UNIFIL: At the crossroads of the international community and Hezbollah

Illustration - In-depth - UNIFIL
8 min read
02 February, 2023

The killing of Irish UN Peacekeeper Private Sean Rooney in Lebanon in December was a shock for the international community and for the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in particular, which had not seen one of its soldiers killed since 2011.

No group has claimed responsibility for the killing of Private Rooney, and Hezbollah, the pro-Iran militia which controls much of Lebanon’s south, turned over the alleged perpetrators to Lebanese security forces.

The killing of Rooney, while a shock, did not come as a complete surprise. Tensions between certain battalions of UNIFIL and the villages in southern Lebanon they patrol have been present since 2006.

Incidents of stones being thrown at UNIFIL vehicles and denials of access to patrols happen sporadically in its area of operations. Hezbollah in September said that the UN was “violating Lebanese sovereignty” with its latest renewal of UNIFIL’s mission.

UNIFIL’s mandate – to keep the peace along the Lebanon-Israel border and restore sovereignty to the Lebanese armed forces – has remained essentially the same since the end of the 2006 war in Lebanon.

Lebanon, however, has changed drastically since then.

"The killing of Irish UN Peacekeeper Private Sean Rooney, while a shock, did not come as a complete surprise"

UNIFIL: A sidelined presence

UNIFIL was established following Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1978, in the midst of Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990).

The UN body was set up to confirm the Israeli withdrawal from the area, which had been demanded by UN Security Council Resolution 425 just five days after the invasion. Despite the resolution, the Israeli occupation would continue in some form– first through a proxy force then by Israeli troops directly – until the year 2000.

UNIFIL’S nominal mission was to help restore sovereignty to the Lebanese state, whose army had collapsed and could not control its border region. At the time, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and its allies in the Lebanese National Front used Lebanon as a staging ground for attacks into Israel,

Israel, in turn, supported the splinter South Lebanon Army (SLA), which fought the PLO and other armed groups in the area. Later, Israeli forces would invade again and occupy larger parts of Lebanon all the way to Beirut in 1982.

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None of the parties respected UNIFIL’s presence, however, with the PLO and its allies continuing to conduct attacks from the area. The Israeli-backed SLA, for its part, shelled UNIFIL units and even its headquarters, preventing the force from supporting the Lebanese army’s re-entry into areas into the border and fulfilling its stated mandate.

The former UNIFIL spokesperson Timur Göksel said that UNIFIL was given “absolutely no support from anybody” to complete its mandate.

Between 1978 and 1982, UNIFIL was mainly confined to trying to keep the PLO and SLA apart, as well as providing humanitarian aid to local communities.

Later, when Israel invaded in June 1982 and directly occupied southern Lebanon, UNIFIL became even more restricted in its operations. It was helpless to stop the Israeli invasion and its positions were completely overrun or bypassed.

An Indonesian UNIFIL peacekeeper waves a UN flag on the border between Lebanon and Israel in the southern Lebanese village of Adaisseh on 30 November 2009. [Getty]

According to Karim Makdisi, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, “UNIFIL concentrated on the vital, if secondary, tasks of emergency relief, humanitarian intervention and record keeping,” as it was no longer allowed to fulfil its peacekeeping mandate.

Its role as a non-aligned force in the south, where the Lebanese state was absent, earned it good relations with the local community and political actors.

In the 1990s, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah “understood that UNIFIL was not necessarily an enemy, and appointed the first official liaison to UNIFIL”, Makdisi wrote.

Yet there has been mistrust between some in Lebanon and the force. UNIFIL contributing nations such as France have been accused of bias in favour of Israel and suggestions have been made that this affected the conduct of their forces in Lebanon. In 2010, a major confrontation erupted between French soldiers from UNIFIL and the residents of Kabrikha, a village in south Lebanon, and French peacekeepers were accused of "provocative behaviour".

Israel has also accused UNIFIL of "bias" in the past'. UNIFIL, however, has insisted it is a peacekeeping force.

"A peacekeeping force does not come here with pre-set enemies...UNIFIL is a peacekeeping force. It’s not a Israeli combat force or an anti-terror force, as they would like it to be," Timur Goksel, former spokesperson and senior advisor for UNIFIL, said in 2006. "As long as we don’t serve their direct interests, they are going to denigrate it as much as they can".

"UNIFIL was founded in the midst of Lebanon's civil war, when the state could not cope with the multiplying militias and Israel was occupying the country's south"

Resolution 1701 and a beefed-up UNIFIL

After the end of the 2006 war in Lebanon, which saw Israel bombard Lebanon and Hezbollah launch rockets into Israel, UN Security Council Resolution 1701 was approved.The resolution significantly scaled up the UNIFIL presence in southern Lebanon, increasing the force from about 2,000 troops at the time to a maximum of 15,000.

Lebanon (and Hezbollah) also agreed after the war to deploy thousands of Lebanese soldiers to the southern border; until 2006 the LAF was more or less barred from the area.

The relationship between the Lebanese army and Hezbollah is largely seen as one of 'cohabitation'. However, many in Lebanon and the international community see it as a natural counterweight to Hezbollah.

Under 1701, UNIFIL were given new powers, including a maritime force that would prevent arms shipments into Lebanon and the power to “take all necessary actions … to ensure that its area of operations is not utilized for hostile activities of any kind”.

This new, robust UNIFIL caused Hezbollah to reconsider its view on the UN peacekeeping force, which prior to then had largely been concerned with humanitarian and monitoring operations.

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“It was difficult for UNIFIL to try to go into villages controlled by Hezbollah and try to see if people have weapons. Very quickly Hezbollah prevented UNIFIL from putting its nose into those villages,” Alexandra Novosseloff, a research associate at the Centre Thucydide of the University Paris-Panthéon-Assas, told The New Arab.

UNIFIL was still primarily concerned with restoring sovereignty to the Lebanese state, but the old actors were now replaced mainly by Hezbollah.

Israel saw the newly emboldened UNIFIL as primarily concerned with “disarming Hezbollah and pacifying any resistance in southern Lebanon,” Makdisi said. But this controversial view of UNIFIL’s mission was not shared outside of Israel.

“It was never intended for UNIFIL to disarm Hezbollah. It’s a way to put political pressure on the Lebanese and the international community … but certainly the UN doesn’t conceive its role as being able to disarm Hezbollah,” Novosselof said.

Hezbollah fighters take part in a parade to mark the 22nd anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in Baalbek in the eastern Bekaa Valley, on 25 May 2022. [Getty]

A disconnect between the reality on the ground and New York

The war over UNIFIL’s presence in southern Lebanon – now in its 45th year – has continued until the present day.

In August 2022, the UN Security Council had to vote on renewing UNIFIL’s mandate. One of the key points of contention was UNIFIL’s ability to move freely in the south and deal with armed, non-state actors.

Reportedly, the UAE and the UK asked for stronger language addressing armed, non-state groups, with an explicit mention of Hezbollah in its mandate.

Al-Manar, a Hezbollah-affiliated media outlet, in turn, said that the resolution would turn UNIFIL into an “occupation force in Southern Lebanon”.

The media outlet went on to say that the new resolution would allow UNIFIL to “erect checkpoints, raid houses, arrest locals and engage in clashes with civilians” without the permission of the LAF.

"The war over UNIFIL's presence in southern Lebanon – now in its 45th year – has continued until the present day"

Some members of the UNSC did ask that the resolution confirm that UNIFIL can operate independently of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).

This had previously been a sticking point as there was a perception that UNIFIL was unable to conduct patrols without the Lebanese forces, which is not the case.

However, UNIFIL “prefers” to conduct patrols with the LAF, a source within a non-European battalion of UNIFIL told TNA under the condition of anonymity as they were not authorised to talk to media.

“In the mandate, it was written that almost every patrol will be done with the assistance of the LAF. But it was misconstrued by people, and the wrong message was sent to the people of South Lebanon,” the source said.

They added that this contributed to tension between communities in the south and UNIFIL, but since, the issue had been clarified.

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“The presence of LAF is very much required for us, every time a battalion has some issues, it is the LAF which comes to help them out,” the UNIFIL source said.

The capacity of UNIFIL to conduct patrols with the LAF has been impacted by the crisis, notably the lack of fuel, which prevents the LAF from participating in all patrols.

Low salaries have also led to staffing issues, which means that “when you request ten soldiers for a patrol, maybe only three will show up,” the source said.

Despite confusion over UNIFIL’s mandate, the source said that their battalion has been able to keep good relations with local communities by providing medical and veterinary care to residents, many of whom are shepherds.

The source said that their battalion had never had a violent incident with communities in southern Lebanon and attributed this to their frequent contact with community leaders to understand their needs.

William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean.

Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou