French soldiers in Lebanon who feel threatened by aggressive Israeli overflights are permitted to shoot at IAF fighter jets, a high-ranking French military officer told The Jerusalem Post. Wednesday, several days after meeting with an IDF general in Paris to discuss what he said was a "blatant violation of the cease-fire."
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Last weekend, Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan, head of the IDF Planning Directorate, traveled to Paris and met with military officials to explain why the IAF flies over Lebanon despite the UN-brokered cease-fire.
Nehushtan, new to his post and previously deputy commander of the air force, told his French counterparts that Israel was conducting the flights to collect intelligence on Hizbullah positions in southern Lebanon.
According to the French officer, Nehushtan apologized for an incident on October 31 when an IAF fighter carried out a mock bombing run over a French UNIFIL position in southern Lebanon, almost prompting troops to fire anti-aircraft missiles.
"There was a reality on the ground and it was important for us to reaffirm what we had seen and explain clearly what are the orders of the French soldiers to protect themselves," the French officer said.
The French told Nehushtan they would view further aggressive flyovers as a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.
"No assurances were made to us that they [the IAF] would stop [the flights]," the French officer said. "The orders that the [French] soldiers have is that their weapons are for self-defense and if a commander will feel threatened, as it was about to happen on the 31st of October, he would have the right to use force."
Milos Strugar, spokesman for UNIFIL, supported the French position, saying that according to the UN resolution, UNIFIL had the right to use force in self-defense, even against Israeli aircraft.
"UNIFIL has the right to take all necessary action to protect UN personnel in self-defense," he said.
France's furor at the overflights was not divorced from French domestic political considerations, government officials in Jerusalem said Wednesday.
France is scheduled to hold the first round of presidential elections in April, and one of those reportedly considering tossing her hat into the ring is Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie.
According to these officials, taking a tough stance toward Israel on the issue - a position that grabs headlines in France - helps her raise her profile.
The officials said it didn't hurt Alliot-Marie politically to be seen as someone who needed to be "held back" from responding forcefully to the overflights.
France has said on a few occasions since the end of the war that it came close to firing at Israeli jets over Lebanon. In late October, Alliot-Marie told parliament that Israeli F-15's had dived close to French positions in southern Lebanon.
"Our troops barely avoided a catastrophe," Alliot-Marie told parliament. "Our troops find themselves in a position where they have to fire in legitimate self-defense."
Alliot-Marie is a close ally of French President Jacques Chirac, and if Chirac does not decide to run for a third term, he may back Alliot-Marie to thwart his rival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
The Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, has not - contrary to some press reports - asked the IDF to stop the overflights, diplomatic officials said. Rather, they have passed on to the IDF European concerns that the flights be performed more discreetly, and not in a way that could be interpreted by either the Lebanese or the Europeans as a provocation.
Nehushtan declined to be interviewed for this report and the IDF Spokesman's Office released a statement confirming that the IDF general had visited Paris.