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One IDF unit in Tel Aviv has a mission very different from that of the forces pounding Hizbullah in the North - getting humanitarian assistance to Lebanon.
Following the escalation in violence last month, officers from the IDF's Foreign Relations Unit decided to set up an operations room in a base in northern Tel Aviv to coordinate international efforts to provide aid to Lebanon despite the army's naval-air-land siege of the country. On Monday, The Jerusalem Post received a first-hand look at the operations room headed by Lt.-Col. Yigal Haccoun and manned by representatives of the Foreign Ministry, the United Nations and the Red Cross.
Since Operation Change of Direction was launched on July 12, the IDF has helped coordinate the evacuation of at least 70,000 foreign nationals from Lebanon, Haccoun said. A total of 213 passenger ships, 123 land convoys and 196 helicopters have been allowed to dock in or travel through Lebanon to evacuate the expatriates and tourists. Haccoun and his men ensured that the convoys were able to travel on approved routes, without fear that they would get caught in the middle of IDF-Hizbullah gunbattles or in the sights of IAF jets.
"We wanted the foreigners to leave so they wouldn't get hurt," Haccoun said, adding that he had received carte blanche from the government to allow foreigners to leave Lebanon. "Foreign casualties could have an adverse affect on the continuation of the IDF operations in Lebanon," he said. "We hope that what we are doing here gives Israel the ability to continue its operation and relieves some of the international pressure."
The coordination office has handled thousands of requests from countries and relief agencies. Some 57 planes have been allowed to land at Beirut International Airport to unload humanitarian goods intended for residents of southern Lebanon, he said.
For Haccoun, this job is more than just his duty. A resident of northern Israel who left his own home because of the Katyusha attacks, Haccoun said he sympathized with the refugees in Lebanon, as he himself was a refugee. "We know that the humanitarian situation in Lebanon is difficult," he said. "But we are doing our best to help the situation and the Lebanese people."
Most of the planes delivering aid to Beirut, he said, were Jordanian and took off from Amman. In some cases, he said, the items came from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and were first flown to Amman. There it was transferred to Jordanian planes, which were then allowed to land in Beirut. Bombed by the IAF in the initial days of the war, the Beirut airport's runway were now unsuitable for large passenger planes, he said, and could only handle Hercules military transports.
"We have [good] relations with the Jordanians and trust them not to assist in smuggling weapons into Lebanon," he said. Three to six planes land in Beirut daily, he said.
The operations room, open around the clock, receives hundreds of requests a day ranging from Red Cross officials interested in visiting villages in southern Lebanon to foreign diplomats making sure the air force knows their address in Beirut so they don't bomb them.
Most of the requests, Haccoun said, were reviewed by him and then forwarded to the Northern Command, the navy and the IAF for final approval. Ships wanting to enter Lebanon needed the approval of the navy's commander and planes wishing to land in Beirut needed the personal approval of IDF chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, Haccoun said. Several VIPs have visited the operations room, including US Ambassador to Israel Richard Jones.
Each request was evaluated based on the IDF's operational plan in the area of Lebanon concerned, he said. "If it is an area where we know there is heavy fighting then we will usually not allow the convoys to travel there," he added.
One example of coordination, Haccoun said, took place last week when a UN convoy was permitted to travel to Tabnin in south Lebanon. "The UN trucks were there and then we got a call from the Northern Command warning us that they were about to begin shelling the village," he said Monday. "We immediately called up the UN officials on the ground and warned them, and they left immediately."
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