March 2024 Monthly Forecast

Posted 29 February 2024
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Expected Council Action 

In March, Council members expect to receive a briefing in consultations on the Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 1701. Adopted in 2006, resolution 1701 called for a cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah. The Secretary-General’s report, which is due on 7 March, will cover the period from 21 October 2023 to 20 February. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Joanna Wronecka and a representative of the Department of Peace Operations are the expected briefers. 

Key Recent Developments 

Following the outbreak of the war between Israel and Hamas on 7 October 2023, near-daily exchanges of fire across the Blue Line between Israel and Hezbollah and other armed groups in Lebanon continue to give rise to serious concerns about a major escalation of violence in southern Lebanon as well as in the wider region. (For background on the war in Gaza, see the “The Middle East, including the Palestinian Question” brief in our January Monthly Forecast. The Blue Line is a withdrawal line set by the UN in 2000 to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon. While not representing an international border, it acts in practice as a boundary between Lebanon and Israel in the absence of an agreed border between the two states.) 

The exchanges of fire—the most intense since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah—have resulted in casualties among both combatants and civilians on both sides of the Blue Line. As at 22 February, 273 people have been killed in Lebanon since the escalation, including 42 civilians, while 16 people have been killed in Israel, including six civilians, according to data cited by the wire service Agence France Presse. Briefing the 22 February Security Council meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland said that approximately 100,000 Israelis and over 87,000 Lebanese have been displaced from their communities.  

The recent intensification of the strikes, and statements by Israeli and Hezbollah officials, have caused concerns that brinkmanship may soon give way to open conflict. According to a 14 February statement by Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) reported “a concerning shift” in the fire exchanges between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and armed groups in Lebanon, “including targeting of areas far from the Blue Line”. On 15 February, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi reportedly said that Israel is “intensifying the strikes all the time, and Hezbollah are paying an increasingly heavy price”, while on 14 February, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said that fire from southern Lebanon would end “when the attack on Gaza stops and there is a ceasefire”, adding that if Israel expands “the confrontation, we will do the same”.  

On 25 February, Israeli Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant reportedly said that a temporary pause in fighting in Gaza will not apply to Lebanon, adding that Israel’s aim is “to push Hezbollah away from the Israeli border, either through a diplomatic agreement or by force”. On 26 February, Israeli airstrikes near the city of Baalbek, northeast of Beirut, marked their deepest strikes into Lebanese territory since the escalation, and were followed by Hezbollah firing 60 rockets towards an IDF post in the Israeli-occupied Golan. On 27 February, Wronecka expressed deep concern at the “gradual expansion in the exchange of fire across the Blue Line in scope, scale and intensity”, urging an immediate halt to the cycle of violence and a return to a cessation of hostilities. 

Diplomatic initiatives by the US and France have focused on de-escalation and on bringing the parties to a negotiation process over disputed areas along the Blue Line as a way to promote diplomatic solutions and disincentivise military confrontation. However, these efforts have yet to bear fruit. 

Against this backdrop, UNIFIL continues to work to implement its mandate, including through patrols in its area of operations and engagement with local officials and conflict parties. At the time of writing, no fatalities among UNIFIL peacekeepers have been reported since the start of the escalation. Some peacekeepers have been wounded, however, and several of the mission’s positions have been hit.  

The US and several other donor countries suspended aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)—which provides services in 12 Palestine refugee camps in Lebanon—after Israel accused 12 of its staff members of having participated in the Hamas-led 7 October 2023 attack. UNRWA fired the staff members associated with the allegations and, upon request of the UN Secretary-General, the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), the main investigative body of the UN, began investigating the allegations. In a 22 February statement, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said that, to date, Israel had not shared any evidence with UNRWA regarding the allegations against UNRWA staff. (Separately, the UN also mandated an independent review led by former French Minister of Foreign Affairs Catherine Colonna on how UNRWA upholds neutrality principles.)  

Director of UNRWA Affairs in Lebanon Dorothee Klaus recently stressed that the suspension of aid will leave the Agency without funding by the end of February and highlighted the dire consequences for the estimated 250,000 Palestine refugees in Lebanon, including in terms of schooling and healthcare.  

Lebanon has been without a president for over a year since Michel Aoun’s term ended on 31 October 2022, with opposing politico-sectarian blocks unable to agree on a compromise candidate. The presidential vacuum is compounded by the fact that Lebanon’s government remains in caretaker status. To avoid an additional anticipated vacuum, the Lebanese parliament voted on 15 December 2023 to extend Lebanese Armed Forces Commander Joseph Aoun’s term for one year. 

Almost two years since the April 2022 Staff Level Agreement between Lebanon and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Lebanon does not appear to be close to satisfying the preconditions set by the IMF to support the country with around $3 billion.  

Anti-refugee sentiment continues to be a source of concern in Lebanon, which hosts the largest number of refugees per capita in the world. 

The investigation into responsibility for the 4 August 2020 Beirut port explosion remains stalled. 

Human Rights-Related Developments 

Noting that “[k]illings in foreign territory are arbitrary when they are not authorised under international law”, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Ben Saul, and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Morris Tidball-Binz, recently condemned Israel’s alleged killings of a Hamas deputy leader and six others in Lebanon, “which would amount to extrajudicial killings and crimes of murder”. They added that “Israel was not exercising self-defence because it presented no evidence that the victims were committing an armed attack on Israel from Lebanese territory” and that Israel has not provided any legal justification for the strike or reported it to the Security Council, as required by Article 51 of the UN Charter. Saul and Tidball-Binz also emphasised that Lebanon “has a duty to prevent the use of its territory to prepare terrorist acts against Israeli civilians, and to investigate, arrest and prosecute or extradite suspects involved in terrorism in Lebanon or Israel, in accordance with human rights law”. 

Key Issues and Options 

The continuing exchanges of fire across the Blue Line and the risk of the expansion of the war in Gaza to Lebanon and the wider region are major issues of concern for Council members. Open war in southern Lebanon would have potentially catastrophic effects on the country, where the inability of politicians to agree on a presidential candidate is normalising the paralysis of key Lebanese institutions and, in turn, decreasing the chances of addressing the country’s ongoing socioeconomic problems. 

Council members and UN member states may consider stepping up diplomatic efforts to emphasise to all actors involved that brinkmanship is likely to have disastrous consequences. The Council may consider issuing a statement calling on all relevant parties on both sides of the Blue Line to cease fire, make use of UNIFIL’s liaison and coordination mechanisms, and adhere to resolution 1701. The statement could also emphasise the importance of respecting international law and stress that civilians and civilian objects must never be targeted.  

Though not addressing the causes of the long-standing hostility between Israel and Hezbollah, a ceasefire in Gaza would likely contribute to quietening the situation along the Blue Line, possibly opening space for indirect talks between Lebanon and Israel. While the Palestinian question remains unresolved, however, the risk of a regional conflagration connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and involving Lebanon is likely to persist even after the end of the war between Israel and Hamas. The resumption of a political process between Israelis and Palestinians to move towards a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and achieve a two-state solution would have beneficial effects for the whole region, however remote the possibility currently appears. A key issue for Council members and UN member states would be to build effectively on any political momentum in the region to better support Lebanon in overcoming its own multi-layered crises.  

Council Dynamics 

Although the Council has not met on Lebanon since Algeria, Guyana, the Republic of Korea, Sierra Leone, and Slovenia joined in January, the arrival of these five members seems unlikely to change the Council’s broad support for Lebanon’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence, and security.  

Members agree that a full-scale conflict between Israel and Hezbollah should be avoided. During the 22 February Council meeting on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”, several Council members expressed concern about the possibility for the war in Gaza to expand regionally, with members including Japan, Slovenia, and Russia referring specifically to the situation in Lebanon. France, the penholder on Lebanon, stressed that full respect for resolution 1701, by all parties and with the assistance of UNIFIL, is necessary to the stability of the country and the whole region. 

Council members continue to have differences over Hezbollah. Some members distinguish between Hezbollah’s political and military wings and have designated only its military wing as a terrorist organisation. Other members, including the UK and the US, have listed Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organisation. In contrast, Russia sees Hezbollah as a legitimate sociopolitical force.  

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Security Council Resolutions
11 August 2006S/RES/1701 This resolution expanded UNIFIL by 15,000 troops and expanded its mandate.
2 September 2004S/RES/1559 This resolution urged withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon, disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias, extension of the Lebanese government’s control over all Lebanese territory and free and fair presidential elections.

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