In the early 1970s, tension along the Israel-Lebanon border increased, especially after the relocation of Palestinian armed elements from Jordan to Lebanon. Palestinian terrorist operations against Israel and Israeli reprisals against Palestinian bases in Lebanon intensified. On March 11, 1978, a commando attack in Israel resulted in many dead and wounded among the Israeli population; the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) claimed responsibility for that raid. In response, Israeli forces invaded Lebanon on the night of March 14/15, and in a few days, occupied the entire southern part of the country except for the city of Tyre and its surrounding area.
On March 15, 1978, the Lebanese Government submitted a strong protest to the Security Council against the Israeli invasion, stating that it had no connection with the Palestinian commando operation. On March 19, the Security Council adopted resolutions 425 (1978) and 426 (1978), in which it called upon Israel immediately to cease its military action and withdraw its forces from all Lebanese territory. It also decided on the immediate establishment of UNIFIL. The first UNIFIL troops arrived in the area on March 23, 1978.
In June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon again. For three years, UNIFIL remained behind the Israeli lines, with its role limited to providing protection and humanitarian assistance to the local population to the extent possible. In 1985, Israel carried out a partial withdrawal, but it retained control of an area in southern Lebanon manned by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and by Lebanese de facto forces (DFF), the so-called “South Lebanon Army.”
On April 17, 2000, the Secretary-General received formal notification from the Government of Israel that it would withdraw its forces from Lebanon by July 2000 “in full accordance with Security Council resolutions 425 (1978) and 426 (1978)”. He was further informed that in so doing the Government of Israel intended “to cooperate fully with the United Nations“. The Secretary-General informed the Security Council of this notification on the same day, stating that he had initiated preparations to enable the United Nations to carry out its responsibilities under those resolutions. On April 20, the Council endorsed the Secretary-General’s decision to initiate those preparations.
As a first step, the Secretary-General sent his Special Envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen (Norway), together with the Force Commander of UNIFIL and a team of experts, to meet with the Governments of Israel and Lebanon and concerned Member States in the region, including Egypt, Jordan, and the Syrian Arab Republic. The delegation also met with the PLO and the League of Arab States. During the mission, United Nations cartographic, legal, and military experts examined the technical issues that would need to be addressed in the context of the implementation of resolution 425 (1978). Parallel to that mission, which took place between April 26 and May 9, 2000, the Secretary-General consulted with interested Member States, including those contributing troops to UNIFIL.
Starting on May 16, much sooner than anticipated, the IDF/DFF began to vacate its positions, amid an exchange of fire. Beginning on May 21, large crowds of Lebanese, accompanied by armed elements, entered villages in the Israeli-controlled area, and IDF/DFF vacated their position in great haste. At the same time, many of the Lebanese forces, together with their families, crossed into Israel. Others surrendered to the Lebanese authorities. Within a few days, those forces had completely disbanded. On May 25, the Government of Israel notified the Secretary-General that Israel had redeployed its forces in compliance with Security Council resolutions 425 (1978) and 426 (1978).
UNIFIL continued to function in close cooperation with those authorities and no longer exercised any control over the area of operation. The Lebanese Government, however, still did not deploy its personnel down to the Blue Line.
UNIFIL focused on the remaining part of its mandate: the restoration of international peace and security, the report continued. Pending a comprehensive peace, UNIFIL sought at least to maintain the ceasefire along the Blue Line, through patrols and observation from fixed positions and close contact with the parties, with a view to correcting violations and preventing the escalation of incidents. The Secretary-General believed that the need for the United Nations to perform such functions would continue to exist in the foreseeable future.
In 2005, the resumption of military measures, for which Hezbollah took credit, asserting its claimed prerogative to resist Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory by force, was disturbing, the Secretary-General said in a report. The United Nations had made abundantly clear that no violations of the Blue Line were acceptable. The continually asserted position of the Government of Lebanon that the Blue Line was not valid in the Shebaa farms area was not compatible with Security Council resolutions. The Council has recognized the Blue Line as valid for the purposes of confirming Israel’s withdrawal pursuant to resolution 425 (1978). The Government of Lebanon should heed the Council’s repeated calls for the parties to respect the Blue Line in its entirety.
The Secretary-General said that the 2005 rocket-firing incidents perpetrated by individuals allegedly affiliated with Palestinian militant factions demonstrated the volatility of the sector. Importantly, none of the incidents resulted in a military escalation, and for this the parties and UNIFIL deserved credit. Nevertheless, this type of incident presented a great risk to stability in the area. The Lebanese Government continued to exercise the capacity it had demonstrated thus far to exert its security authority through various activities of the Joint Security Force, including prompt responses to specific incidents. More needs to be done, however, to meet the Security Council’s call for extended measures to ensure the return of effective governmental authority throughout the south, including through the deployment of additional Lebanese armed forces. Once again, the Secretary-General urged the Government to do its utmost to ensure calm and to exert full control over the use of force across its entire territory.
The escalation of hostilities in July 2006 between the IDF and Hezbollah demonstrated the impotence of UNIFIL as it failed to prevent attacks against Israel or to prevent terrorists from establishing position along Israel’s border. UNIFIL was given a broader mandate following the Second Lebanon War to prevent weapons smuggling to Hezbollah forces and to ensure they did not establish a presence near the border with Israel.
Hezbollah systematically harasses the force, which has shown itself to be powerless to deter or respond to violations of UN resolutions by Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). The organization has done little to stop the smuggling of weapons from Syria and allowed Hezbollah to develop a network of tunnels into Israel as well as to move weapons and fighters close to the border. Israel further accused UNIFIL of passing information given to them about the tunnels to the LAF, which then passed it to Hezbollah, who then attempted to conceal the tunnels on the Lebanese side. Rather than be disarmed, Hezbollah has remained an independent terrorist militia within Lebanon and built up an arsenal of more than 100,000 rockets targeting Israel.
When UNIFIL’s mandate was renewed in August 2020 (Resolution 2540), the force’s troop ceiling was reduced from 15,000 to 13,000, with the possibility of increasing that number if necessary. The resolution includes a provision for the strengthening of the reporting mechanism and condemns instances where Hezbollah breached Resolution 1701 and disrupted UNIFIL operations. The Secretary-General was also requested to provide an assessment of the continued relevance of UNIFIL’s resources and options for improving the efficiency and effectiveness between the mission and the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon.
A 2022 amendment to its mandate allowed UNIFIL to act independently of the LAF; nevertheless, the UN expects the LAF to conduct “coordinated and adjacent patrols” with the organization, as well as to “protect UNIFIL movements and access.” Frequently, however, the LAF, along with Hezbollah, have obstructed the mission’s activities.
David Schenker noted, “In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hezbollah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of ‘arms transfers to non-State actors’ in Lebanon, i.e., Hezbollah, UNIFIL says it’s ‘not in a position to substantiate’ them.”
UNIFIL has a budget of more than $500 million, and its forces have grown from less than 2,000 personnel at its inception in 1978 to 10,500 (from 48 countries) in August 2020.
In August 2023, the Security Council renewed UNIFIL’s mandate for another year. Israel succeeded in persuading members to accept two key changes: allowing UNIFIL to operate independently without coordinating its activity with the Lebanese army and requiring the Lebanese government to facilitate UNIFIL’s access to any site with announced and unannounced patrols. The objective was to prevent Hezbollah interference in its operations and to give UNIFIL more freedom to monitor the group’s activities. UNIFIL still has no enforcement power, however, and it was too late to effect changes on the ground that included Hezbollah establishing positions closer to the Israeli border.
As of February 2023, 325 UNIFIL personnel have been killed in Lebanon.
Sources: United Nations.
“UN working with both sides, after hidden tunnels confirmed along Lebanon-Israel ‘Blue Line,’” UN News, (December 11, 2018).
Brig. Gen. (Res.) Assaf Orion, “All is quiet on Iran’s western front, say UN peacekeepers,” The Hill, (December 11, 2018).
“Israel at UN: Tunnels info we gave UNIFIL ended up in Hezbollah hands,” Ynet, (December 19, 2018).
Eugene Kontorovich, “After Tragedy in Beirut, End Lebanon’s U.N. Farce,” Wall Street Journal, (August 19, 2020).
“UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) Mandate Renewal,” What’s in Blue, (August 28, 2020).
“Security Council adopts resolution to extend UNIFIL mandate,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, (August 29, 2020).
David Schenker, “The UNIFIL Follies Turn Deadly on the Israel-Lebanon Border,” Tablet, (January 24, 2023).
Lazar Berman, “Security Council extends UNIFIL peacekeepers’ mandate, rejects Hezbollah demands,” Times of Israel, (August 31, 2023).