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At the end of last month, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution to extend its peacekeeping force in Lebanon by another year. Danny Danon, Israel’s UN ambassador, described it as “a significant diplomatic achievement that could change the situation.” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said the decision signaled a rejection of the status quo and would thus provide the peacekeepers the “power and will” to do the job. Unfortunately, the resolution will do none of those things. Such claims simply demonstrate a failure to understand the limits of peacekeeping and the complexities of Lebanese politics.
First, some historical background is warranted: in 1978, Israel invaded southern Lebanon, where Palestinians had been launching attacks on Israel. In response to the fighting, the UN initiated a peacekeeping operation—the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). The operation’s 6,000 peacekeepers were tasked with helping to restore peace, confirming the withdrawal of the Israeli army, and assisting the Lebanese government to reassert its control in the area. After fighting broke out again in 2006, the Security Council increased the size of UNIFIL to over 13,000 peacekeepers, but its objectives remained for the most part the same.
The operation currently has about 10,500 peacekeepers from 41 different countries who, nearly 40 years after the creation of UNIFIL, are still trying to accomplish essentially the same goals. The Israeli forces are on their side of the border, and there has not been major conflict in 11 years, but that does not mean war will not return. Southern Lebanon is controlled by Hezbollah, another group that threatens Israel, not the Lebanese government. That means the current peace is largely an illusion, as is the ability of the peacekeepers to maintain it.
In addition to extending the peacekeepers’ mandate for one more year, the UN resolution included a request to the Secretary General to look at ways “to increase UNIFIL’s visible presence, including through patrols and inspections, within its existing mandate and capabilities.” It also reaffirmed the authorization for UNIFIL “to take all necessary action in areas of deployment of its forces and as it deems within its capabilities, to ensure its area of operations is not utilized for hostile activities.” Russia, more interested in maintaining its influence in the region than in peace, threatened to veto the resolution if it even mentioned Hezbollah.
Although The Times of Israel interpreted the resulting resolution to mean that UNIFIL “will increase its oversight activities in southern Lebanon, including by entering villages where the Hezbollah terror group operates,” this is not going to happen. Peacekeepers are neither equipped nor prepared to fight wars, and the 41 countries that have contributed troops did not do so with the expectation of engaging in combat.
Hezbollah’s forces outnumber UNIFIL by at least five to one, and they have the support of the local population, so the peacekeepers are not going to risk becoming war fighters. Even though the United States considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization, it has become part of the Lebanese government, holding two of the 30 cabinet positions and 12 of the 128 seats in the parliament. Moreover, the Lebanese Armed Forces are not going to attempt to disarm Hezbollah and risk starting a new civil war. The group has such control over southern Lebanon that it conducted a press tour last April to show local and international reporters some of its fighters and weapons.
Hezbollah’s forces outnumber UNIFIL by at least five to one, and they have the support of the local population.
The Lebanese government opposed broadening UNIFIL’s mandate at the same time as it pushed for its renewal, claiming that the presence of the peacekeepers was essential for national security. It took this contradictory position because it fears that more aggressive peacekeeping would destabilize the situation, but it still wants the peacekeepers to stay simply as a means of protecting itself. One Lebanese member of parliament asserted that calls for his government to bring Hezbollah fully under its control were unrealistic. He said that, given the aid Hezbollah has received over the years from Syria and Iran, “It is bigger than us.”
That is why one Lebanese newspaper reported that the UN resolution simply meant “business as usual” for UNIFIL. Although the peacekeepers make hundreds of patrols each day and may undertake even more to respond to the new resolution, these patrols do not amount to much. It is the equivalent of having the police drive around in their patrol cars but without ever getting out of them or stopping to investigate anything or even write traffic tickets.
Under the new mandate, the peacekeepers are instructed to file prompt and detailed reports when their patrols are blocked from investigating suspicious activity. In the past, Hezbollah has prevented UNIFIL from entering an area even after an arms cache has blown up. Thus, because of the inability of the peacekeepers to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring more weapons and the lack of control of the Lebanese government over its own territory, Hezbollah has stockpiled an estimated 100,000 rockets. They are ready to be unleashed on Israel if war breaks out again, and if it does, Israel will have little choice but to engage in massive retaliation.
Meanwhile, Lebanon is making at best glacial progress toward becoming a unified nation. Israel seems headed in the opposite direction. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, caught in a growing corruption scandal, vilifies his political opponents and the press. Moreover, he recently declared that Israel will never remove any of its settlements from the occupied West Bank, demonstrating that he cares more about maintaining his own hold on power than achieving peace.
The dismal political situation on both sides of the Lebanese-Israeli border, the lack of any serious initiative to resolve either of them by the international community, and the desire to avoid any step that some fear might destabilize the situation all ensure that the peacekeepers remain in place with no end in sight. For these reasons, although the job they are performing is largely meaningless, it is unlikely that UNFIL’s half-billion-dollar annual budget will be reduced.
As the administration of Donald Trump congratulates itself for its win on the UNIFIL resolution, it has insisted on slashing the UN’s peacekeeping budget. The General Assembly has already approved some $600 million in cuts. The majority of today’s 15 peacekeeping operations are in Africa, where the peacekeepers are making modest contributions to the nation building required to end the various conflicts there.
It is worth remembering that Boutros Boutros-Ghali lost his job as UN Secretary General in 1996 because he angered the United States. One of his offenses was to suggest that Bosnia received more attention from the international community than Sudan because the victims were white. If UNIFIL and the equally unproductive operations in the Middle East retain their budgets while those in the rest of the world are drastically reduced, it will again raise the question of whether Washington is applying a double standard.