Israeli overflights of Lebanon are a violation of the UN cease-fire resolution and if current diplomatic efforts fail to stop the incursions, force might be considered in the future, the UN peacekeeping chief in Lebanon said Thursday.
Maj.-Gen. Alain Pelligrini said France has deployed anti-aircraft missiles to southern Lebanon but at the moment the missiles can only be used for self-defense to protect French soldiers serving in the UN force. He said new rules of engagement would be needed to use force to prevent Israeli overflights.
The overflights have sparked a disagreement between Israel and Lebanon. Defense Minister Amir Peretz has said the overflights are necessary because Hizbullah is being resupplied with weapons, in violation of the UN resolution.
He told a parliamentary committee on Monday that French peacekeepers in Lebanon have warned Israel that their jets may not remain immune if they continue to violate Lebanese airspace.
Israel contends its overflights do not contradict UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which included the cease-fire that brought an end to 34 days of fighting between Israel and Hizbullah on August 14. The resolution calls for both sides to respect the UN boundary known as the Blue Line drawn by the UN after Israel ended its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.
Pelligrini, who is a French national, disagreed with the Israelis.
"They are violations because you have a foreign jet crossing first the Blue Line and entering the national Lebanese airspace," he said.
Under Resolution 1701, he said, UN peacekeepers have "formal tasks of monitoring the Blue Line and a foreign jet crossing the Blue Line is a violation." Pelligrini said the Israeli air violations are "our major concern" even though the number has diminished slightly, and every one is immediately reported to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and protests are sent to the Israelis.
"At the moment, we have not other means to prevent this kind of violation than dialogue and diplomatic ways," he said. "If the diplomatic means should not be enough, maybe it could be considered other ways, we never know."
Did that mean that in the future the UN force might consider preventing the overflights by force? "It could be. It could be," Pelligrini replied.
"l think that it could be considered, and it will depend on new rules of engagement drafted and decided here" at UN headquarters, he said.
The French units of UNIFIL have deployed with anti-aircraft batteries. The rules of engagement allowed these weapons to be used only in self-defense in case a position was under imminent attack by air, no matter who attacks, a spokesman for Annan told The Jerusalem Post Thursday night.
Any change of the rules of the engagement to allow for a more liberal use of these weapons would need to be based on a political decision by the UN Secretariat and the countries contributing troops to the peacekeeping force. Such a decision is not on the horizon, the spokesman said.
French peacekeeping forces have routinely deployed with such weapons since their peacekeepers were attacked by helicopters in Cote d'Ivoire in November 2004.
Aside from the air violations, Pelligrini said, there have been no cease-fire violations on the ground.
"At the moment, we have not detected, spotted, any person with illegal weapons" in the UN area of operations from the Litani River to the Blue Line in southern Lebanon, he said.
Pelligrini said he had received reports from the Lebanese army on smuggled weapons its forces had intercepted elsewhere, presumably on the Syrian border.
"I think all these moves decreased very rapidly, and now they stopped according to what I know," he said.
The UN force commander said he was "very pleased" with the rapid deployment of the Lebanese army throughout southern Lebanon for the first time.
Pelligrini said the UN peacekeeping force currently has 7,200 troops, including 1,500 that are part of a maritime task force led by Germany whose aim is to prevent weapons smuggling by sea.
The Security Council authorized up to 15,000 troops for the UN force, but Pelligrini said with more than 10,000 Lebanese troops also deployed in southern Lebanon such a large UN force isn't necessary.
"For us at the moment, it's not useful to reach 15,000 for UNIFIL, and we stop before - maybe around 10,000," he said. "We'll see, according to the situation and the need."