The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL)
In 1978, UN Security Council Resolutions 425 and 426 established the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to restore international peace and security in Lebanon and the region. In the wake of the August 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, the Security Council adopted resolution 1701 which authorized additional troops and strongly called on all parties to respect the UN’s demarcation of the Israeli-Lebanese border (known as the Blue Line or the Line of Withdrawal), and cease all hostilities. In August 2012, Security Council Resolution renewed the mission for one year. In this unanimously adopted resolution all parties were urged to work towards a permanent ceasefire and a long-term solution.
The Mission's mandate includes:
- Monitoring the cessation of hostilities;
- Accompany and support the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) as they deploy throughout the South, as Israel withdraws its armed forces from Lebanon;
- Coordinate these activities with the Governments of Lebanon and Israel;
- Extend its assistance to help ensure humanitarian access to civilian populations and the voluntary and safe return of displaced persons;
- Assist the LAF in taking steps towards the establishment between the Blue Line and the Litani river of an free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL deployed in this area;
- Assist the Government of Lebanon in securing its borders and other entry points to prevent the entry in Lebanon without its consent of arms or related materiel
In 1978, tensions between Israel and Lebanon, fueled by Israeli-Palestinian conflict, led the Lebanese Government to request a UN presence along the border to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon, restore international peace and security, and assist the Government in reclaiming federal authority.
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In July 2006, fighting erupted between Hezbollah forces operating in southern Lebanon and Israeli Defense Forces. After 34 days, the fighting ceased with the signing of a UN-brokered ceasefire agreement between Hezbollah and the Israeli and Lebanese Governments. UN peacekeepers were on the ground within 17 days, making it one of the quickest UN peacekeeping deployments in history.
Fighting broke out again on Aug. 3, 2010, after a border clash between the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Israeli Defense Force. The dispute led to the death of two Lebanese soldiers, a journalist, and an Israeli officer. The clash occurred after an Israeli maintenance crew cut down a tree on the border. The action was deemed by Lebanese soldiers to be a border incursion. UNIFIL quickly intervened, thus preventing further violence.
On December 9, 2011 a UNIFIL vehicle was hit by an explosion caused by a roadside bomb on the outskirts of the city of Tyre. Five peacekeepers and two Lebanese civilian were injured. The past few years have been a period of tumultuous transitioning for Lebanon. The country has experienced numerous challenges in recent history: the collapse of its government in January 2011, the subsequent fracturing of the political system by Hezbollah, and a rift in popular and political opinion with regard to the UN Special Tribunal investigation of 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The Syrian crisis which began in March 2011 continues to affect Lebanon through increasing political polarization and possible instability in Lebanon as a ramification of the conflict. On May 22, 2012 the abduction in the Syrian Arab Republic of 11 Lebanese pilgrims returning from the Islamic Republic of Iran increased tensions in Lebanon.
How This Affects American Interests
- Increases stability in the Middle East. The UNIFIL Maritime Task Force trains Lebanese naval forces and independently conducts inspections and interdiction operations. These efforts aim to minimize seaborne arms trafficking of unauthorized material across borders.
- Supports the security sector. The U.S. provides military training to better assert Lebanese sovereignty in southern Lebanon. The U.S. dedicates around $100 million to job creation, youth education and micro-financing projects throughout Lebanon. U.S. support for the security sector directly supports UNIFIL’s mandate to assist the Lebanese Armed Forces. UNIFIL’s arrangements with the Lebanese Armed Forces, which include joint capability exercises and coordinating hundreds of daily foot and vehicle patrols, have contributed to the current state of relatively low violence along the Blue Line and south of the Litani River.
- Rebuilds Lebanon. The US State Department has noted that "a peaceful, prosperous, and stable Lebanon can make an important contribution to comprehensive peace in the Middle East." Since the 2006 crisis, the U.S. government has contributed over $1 billion in aid for programs that work simultaneously with the UN to support humanitarian aid and reconstruction efforts in southern Lebanon. Yearly, the State Department dedicates over $100 million to job creation, youth education, and microfinance projects throughout Lebanon. UNIFIL continues to assist in many projects, including rebuilding roads and reconstructing schools and homes. A total of 249 municipalities from Lebanon have now joined the “Marking Cities Resilient Campaign”, which is a global initiative that began in 2010, led by the United Nations Office of Disaster Risk reduction (UNISDR) to protect cities and vital infrastructure. UNIFIL continues to implement quick impact projects and outreach activities, including the facilitation of environmental and safety awareness campaigns for women and children in particular.
- Clears landmines in southern Lebanon. After the 2006 war, UNIFIL estimated that hundreds of thousands of unexploded cluster bombs were scattered over 36 million square meters in Lebanon and along the border. Since then, UNIFIL has disposed of 34,000 explosive ordnances and cleared 4.8 million square meters of landmines in south Lebanon.
- Convenes tripartite meetings. During the latest tripartite meeting held on March 28, 2012, representatives from the Israeli Defense Forces, the Lebanese Armed Forces, and UNIFIL continued to discuss ongoing implementation of resolution 1701, violations and incidents, visible demarcation of the border, and the situation in Ghajar (a town divided by the Blue Line). These meetings help build trust between the Israeli and Lebanese governments and contribute to the stability of the region.
- Hezbollah stronghold. Despite the LAF and UNIFIL efforts in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah and other militant groups still maintain a presence there, continuing to illegally rearm and keeping their militaries strong claiming that it serves a defensive purpose against Israel. While UNIFIL supports the LAF, both the UN Secretary-General and Lebanese officials assert that the Lebanese Government should be responsible for security. Further adding to concerns about insecurity in regions where Hezbollah exercises full control is the sympathetic sentiment that Iran has cultivated in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah has continued to acknowledge openly that it maintains a substantial military capacity separate from that of the Lebanese State and that it has received material, moral, and political support from the Islamic Republic of Iran. These fears that Iran freely exports arms to Hezbollah via the Syrian Government have led international partners such as Israel to call on UNIFIL to recognize these alleged violations of Resolution 1701.
- Palestinian Refugees. Protracted conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has led to a massive exodus of Palestinian refugees, with over 400,000 living in Lebanon, according to the official registries of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Palestinian refugee camps along the Lebanese border area continue to suffer from insecurity, as well as poor living conditions. The UN has pushed to improve these conditions and some progress has been made.
- Political Instability. Lebanon's instability is a serious obstacle to the full implementation of UN resolution 1701, which carried out the ceasefire between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006. The post-January 2011 government, dominated by Hezbollah, has made diplomacy and cooperation increasingly difficult. The UN Special Tribunal continues to take steps toward bringing to justice those who were responsible for Rafik Hariri's death; however, the government, with Hezbollah at the helm, seems poised to block prosecution or arrests of those indicted. There has nonetheless been progress in this regard, with a recent finding by the judges of the Special Tribunal that they have the proper jurisdiction to try Hariri’s alleged killers. Meanwhile, as noted, crisis in Syria has implications in Lebanon as well and the outcome will likely have reverberations across the border, as Syria supports Hezbollah and the current government. The Israel Defense Forces continue to make daily intrusions into Lebanese airspace, which violates resolution 1701, while maintaining that these flights are a necessary security measure.
- Syria Crisis. Crisis in Syria has affected Lebanon in recent months, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates more than 70,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon receiving protection and assistance through the efforts of Government of Lebanon, UN, and NGO partners. Though these populations have largely been embraced in neighboring countries, UNIFIL has been called on to station troops in some Lebanese cities feeling threatened by Syria. Since 78% of refugees in Lebanon are women and children, child protection issues are a vital concern. The regional conflict has exposed the Lebanese-Syrian border as a hotbed of arms trafficking and abductions. The Security Council has called the recent uptick in these violations a matter of grave concern. The influx of refugees from Syria continues to put an increasingly heavy burden on the security situation along the border. Tensions ran high in November 2012 when Brigadier General Wissan al-Hassan, who was a prominent figure among Sunni Muslims because of his public criticism of the role of Syria, and two others in Beirut were killed. U.N investigators indicted four Hezbollah members and Syria was involved in the attack.
- Strengthening sovereignty. Lebanon faces many threats to its state sovereignty and to its territorial integrity. Lebanese militias and non-Lebanese paramilitary forces continually jeopardize the nation's stability and thwart the consolidation of Lebanon’s sovereignty under the government’s auspices. Externally, a push to delineate the Syrian-Lebanese border has not been prioritized, despite assertions on the part of both governments that it is an important step in the processes of enforcing border control and establishing regional stability. The land border between Lebanon and the Syria remains difficult to control. Ongoing violence has fueled sectarian tensions across Lebanon. Sectarian politics between the main religious sects, which include Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, Christians, and Druze, has contributed to the fragmentation of the state. The UN hopes to help build political institutions in Lebanon that will recognize no other authority than the Lebanese State and prevent extremist and armed groups from exerting influence during this period of governmental turmoil.
*Updated November 2012