UNIFIL is Needed More than Ever to Keep the Peace in Southern Lebanon
UNIFIL is Needed More than Ever to Keep the Peace in Southern Lebanon
Soldiers from the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) Indian battalion stand along the barbed wire fence marking the border between Lebanon (foreground) and Israel (background). JOSEPH EID / AFP
Commentary / Middle East & North Africa 13 minutes

UNIFIL is Needed More than Ever to Keep the Peace in Southern Lebanon

With tensions rising along the Israeli-Lebanese border, the UN peacekeeping force stationed in the area has arguably never been more important. With the mandate up for renewal, the UN Security Council and troop-contributing countries should reassert their backing for the mission in the strongest terms.

The UN Security Council is debating the annual extension of the mandate for the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), a peacekeeping contingent deployed in southern Lebanon along the border with Israel. The parties to the situation, Israel, Lebanon and the Shiite party-cum-militia Hizbollah, are all frustrated with UNIFIL, and at least one has reportedly asked that the mission’s mandate be trimmed back, but it would be a mistake for the UN to do so. Forty-five years after its inception, this force of roughly 10,000 is needed more urgently than ever. Tensions have been running high at the border, intensified by inflammatory rhetoric, testing the precarious calm sustained by mutual deterrence since the 2006 war. A disastrous, uncontrolled escalation could be one stray missile away. In renewing the mandate, the Security Council, along with the countries contributing troops and/or funds to UNIFIL, should reassert their backing for it in the strongest terms. Israel and Hizbollah, the main belligerents in the 2006 conflict and the actors responsible for the heightened apprehension now, should dial down provocations and militant posturing.

The Security Council has tasked UNIFIL, under Chapter VI of the UN Charter, with helping the Lebanese government establish control of southern Lebanon and prevent renewed conflict there, pursuant to Resolution 1701, passed on 11 August 2006 to end 33 days of fighting between Israel and Hizbollah. Blue helmets are deployed in the southernmost part of the country, between the Litani river and the so-called Blue Line, which the UN drew in 2000 to mark Israel’s withdrawal from a swath of Lebanon and has been the de facto border between Israel and Lebanon ever since. They monitor the Blue Line, stretches of which remain contested, and safeguard the 2006 cessation of hostilities.

After the 2006 war, the Lebanese government deployed the national army south of the Litani, a move that was supposed to assert its writ, but its authority in this area remains just as tenuous as it was seventeen years ago. Lebanon’s economic collapse has further strained the capacity of the state and its security forces. As incidents between the Israeli army and Hizbollah – referred to as “the resistance” by its supporters – multiply, the tacit rules of engagement that have been in place since 2006 are coming under increasing stress.

Rising Tensions on the Border

While neither side seems interested in an escalation, the Israel Defense Forces and Hizbollah are engaging in risky tit-for-tat exchanges that have become significantly more frequent. In mid-2022, Israel moved to expand gas exploration in Mediterranean waters that Lebanon also claimed at the time. Hizbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah responded by sending drones toward the exploration vessel and threatening to attack Israeli gas rigs. The immediate dispute was resolved that October through a U.S.-mediated maritime border demarcation, which seems to have lessened friction on this front for now.

Tensions continued to rise throughout the past year, however. Since April 2022, when Israel resumed building a wall along the Blue Line, including in disputed areas, Israeli army construction teams have scuffled with Hizbollah loyalists, Lebanese soldiers and residents of southern villages over alleged trespassing on Lebanese territory. Apparent Hizbollah supporters have scaled the wall and destroyed surveillance equipment or thrown Molotov cocktails. UNIFIL’s aerial reconnaissance, meanwhile, suggests that Hizbollah is operating unauthorised firing ranges south of the Litani. In May, Hizbollah commandos infiltrated the Shebaa Farms area – which Israel says is part of the Golan Heights, lands it annexed from Syria in 1981, but Lebanon says is occupied Lebanese territory – and set up two tents, apparently housing communications equipment. One of the tents remains there, despite repeated Israeli requests that both be removed.

Israel also alleges that Hizbollah has significantly increased its presence near the Blue Line, and on 27 July lodged a complaint with the Security Council claiming that structures erected by the Lebanese organisation Green Without Borders, which is registered as an NGO under Lebanese law and says its mission is to protect the environment, are used by Hizbollah for military purposes. On 16 August, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that it had designated Green Without Borders under Executive Order 13224, stating that the group provides support and cover to Hizbollah, which the State Department has deemed a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant threatened to “return Lebanon to the Stone Age” in the event of another conflict with Hizbollah.

Meanwhile, Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace, mostly by surveillance drones, continue on a near-daily basis, and there are other signs of escalation besides. In early July, amid Israel’s work on a border fence around the northern part of the village of Ghajar, Lebanese territory that Israel continued to occupy after the 2006 war, Lebanese politicians began claiming that Israel had “annexed” the area. (The Blue Line bisects Ghajar, putting its southern portion in Israel.) A brief exchange of fire on 6 July was apparently initiated on the Lebanese side in response to Israel’s activity in the town. On 8 August, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant threatened to “return Lebanon to the Stone Age” in the event of another conflict with Hizbollah, prompting a similar rejoinder from Nasrallah a week later. Both sides have also conducted highly publicised military exercises in recent months to signal their readiness for battle.

Even greater danger lies in unclaimed attacks from Lebanese territory, two of which have already occurred in the first half of 2023. On 15 March, an infiltrator reportedly scaled the fence on the Lebanese side using just a ladder and travelled 70km into Israel to the Megiddo traffic junction, where he set off a sophisticated explosive device. Israel believes that Hizbollah dispatched the attacker; Hizbollah declined to comment. On 6 April, when many Israelis were observing Passover, more than 30 missiles were launched from southern Lebanon toward populated areas in northern Israel. Thankfully, the casualties and damage caused by these attacks were minor. Israel apparently did not respond to the first attack. As for the second, it judged that Hamas, not Hizbollah, was responsible, and restricted its mostly symbolic retaliation to Palestinian targets (which it claims were Hamas sites) in Lebanon and Gaza. But if such attacks continue, it will only be a matter of time before a missile or explosive device takes lives. Should there be an incident with significant casualties, Israel’s response could well be massive, and because there is ample evidence of coordination between Hamas and Hizbollah, it will not matter who actually carried out the attack.

Despite the growing tensions, at least until recently, it has seemed that neither side is seeking to start a war. Both have repeatedly gone out of their way to avoid confrontation over the past seventeen years, making clear efforts at de-escalation whenever incidents occurred. Israel reportedly has made efforts to avoid killing Hizbollah operatives during its repeated strikes on Iranian assets in Syria over the past several years, going so far as to call them on their cell phones to warn them of incoming fire. It has allegedly allowed Hizbollah infiltrators in the Shebaa Farms to escape when it could have captured or killed them; staged casualties among its own troops to convince attackers that they had succeeded in their mission; ignored Israeli and international observers who claim that Palestinian groups firing missiles from Lebanon are Hizbollah proxies; and, according to Crisis Group reporting, often limited retaliation to shelling the same Hizbollah positions over and over, making it unlikely that any member of the group would be hurt.

For its part, Hizbollah has sometimes downplayed Israeli strikes so that it would not be compelled to respond. It has mostly restricted its own attacks and retaliation to the uninhabited Shebaa Farms area, despite threatening otherwise, or resorted to rhetoric in lieu of actual retaliation.

By all appearances, both sides realise that all-out war would only wreak destruction far greater than in 2006, and neither sees a benefit from war worth that cost. Rising regional tensions that unless managed may play out along the Blue Line, such as over Iran’s nuclear program or violence in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, are a further reason to keep the frontier quiet. Both sides seem to be relying on the logic that deterrence, rather than de-escalation, is the most effective way to keep the peace, and that rising tensions are best answered by threatening the other side with ruin. Yet with rhetoric heating up on both sides, the danger that altercations, which are increasing in number and intensity, lead to an escalation that is difficult to control is on the rise.

UNIFIL’s Crucial Role

The potential for destabilising escalation makes UNIFIL’s role more critical than ever. The force monitors the Blue Line for violations, patrols the Lebanese side of the de facto border to keep it free of armed groups, and hosts the only forum that accommodates Israelis and Lebanese in the same room (the so-called tripartite mechanism) to discuss alleged ceasefire and border violations. It mediates whenever standoffs occur in the immediate border area; it also conveys messages to help end the fighting when the parties trade missile and mortar fire. Perhaps most crucially, UNIFIL is made up of more than 3,000 soldiers from EU countries, along with sizeable contingents from India and China, which helps make it more likely that, should a real crisis develop, countries with clout in the international arena would rush to contain it.

Both Hizbollah and Israel often treat UNIFIL as an adversary.

Still, both Hizbollah and Israel often treat UNIFIL as an adversary. Hizbollah supporters regularly accuse UN peacekeepers of “spying on the resistance” for Israel. Hizbollah has tried to impose the condition that UNIFIL personnel can move around only in close coordination with, and ideally accompanied by, the Lebanese army, so as to prevent the peacekeepers from seeing what it does not want them to see. Frequent altercations between UNIFIL and local Lebanese, often instigated by the latter, suggest that the party’s hostile rhetoric makes the latter look at the blue helmets more as trespassers than protectors. Locals also often prevent UNIFIL from reaching areas and using roads that they say are private property and thus off limits to patrols. The mission reports that its requests for the Lebanese army to inspect such locations often go unanswered.

In 2022, when the Security Council renewed UNIFIL’s mandate, reaffirming the mission’s freedom of movement and authorisation to operate independently, Hizbollah denounced what it claimed was an infringement upon Lebanon’s sovereignty. In the charged atmosphere thereafter, an alleged Hizbollah backer shot an Irish peacekeeper dead on 14 December. Reportedly, in the run-up to the impending mandate renewal, the Lebanese government signalled it would request that the Council modulate the 2022 language or even stipulate that the Lebanese army always accompany UNIFIL patrols.

For its part, Israel routinely describes UNIFIL as at best helpless to deter Hizbollah and at worst complicit in its actions. Some Israeli observers also describe the peacekeepers as an obstacle for Israel in its desire to press its perceived military advantage in the event of war. UNFIL’s most recent report, issued on 13 July, says Israeli troops occasionally behave aggressively toward it, including, on one occasion, using an electronic targeting device to lock in on a UN naval vessel with Israeli fighter jets flying nearby.

An Opportunity to De-escalate

Whatever misgivings Lebanon or Israel may have about UNIFIL, a refusal by the Security Council to extend its full mandate or an effort to tie its hands can only increase the risk of a destabilising escalation along the Blue Line to the detriment of the region and innocent civilians on both sides of the border. It is essential that the mandate be cleanly extended.

But the parties must take greater responsibility as well. Both sides should use the UNIFIL mandate renewal as an occasion to revisit the strategy behind recent actions along the border, recognise that constant tit-for-tat attacks carry a serious danger of triggering an uncontrollable escalation and begin taking steps that are needed to lower the temperature.

The Israeli army should ... calibrate its response to [actions along the border] so that they do not escalate.

A measure of restraint will thus be required. Israel has the right to protect its border, but it should make every effort, through close coordination with UNIFIL, not to enflame Lebanese sensitivities and create propaganda opportunities for Hizbollah by venturing over the Blue Line, even if provoked. Attacks on border installations by Hizbollah activists appear to be more of a nuisance than a real peril. The Israeli army should therefore calibrate its response to such incidents so that they do not escalate. The measured reaction to Hizbollah’s most recent infiltration of the Shebaa Farms area, which Defence Minister Gallant described as not a strategic threat, sets a good example. Likewise, the military and intelligence-gathering value of Israeli airspace intrusions should be weighed against the potential that these actions increase tensions even more and also do political damage. The credibility of Israel’s complaints about alleged Hizbollah violations of Resolution 1701 by reacquiring a military presence near the border will be compromised as long as the Israeli military is flouting the resolution’s call for restoration of Lebanon’s sovereignty and ignoring UNIFIL’s criticism on this account.

Israel should also reconsider its position on northern Ghajar. Lebanon has a legal claim to this land, one so solid that Israel has pledged more than once, since 2006, to evacuate. But it has never followed through. UNIFIL has repeatedly submitted proposals to address the concerns that Israel cites, in particular that northern Ghajar residents refuse to be separated from the southern part of the village. Holding on to this small plot of land puts Israel in flagrant violation of Resolution 1701, as its withdrawal from Lebanon remains incomplete and it is present north of the Blue Line. It also allows Hizbollah to rally support and consolidate its claims that its own armaments, rather than the Lebanese state’s capacities, are Lebanese sovereignty’s best defence. By contrast, working toward a negotiated solution to this thorny issue through UNIFIL now could build on the precedent of the 2022 maritime border demarcation deal to establish the principle that diplomacy, not militant grandstanding, is what yields results.

Likewise, Hizbollah is liable to face a severe political backlash in Lebanon if provocations by its supporters along the Blue Line bring an escalation that gets out of hand, even if the trigger is an issue as uncontroversial as Ghajar. Armed conflict could even scare away the companies that started prospecting for gas in the Mediterranean in mid-August, a project that Hizbollah itself has described as the only credible way for Lebanon to emerge from its crippling economic crisis. Hizbollah may believe that its military displays add to its deterrence capacity, but Israel already keeps close tabs on the group’s capabilities, and little suggests that shows of force do anything other than reinforce the Israeli narrative that its security is in perpetual peril.

UNIFIL’s role in managing the conflict risk that comes with Hizbollah’s provocations is critical for preventing things from flying off the hook.

Hizbollah should also appreciate that the damage done by verbal attacks on UNIFIL far outweighs any advantage it may see in restricting the peacekeepers’ freedom of movement. Stirring up local resentment can have lethal consequences, as demonstrated by the Irish peacekeeper’s killing. If further violence leads troop contributors to pull out their soldiers and reduce the force’s size, then UNIFIL’s capacity to calm the waters will diminish and southern Lebanon, where a significant part of Hizbollah’s constituency lives or has relatives, may become a far more dangerous place. Arguably, UNIFIL’s role in managing the conflict risk that comes with Hizbollah’s provocations is critical for preventing things from flying off the hook. For the same reason, the Lebanese army should improve cooperation with UNIFIL.

Finally, Hizbollah should revisit its calculation that Israel is unwilling – or even, by the party’s lights, incapable – of waging a new war in Lebanon. A more realistic assessment would be that specific events, in particular involving significant Israeli casualties, may compel Israeli leaders to launch a campaign like that in 2006 or larger, changing their cost-benefit analysis in ways that Hizbollah may not fully appreciate. The same applies to attacks in which Hizbollah is not directly or visibly involved. Hizbollah argues that it is not responsible for the actions of other parties who may make cross-border strikes in Israel. But if a missile launched southward takes Israeli lives, the potential for escalation will be grave whether Hizbollah’s fingerprints are on the attack or not. It is a widely shared view in the region that the combination of Hizbollah’s own presence on the ground and its excellent relations with Hamas and other Palestinian groups in Lebanon, as well as the Lebanese army and its fairly efficient intelligence agency, can provide enough information about the intentions of potential rogue actors to avoid such scenarios.


Forty-five years after it was founded, UNIFIL is perhaps more important than ever. The mission needs strong international backing, from both the Security Council and the countries that contribute troops and funding. At the same time, there is only so much that a peacekeeping force can realistically be expected to do. Israel and Hizbollah should not only provide full support for and cooperate with UNIFIL, but also cease activities that are liable to provoke the other side. Failing that, longstanding presumptions that neither side wants war may begin to yield to a much darker new reality, in which the prospect of conflict becomes increasingly real.

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