BEIRUT -- Lebanon's prime minister visited United Nations peacekeepers in the country's south near the border with Israel on Wednesday, describing the presence of the force in the volatile area as a necessity.
The visit by Prime Minister Hassan Diab comes amid the backdrop of a war of words between Israeli and Lebanese officials, including the powerful Hezbollah group, over the mandate of the U.N. force, known as UNIFIL. The force has been deployed in southern Lebanon since an Israeli invasion in 1978.
Israel is calling for major changes in the way the mission in southern Lebanon operates on the ground, demanding that it have access to all sites and freedom of movement and that it report back to the Security Council if it is being blocked.
The head of Lebanon's Hezbollah group, Hassan Nasrallah, said late Tuesday that Lebanon will not accept a change of mandate for UNIFIL to allow it to raid and search areas, calling it a violation of the country's sovereignty. Nasrallah said the U.S. is pressuring Lebanon to accept such a change.
“They want to reduce UNIFIL numbers? Go ahead. Increase them? Go ahead,” Nasrallah said, adding if they also want to leave it will be no problem. “But we consider expanding its mandate an infringement on Lebanese sovereignty.”
Diab said the presence of the troops was “necessary and urgent” in light of the ongoing "violations by Israel of Lebanon’s sovereignty by land, sea and air.”
The quibble over the UNIFIL mandate comes up every year before the mandate is renewed in the summer.
The peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon was originally created to oversee the withdrawal of Israeli troops after the 1978 invasion. The mission was expanded after a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah militants so that peacekeepers could deploy along the Lebanon-Israel border to help Lebanese troops extend their authority into their country’s south for the first time in decades.
Israel has repeatedly accused Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants of impeding the peacekeepers from carrying out their mandate.
On Tuesday, residents of the southern village of Blida protested against UNIFIL troops, accusing the Finnish battalion conducting patrols of damaging cars in the village. UNIFIL said it was investigating the incident.
UNIFIL includes more than 9,400 ground troops and over 850 naval personnel in a Maritime Task Force.