for the first time since 2006, it amended the mission of the peacekeeping force.
“The Council reiterates that UNIFIL does not require prior authorization or permission from anyone to undertake its mandated tasks, and that it is allowed to conduct its operations independently,” said UNIFIL after the amendment.
“It calls on the parties to guarantee UNIFIL’s freedom of movement, including by allowing announced and unannounced patrols. The Council condemns the harassment and intimidation of UNIFIL personnel, as well as the use of disinformation campaigns against peacekeepers,” it added.
The rules of engagement in place since 2006 have stipulated that the Lebanese army accompany UNIFIL patrols in its areas of operation. The peacekeepers had been harassed and attacked by citizens in the past for allegedly taking photos of some locations and because their patrols had veered off their usual path.
Lebanese authorities have always sought to extend the UNIFIL mission without amendments. The amendments therefore, came as a surprise and sparked criticism from Hezbollah where the South is its stronghold.
The UNIFIL spokesperson said on Monday: “Our peacekeepers remain committed to security and stability in south Lebanon, and to continue to support the people who live here.”
"Our operational activities, including patrols, continue to be coordinated with the Lebanese Army, even when they don't accompany us,” he stated.
“Our freedom of movement has been reiterated in Security Council resolutions renewing UNIFIL’s mandate, including Resolution 1701 in 2006, and UNIFIL’s Status of Forces Agreement, signed in 1995,” he remarked.
“We work closely with the LAF every day, and this has not changed,” he stressed.
Despite the controversy, Lebanese officials believe the changes to the peacekeeping mission “are theoretical for now” and they are a “product of 16 years of practices that have curbed the international force’s activity.”
Former MP Marwan Hamade noted that Hezbollah has acted freely in southern Lebanon in spite of resolution 1701.
Moreover, the party has curbed the regular movement of the force and prevented it from carrying out any raid, he told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Hezbollah has also employed locals to obstruct UNIFIL’s work, he charged.
“Complains have piled year after year. Some UNIFIL commanders had chosen to overlook the issue, while others had complained about it in their regular reports to the United Nations Secretary-General, stating that the situation is a complete violation of resolution 1701,” he continued.
Hezbollah has dashed the resolution, especially when it comes to its ongoing smuggling of weapons to UNIFIL’s area of operations south of the Litani River, remarked Hamadeh.
The resolution may grant the force freedom of movement in coordination with the military, but the army has never carried out any step stipulated in the resolution, he went on to say.
All the army has done was contain tensions when UNIFIL patrols were prevented by locals from carrying out their duties, he explained.
At the moment, the amendments are unlikely to have repercussions on the ground, but that may change should the situation deteriorate in case of a security or military development, he added.
In the long run, Hezbollah fears that UNIFIL’s mission may be expanded to cover the entire borders to crack down on the arms smuggling to the party, said Hamadeh.