UNIFIL 248 88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Last Thursday, a group of flag-waving Lebanese gathered just north of Metulla wearing yellow shirts in support of Hizbullah. Numbering more than 100, the demonstrators threw rocks at passing IDF vehicles. Israel's response: Nothing.
These demonstrations, even when their participants are unarmed, are currently the biggest headache for the IDF. This is not because they represent a direct threat to the lives of Israeli soldiers stationed along the Blue Line (Israel's international border with Lebanon), but because their presence is reminiscent of the events of May 2000, following Israel's sudden withdrawal from Lebanon. Back then, at first, unarmed Hizbullah demonstrators began approaching the fence in groups; then came armed guerrillas; and soon after, fortifications were established along the border.
Though Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz this week praised United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 in interviews each gave to The Jerusalem Post (see today's Front Lines for the full interview with Olmert, and Sunday's Yom Kippur supplement for the full interview with Peretz), high-ranking IDF officers involved in the talks with UNIFIL and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) were less than enthusiastic.
The way things look now, the IDF will not pull its remaining several hundred troops out of Lebanon before the middle of next week - and possibly later. Holding up the final withdrawal are the rules of engagement adopted by UNIFIL - in particular those spelled out by UNIFIL chief Maj.-Gen. Alain Pellegrini in an interview with the Post last week: that the peacekeeping force would not automatically engage Hizbullah guerrillas, even if they were on their way to, or in the midst of, an attack against Israel.
During a meeting with Pellegrini on Tuesday, the officers, led by IDF Strategic Planning Division Brig.-Gen. Udi Dekel, held up a copy of his interview and confronted him on his comments, which they said were in direct opposition to previous understandings and interpretations of 1701.
These include UNIFIL's doing more than just "assisting" the LAF. If peacekeeping forces spot Hizbullah gunmen, Israel wants be to be notified immediately, and wants UNIFIL to engage the guerrillas - not, as Pellegrini said: "If we see something dangerous, we will inform the Lebanese army, and it will decide whether it will act independently or consider having a joint reaction together with us."
The IDF is also demanding the establishment of a joint IDF-UNIFIL war room for the coordination of events as they happen.
The New York Times later reported that several top UNIFIL commanders were complaining that the rules of engagement did not allow them even to set up roadblocks or search vehicles, including those that appeared to be transporting weapons to Hizbullah.
AT THE moment, the difference between the "old" and "new" UNIFIL is difficult to discern, other than the number of troops deployed (by the end of November, 8,000 soldiers are expected to be in Lebanon, alongside 15,000 LAF troops, in comparison to the 2,000 before the war). In the absence of teeth and more aggressive rules of engagement, the new force will be just like its predecessor.
One of the officers involved in the talks with UNIFIL said this week that he believed that the issues would be ironed out in time. Citing last Thursday's demonstration near Metulla, the officer said the IDF informed UNIFIL of the gathering, and that the latter checked it out and informed its Israeli counterparts that they had nothing to worry about.
But with predictions that a new round of violence with Hizbullah could erupt soon - the Post has learned that in closed talks, Dekel assessed that clashes would restart in a year - the IDF now has the opportunity, according to some officers in the Northern Command, to use its remaining soldiers in Lebanon to pressure the UN to provide UNIFIL with sharper teeth. Israel, these officers claim, could even threaten to deploy more troops in Lebanon until it feels that UNIFIL is holding up its end of the bargain.
One of the first missions of Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot - who was appointed this week as the new OC Northern Command to replace Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam - will be to oversee the IDF's return to Israel and the new deployment along the Blue Line. On Wednesday, Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz told the cabinet that troops would be allowed to open fire at rock-throwing Lebanese demonstrators. Whether they actually do this, however, will ultimately be up to Eizenkot.