NEW YORK - The U.N. Security Council on Friday unanimously renewed its peacekeeping mission in south Lebanon for another year, as tensions rise between Lebanon and Israel.
"This renewal of UNIFIL was absolutely indispensable and essential for the security of Lebanon, Israel and the whole region," said France's deputy U.N. ambassador, Anne Gueguen, using an acronym for the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon. "A united council on UNIFIL sends also an important, positive message of support to Lebanon."
The 10,500-strong mission monitors the demarcation line (known as the "Blue Line") between Lebanon and its southern neighbor, Israel. It is also mandated to assist the Lebanese Armed Forces disarm groups like Hezbollah and enforce a U.N. arms embargo against nonstate actors receiving weapons.
But in its most recent report, the U.N. said, "While taking allegations of arms transfers seriously, the United Nations is not in a position to substantiate them independently."
On disarming Hezbollah, the main military threat to both the Lebanese government and Israel, the U.N. said, "No progress was achieved," adding, "Hezbollah continued to acknowledge publicly that it maintains military capabilities."
The group wields both substantial political and military power in Lebanon, mainly due to its substantial weapons arsenal, which includes explosives, rockets and missiles.
The United States and Israel have both been highly critical of the U.N. mission.
"Today, we halt a long period of council complacency on UNIFIL and the growing and destabilizing influence of Iran and its client, the terrorist organization Hezbollah," U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft said in a statement.
The United States has designated the Iranian-backed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and imposed financial sanctions on its leaders and institutions linked to the group. Washington is also reportedly considering expanding sanctions to Hezbollah's political allies in Beirut.
Craft said the U.S. has supported UNIFIL because it has contributed to reducing tensions between Lebanon and Israel.
"However, the Trump administration is deeply concerned these last years about UNIFIL's overall inability to contain the Hezbollah menace," she said. "We are not going to allow this to stand. The Council must join us in confronting this."
Israel argues that UNIFIL has failed to rein in Hezbollah and that it continues to shamelessly carry on illicit activities in front of UNIFIL, risking an escalation with Israel, like the 33-day war the two fought in 2006.
"The Security Council decision comes as a last warning for the Government of Lebanon," Israel's U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan said in a statement. "If Hezbollah continues to turn southern Lebanon into a base for its terrorist activity under UNIFIL's nose, the government of Lebanon will be held responsible and will bear full responsibility for any escalation of tensions or the grave consequences of such actions."
In recent months, there has been an increase in ground incidents across the Blue Line, including with soldiers from both the Lebanese and Israeli militaries pointing weapons at each other. Earlier this week, Israel said shots were fired from Lebanon at one of its patrols.
UNIFIL has stressed its need for unrestricted access to the entire Blue Line. In some incidents, U.N. patrols have been blocked from passing in Lebanese villages or had stones thrown at them.
The resolution adopted Friday includes language that "condemns in the strongest terms" all attempts to restrict the mission's free movement and to attack its personnel and equipment. It also calls on the Lebanese government to facilitate "prompt and full access to" sites UNIFIL wants to investigate, including related to illicit tunnels used by Hezbollah fighters to carry out attacks against Israel undetected by drones and aircraft.
The council also asks the U.N. secretary-general to provide a plan within 60 days for implementing recommendations to improve the mission. A mostly symbolic reduction in the size of the mission was also made, lowering its troop ceiling from 15,000 to 13,000 peacekeepers.
Lebanon has been rocked by a year of anti-government protests, a crippling financial crisis and COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. And that was before the massive blast that tore through Beirut's port on August 4, devastating a large portion of the capital and leading to the government's resignation.
In its resolution, the Security Council also called for "the swift formation" of a new Lebanese government that can respond to the challenges facing the country.