With less than a month remaining before the conclusion of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon’s (UNIFIL) mandate, Beirut is still pushing for the removal of Article 16.
The article was introduced in Resolution 2560 last year, granting the UN battalion the authority to conduct its mission “without prior authorization” and “independently.”
The international community has taken a firm stance, arguing that the rising tensions along the Lebanese-Israeli border necessitate granting the peacekeepers greater flexibility in their operations. Despite this, Lebanon has ostensibly suggested an implicit trade-off: proposing the demarcation of the land border with Israel in exchange for the removal of the contentious clause that sparked outrage from Hezbollah a year ago.
A ‘symbolic’ article
For weeks now, Lebanon has been campaigning for the withdrawal of this amendment to UNIFIL’s mandate.
“For us, Article 16 must be withdrawn, because the UN force cannot do without coordination with the army,” said a diplomatic source close to caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
Hezbollah is of the same opinion. “UNIFIL itself claims to be coordinating its every move with the army,” Hezbollah’s spokesperson Mohammad Naboulsi said. “From that point on, we don’t understand what this clause is for and who wrote it.”
However, Beirut’s efforts are likely to be in vain, not least because of rising tensions on the southern border.
“We have never stopped cooperating with the Lebanese army,” said a UNIFIL source.
The source added that Article 16, which has been the subject of controversy since last year, is rather “symbolic.”
“As a reminder, we are following the broad lines defined by Resolution 1701 of 2006 [which put an end to the war between Hezbollah and Israel in July of that year],” the UNIFIL source explained. “The final text to be presented this year should not revise these broad lines in depth but call for calm and a return to the status quo, i.e., respect for the Blue Line, on both sides.”
At the beginning of July, the Israeli government de facto absorbed the Lebanese part of the cross-border village of Ghajar, by erecting a fence to the north of the area.
This violation of the 1701 agreement came in response to Hezbollah’s construction of two tents in Kfarshouba Hills and the Shebaa Farms — a disputed area claimed by Lebanon but internationally recognized as Syrian territory occupied by Israel.
Last week, a video recorded by an Israeli soldier capturing Hezbollah fighters walking on the Lebanese side of the Blue Line caught attention on social networks, triggering strong reactions in Israel.
The renewed tension at the border seems to have prompted the UN Security Council to pay attention.
“For us, it is crucial that UNIFIL has the room for maneuver necessary to carry out its mission, in line with international recommendations,” said a Western diplomat who requested anonymity because they are not allowed to talk to the press. “At a time when the situation is becoming increasingly unstable, we find it hard to see the Security Council member countries opting to reduce UNIFIL’s independence.”
In December 2022, Sean Rooney, an Irish peacekeeper, was killed in the village of Aaqibiyeh in southern Lebanon. He was part of a convoy of two armored vehicles that was attacked by villagers.
Hezbollah members have been charged by the Lebanese judiciary in connection with the incident.
Additionally, there is a possibility that the Security Council may withhold the extension of aid to the Lebanese army for another year. The army requires fuel for its vehicles to effectively carry out its border mission.
“Support for the army has yielded positive outcomes and bolstered cooperation,” said a UNIFIL member. “However, certain UN members express apprehension that this could establish a precedent in other nations, where peacekeeping forces might be compelled to assist national armies.”
‘The border is already drawn’
In an attempt to temper the international community’s position, Lebanon expressed its willingness to engage in the delimitation of the land border with Israel, almost a year after signing the maritime agreement with it.
“Lebanon reiterates its readiness to finalize the delineation of its land border in the South and to examine how to resolve the remaining contentious issues, within the framework of tripartite meetings, in the presence of the UN, in order to strengthen stability in the region,” said Lebanon’s representative to the UN, Jeanne Mourad, at a Security Council meeting last week.
This statement, however, sparked discontent among some Lebanese parties, particularly Hezbollah. In a speech a few weeks ago, party leader Hassan Nasrallah squarely rejected such a move.
“The land border is already known,” said Nasrallah, in response to Mikati’s statements in early July that Lebanon had informed the UN of its readiness to demarcate the southern land border along the Blue Line.
“This line is not considered a real border, but rather a ceasefire line following the withdrawal of Israeli soldiers from southern Lebanon in 2000,” explained the UNIFIL source who asked to remain anonymous because they are not allowed to talk to the press.
Hezbollah, however, has a different perspective on the matter.
“We are going to protest to the [caretaker] foreign minister after the position expressed by Mourad,” Naboulsi told L’Orient-Le Jour.
Mourad was swift to issue a press release, regretting “having used the wrong expression... Lebanon’s borders had already been drawn in 1923 through the Paulet-Newcombe agreement.”
“We are not discussing the delimitation of the border, but rather seeking a resolution to the disputed points, of which there are still seven out of the original 13,” reaffirmed Deputy Parliament Speaker Elias Bou Saab on Tuesday, following a meeting with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
Instead of the border demarcation, the Lebanese Foreign Ministry is now suggesting that these contentious points be resolved instead.
“We are proposing that the tripartite committee — comprising Lebanese, Israeli and UNIFIL officers — which meets regularly in Naqoura tackle these outstanding points,” said a source close to the caretaker prime minister.
Hezbollah does not seem to oppose this approach.
“Assuming that the border has already been drawn, we stand behind the Lebanese state in its reclamation of our territory,” Naboulsi said.
However, even if Lebanon were to commit to demarcating its border with the Israeli state, it would remain challenging to remove Article 16.
“As far as we’re concerned, the two issues are separate,” the UNIFIL source said.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.