Each year, at the end of August, the UN Security Council holds a vote on whether to extend the mandate of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) for another 12 months. Now in its 43rd year, this “interim” peacekeeping force numbers more than 10,000 soldiers and has an annual budget of more than $500 million—roughly $145 million of which comes from the United States.
In theory, UNIFIL’s mission is to prevent Hezbollah from launching attacks against Israel from southern Lebanon, and to ensure the area is free of weapons. In practice, UNIFIL is an expensive charade. Hezbollah holds absolute sway in southern Lebanon. And now, just in time for the Security Council’s annual vote, the Lebanese terrorist organization has shown once again that it determines what is permissible for UNIFIL, including whether and how the peacekeepers can monitor the Lebanese-Israeli border, known as the Blue Line.
Each year, as part of the ritual of renewing UNIFIL’s mandate, Hezbollah puts out barely veiled threats, mainly targeting France and other European countries that contribute troops to UNIFIL, warning against any attempt to alter the status quo. Last month, through its usual channels in the Lebanese press, Hezbollah once again leveled its customary threats. The warning referred to, among other things, UNIFIL’s attempt to enhance its surveillance capabilities through the installation of advanced cameras at locations near the Blue Line.
Controversy over UNIFIL’s surveillance began last year, after UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres issued a report with recommendations to increase the force’s efficiency ahead of last year’s UNIFIL mandate renewal. In June, pro-Hezbollah Lebanese media claimed that UNIFIL’s head of mission, Major General Stefano Del Col, was abandoning the plan to install advanced cameras a month before he was due to brief the Security Council.
Guterres’ report identified options “for enhancing UNIFIL mandate implementation efforts.” The options included “employing additional new technology” to supplement tools already in use, such as closed-circuit television, sensors and automated access control systems. “More advanced technology such as thermal cameras, high-tech binoculars and unmanned aerial vehicles,” the report said, “could enhance monitoring along the Blue Line and other parts of the area of operations.” Referring to force protection upgrades at 19 positions close to the Blue Line, the report noted that UNIFIL “intends to augment them with long-range, night-enabled cameras…to increase force protection and observation capabilities.”
In October 2020, Guterres reported in a letter to the president of the Security Council that “UNIFIL has initiated discussions with the parties” on the use of cameras. The mission, he added, “has completed a comprehensive plan for enhanced video surveillance” at those 19 positions along the Blue Line. By that point, Guterres seemed to have given up hope of improving surveillance in other parts of the UNIFIL area of operations.
This past spring, as UNIFIL initiated preparatory work to install the cameras, it faced backlash from Hezbollah in the form of manufactured “popular outrage.” The pro-Hezbollah newspaper al-Akhbar reported the project had to be frozen temporarily as a result of local and municipal objections (in line with Hezbollah’s position). The newspaper explained that locals opposed the plan in part because the cameras would serve as an extension of Israel’s camera network on the other side of the border, covering Israel’s blind spots. In addition, the paper said, the cameras could monitor activities on the land of local villagers.
In defense of its plan, UNIFIL command asserted that it had coordinated with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in deciding to install cameras. As part of its mandate, UNIFIL coordinates closely with the LAF to reassert Beirut’s sovereignty over the border region. The problem is, despite having received billions of dollars in U.S. military assistance, the LAF simply runs interference for Hezbollah. Despite at first claiming to have LAF support, Del Col backtracked, explaining that UNIFIL was “listening to our strategic partners, the Lebanese Armed Forces,” suggesting that his decision to halt the installation of new technology came in response to the LAF’s counsel.
Al-Akhbar provided more detail. It claimed the LAF commander informed the French that Hezbollah “will not approve the project,” and the LAF therefore “advises that the matter be ignored, as no one wants a confrontation.” Given Hezbollah’s history of targeting UNIFIL contingents whenever they step out of line, the implicit threat would not have been lost on the French.
Hezbollah drove its point home during the war in Gaza last May. While the group did not open a second front against Israel from Lebanon, it did orchestrate “popular protests” along the border fence, which the protesters breached. The message appears to have been intended as much for UNIFIL as for the Israelis. To wit, protesters in the village of al-Adaisseh climbed an observation tower at the border to destroy the surveillance cameras installed on it, while others tried to break the cameras by hurling rocks at them. Hezbollah media pointedly documented the attack.
Hezbollah has a history with surveillance cameras in this area. Last year, one of Hezbollah’s agencies, the so-called environmental group Green Without Borders, planted trees to block Israeli cameras mounted on observation towers along the border. Israel uncovered Hezbollah cross-border attack tunnels along the same stretch of the border in late 2018. The LAF continues to deny UNIFIL access to these sites and others under the same pretext it used for nixing the cameras: invasion of private property.
In a report last month on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which provides UNIFIL its mandate, Guterres confirmed that the LAF requested that the camera installation not proceed at this time. Al-Akhbar’s claim about Del Col scrapping that project, therefore, was amplifying the LAF’s decision with the added message, ahead of the Security Council meeting, that the matter is now settled and the plan is effectively dead.
The same thing happened with another of Guterres’ recommendations, in yet another example of the LAF acting as Hezbollah’s proxy. UNIFIL has made clear that it was not even considering the use of surveillance drones. As with the cameras, the LAF had already vetoed the use of surveillance drones last year, and the idea was killed immediately.
The status quo is absurd. Two organizations—UNIFIL and the LAF—that successive U.S. administrations have underwritten are at best ineffective and at worst complicit.
From the vantage point of the U.S. national interest, the only meaningful policy option is to put an end to the whole farce. The Trump administration had a chance to do so in its final year, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to veto the renewal of UNIFIL’s mandate. But Pompeo never followed through. And if the Trump administration balked at terminating the status quo, the Biden administration certainly will not pursue such an option, busy as it is appeasing Hezbollah’s masters in Tehran. Alternatively, Congress could defund UNIFIL, but that remains unlikely with Biden’s party in control of both chambers. Washington therefore will continue to spend American taxpayer dollars underwriting the pro-Hezbollah arrangement in Lebanon.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he focuses on Lebanon, Hezbollah, Syria, and the geopolitics of the Levant. He tweets @AcrossTheBay. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.