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UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to recommend Monday that the rules of engagement of the enhanced UNIFIL force to be deployed in Lebanon include opening fire on Hizbullah where necessary, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
While UN Security Council Resolution 1701 mandated an enhanced UNIFIL force to help the Lebanese Army deploy south and along the border with Syria, it did not spell out the operational procedures of this force.
Israel has been pushing for the need for an effective force, arguing that one of the criteria would be the ability to open fire on Hizbullah if the force saw, for instance, Hizbullah launching rockets toward Israel. This matter came up at a meeting Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni held last week in New York with Annan.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in a telephone conversation in the afternoon with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi on Sunday, said that Israel would like to see Italy lead the force, a change from the widespread expectation that France would be heading it up.
According to a statement issued from Olmert's office, the prime minister told Prodi that Israel viewed Italy's sending troops as "vital" to the implementation of the resolution and that this would be an important contribution to "peace and security in the Middle East."
Olmert told Prodi that it was not only important that Italy lead this force, but also that Rome send troops to monitor the Lebanese-Syrian border to stop the rearmament of Hizbullah.
Prodi, according to the Prime Minister's Office, said that Italy intended to send a "significant" force, and that he would bring the issue up before the Italian parliament "as soon as possible."
The question of the rules of engagement was addressed last Thursday in New York at a meeting of those countries considering sending troops to the force, with some of those countries opposed to being able to open fire, concerned that Hizbullah would then shoot back.
Nevertheless, reports reaching Jerusalem Sunday indicated that Annan, in interim suggestions that are expected to be presented Monday, would give UNIFIL clear authorization to open fire.
"This is to date the most explicit expression of the upgrade to the UNIFIL force that has yet been received," one senior diplomatic official said.
Nevertheless, even if the UNIFIL forces had authorization to open fire, whether they would indeed do so and subject themselves to a firefight with Hizbullah is questionable. Officials in the Prime Minister's Office reserved judgment, saying they wanted to see the recommendation before responding.
In a related development, Olmert said after the cabinet meeting Sunday that Israel would not agree to the participation in this force of countries who do not have ties with Israel. Ironically, the countries that have expressed the most interest in sending troops to the force are from Muslim countries without diplomatic relations with Israel: Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh.
Senior officials in Jerusalem said Sunday, after meetings Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul held in Jerusalem with Olmert, Livni and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, that Israel had no objection to Turkey - also a Muslim country - taking part in the force.
Turkish officials said that Ankara had not yet made a final decision on whether to send troops, and the decision would depend to a large extent on the rules of engagement. Gul paid a few hours' visit to Jerusalem on Sunday afternoon after going to Lebanon. He also met in the evening with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Livni told the cabinet that it was understood in her meeting with Annan that any decision on the makeup of the force would be made in consultation with Israel.
Peretz said that the UNIFIL force was a central factor in the Lebanese Army's deployment in southern Lebanon, and that a professional, multinational force made up of 15,000 troops deployed in the South and on Lebanon's border with Israel would be an "important test." He added that the deployment of this force would change public opinion in Israel about the war and bring about "an understanding of the achievements of the operation."
Israel would continue to prevent the deployment of the Lebanese army within two kilometers of the border until the new UNIFIL force was deployed, Peretz said, adding that Israel would not allow Hizbullah to return to the border.
"If a multinational force deploys in southern Lebanon, and we find ourselves facing a demilitarized zone, then from our point of view the goals were achieved," Peretz said of the outcome of the war.
Peretz was not the only one in the meeting casting the war as a victory. Olmert said that Israel had not been surprised by Hizbullah's capabilities during the war, and knew that it had amassed thousand of missiles over the years.
"We were aware of Syria and Iran's contribution to Hizbullah, and knew the extent of their weaponry," he said. "In the last few years we chose to focus on other important issues that led to the building of a stronger Israel. The fighting enabled us to uncover Hizbullah's abilities and to change the reality of the past."
Peretz warned that the international community was ignoring immediate Iranian involvement in the rehabilitation of southern Lebanon, including the providing of Iranian funds to the population. International financial assistance in rehabilitating southern Lebanon was critical, he said.
The defense minister, responding to the public criticism of the outcome of the war, said that Hizbullah had presented itself as the victor, but "if you look at the facts, there is no doubt that this was a victory for Israel."
Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz also claimed victory, though "on points" and not by a "knockout."
"We never said it would be a knockout," Halutz was quoted as telling the cabinet. "But with time you will see that if you add up the points the goals were achieved." Halutz defined these goals as regaining deterrence, delivering Hizbullah a painful blow, pushing Lebanon and the Lebanese army into taking responsibility for the country, and creating pressure on Hizbullah to release the captured IDF soldiers.
Regarding the chorus of complaints from reservists about the way the war was carried out, Halutz said that all complaints would be looked into and that the IDF had nothing to hide. "We will examine ourselves, from myself to the last of the soldiers," he said.
He said that, alongside the stories of bravery and heroism, there were "other things that need to be changed. And just as we will give out medals, we will also give out the opposite," he said.
Halutz said that during the war Israel had killed some 500 Hizbullah fighters and damaged some 10,000 Hizbullah targets. He added that the Lebanese army had begun deploying some 1,500 troops in the south, including 50 tanks and 100 armored personnel carriers.
Olmert, meanwhile, warned the cabinet ministers against talking either of war or peace with Syria. "People do not have to warn us of the Syrian war threat on a daily basis, nor, on the other hand, immediately jump forth to negotiate with the country," he said.
He said that comments of war or peace with Syria were not necessarily understood in Damascus as intended. "We must be very careful at this time, even though we are prepared for anything," he said.
Peretz last week suggested the possibility of negotiating with Syria when he said that the war may have created an opportunity for renewed dialogue with Syria. Syrian President Bashar Assad, meanwhile, warned last week that peace was not the only way Syria could regain the Golan.