Head of UN peacekeepers in Lebanon fears wider conflict with Israel

AFP , Tuesday 14 Nov 2023

The head of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon on Tuesday expressed "deep concern" over the potential for further escalation between Israel and Hezbollah, as war rages in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli airstrike on the outskirts of Aita Al-Shaab, Lebanon
Black smoke rises from an Israeli airstrike on the outskirts of Aita Al-Shaab, a Lebanese border village with Israel in south Lebanon, Monday, Nov. 13, 2023. AP

Since the Palestinian resistance group Hamas's October 7 offensive on Israel from Gaza, Lebanon's southern border has seen intensifying tit-for-tat exchanges, mainly between Israel and Hezbollah, a Hamas ally, stoking fears of a broader conflagration.

Commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), Lieutenant General Aroldo Lazaro, expressed "deep concern about the situation in the south, and the potential for wider and more intensive hostilities".

"UNIFIL's priorities right now are to prevent escalation, safeguard civilian lives, and ensure the safety and security of peacekeepers who are trying to accomplish this," he said in a statement.

His remarks came after a meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally.

At least 88 people have been killed in Lebanon since hostilities began: more than 60 Hezbollah fighters, 13 other combatants including from Palestinian groups, and 10 civilians, according to a revised AFP tally.

Nine people have been killed in northern Israel including six soldiers, according to Israeli authorities.

Late last month, shelling lightly wounded a UN peacekeeper near the border village of Hula, just hours after UNIFIL said a shell hit its headquarters in Naqura near the Israel-Lebanon border.

The United States, France and other Western countries have warned against crisis-hit Lebanon being drawn into all-out war.

UNIFIL's "impartial role in conveying crucial messages to reduce tensions and prevent dangerous misunderstandings remains critical, aiming to avert any unwarranted escalation", Lazaro said.

He added that UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, "is being challenged at the moment".

The resolution called for the removal of weapons in southern Lebanon from the hands of everyone except the Lebanese army and other state security forces.

UNIFIL was set up in 1978 to monitor the withdrawal of Israeli forces after they invaded Lebanon.

It was bolstered after the 2006 war and its approximately 10,000 peacekeepers are tasked with monitoring the ceasefire between the two sides.

Considered a "terrorist" organisation by many Western governments, Hezbollah is the only faction not to have disarmed following Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, and is also a powerful player in Lebanese politics.

* This story was edited by Ahram Online.

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