A planned Security Council vote on Wednesday to renew approval for a peacekeeping mission in Lebanon has been delayed as France, the US and the UAE discuss the freedom of movement of UN troops, diplomats said.
The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) – established in 1978 – patrols Lebanon's southern border with Israel. The mandate for the operation is renewed annually and its current authorisation expires on Thursday.
The Security Council stalemate comes amid an escalating war of words between Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon with each vowing to return the other to the “Stone Age” and preparing for possible conflict even as they deny seeking one.
France has drafted a UN Security Council resolution to extend the peacekeeping mission for another year, but the US and the UAE argue it has weakened some language on the ability of UN troops to move freely.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council in an August 3 letter, seen by Reuters, that Unifil continued to face restrictions to its freedom of movement and delays in access to locations of interest.
“The mission's ability to conduct patrols and activities independently must be maintained,” Mr Guterres wrote.
According to the latest draft of the resolution, seen by The National, parties must “cease any restrictions and hindrances to the movement of Unifil personnel and guarantee the freedom of movement of Unifil”.
France added language spelling out that peacekeepers should co-ordinate with the Lebanese government and deleted text from last year's council resolution that demanded all parties allow “announced and unannounced patrols” by UN troops.
Heiko Wimmen, who oversees Crisis Group's Iraq, Syria, Lebanon project, told The National he believes Hezbollah is not actively pushing for the termination of Unifil.
“That's not what they want … but what Hezbollah wants is for Unifil to operate on its terms,” he said.
'Ink on paper'
The US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield told reporters that negotiations were continuing with France and other members of the council to ensure that the resolution “strengthens Unifil and provides Unifil with what it needs to continue to operate effectively in Lebanon”.
The French UN mission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Lebanon's demands to limit the freedom of oversight and monitoring of Unifil personnel regarding what is happening in southern Lebanon are not accepted,” Israel's UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan told Israel's Army Radio on Wednesday.
Lebanon's caretaker foreign affairs minister Abdallah Bou Habib has said that the new Security Council resolution should stipulate that Unifil co-ordinate with the Lebanese army.
Unifil's mandate was expanded in 2006, following a month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah, to allow peacekeepers to help the Lebanese army keep parts of the south free of weapons or armed personnel other than those of the Lebanese state.
That has sparked friction with Hezbollah, which effectively controls southern Lebanon despite the presence of the Lebanese army. Hezbollah is a heavily armed party that is Lebanon's most powerful political force.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah warned on Monday that even if the Security Council adopted the same language as last year on the freedom of movement of UN troops it would “remain ink on paper.”
“The people will not allow (it),” he said in a televised address on Monday. “There is no intention to use weapons, but … people in the south will not allow a decision to be implemented despite the Lebanese government's rejection of it.”
In December, an Irish peacekeeper was killed when his Unifil vehicle came under fire in southern Lebanon. A Lebanese military tribunal has accused members of Hezbollah of involvement in the killing. Hezbollah has officially denied involvement.
Reuters contributed to this report