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UNIFIL mandate extended as US envoy visits Lebanon

US envoy Amos Hochstein met with Lebanese officials to follow up on the maritime border agreement with Israel that allowed offshore gas exploration in Lebanese waters and to likely discuss UNIFIL's extension.
Lebanon's parliament speaker, Nabih Berri (R), receives Amos Hochstein, the US special presidential coordinator for global infrastructure and energy security, Beirut, August 30, 2023.

BEIRUT — The United Nations Security Council voted on Thursday to extend its peacekeeping mission in Lebanon for another year following a compromise between France, the United States and the United Arab Emirates on language about the freedom of movement of the UN force. 

"In a compromise with the United States and the UAE, France added back in text from last year's council resolution — which it had deleted — that demands all parties allow 'announced and unannounced patrols' by UN troops," Reuters reported. France's initial draft mandated that UNIFIL — stationed in Lebanon since 1978 — coordinate with the Lebanese government on its movements. This language was kept in the final resolution, yet with the addition on unhindered movement for the force.

The extension comes as US envoy Amos Hochstein arrived in Beirut on Wednesday for a two-day visit to discuss a range of issues, including the US-mediated maritime border agreement reached between Israel and Lebanon last year, according to a statement by the US embassy in Beirut.

Israel invaded Lebanon up to the Litani River in 1978, three years into the Lebanese civil war. Shortly thereafter, the UN Security Council established UNIFIL to oversee the withdrawal of Israeli forces. UNIFIL has since been repeatedly strengthened, and it now has some 10,500 troops patrolling the border area, the site of frequent tensions and friction between Iran-backed Hezbollah militia and Israeli forces.

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah had earlier this week warned that his movement and the people of south Lebanon would not recognize the new mandate if last year’s text on UNIFIL's freedom of movement is retained. Hezbollah has been distrustful of UNIFIL in the past, accusing it of spying for Israel.

Hochstein, special presidential coordinator for global infrastructure and energy security, held separate meetings on Thursday with Lebanon's caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, and parliament speaker Nabih Berri.

According to a parliamentary press release, during the meeting Berri stressed Lebanon's support for UNIFIL to continue patrolling the area bordering Israel, in the south. The speaker also praised Hochstein’s mediation efforts that resulted in the maritime border agreement with Israel last October.

No details on the talks between Mikati and Hochstein were made public. The US envoy also held a "productive working dinner" with the head of the Lebanese Army Joseph Aoun. Aoun is considered a contender for the presidential seat in Lebanon — vacant since November — even though he has not announced his intentions publicly.

Hochstein’s visit to Beirut comes after a consortium of international oil giants began offshore explorations for gas in Lebanese waters last week. TotalEnergies, Eni and QatarEnergy launched their effort in Block 9, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Beirut in the eastern Mediterranean. Exploration had been repeatedly delayed due to a maritime border dispute between Israel and Lebanon.

According to media reports, Hochstein had planned to raise the issue of the demarcation of the land border between Lebanon and Israel during his visit. The two countries remain technically at war.

On a separate note, Hochstein early on Thursday visited the historical Baalbek ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in eastern Lebanon. The US embassy in Beirut posted photos of the visit on Twitter and stressed Washington’s commitment to UNESCO and to “preserving irreplaceable cultural heritage.”

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