(photo credit: AP [file])
The United Nations force in southern Lebanon is on its way to "disintegrating," senior defense officials warned on Saturday, after Poland announced it was withdrawing its troops from the peacekeeping force.
Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich announced on Friday during a visit to Lebanon that the 500 Polish soldiers currently assigned to UNIFIL would return home by the end of the year.
"Poland is more and more involved in NATO and EU missions. Thus we are returning from UN missions," Klich said, adding that "they ceased to play such an important role for the security of Poland as it has been the case in the past."
Last week, The Jerusalem Post reported on Israeli concerns that US pressure on European countries to expand their contribution to the NATO war in Afghanistan could lead these countries to downsize their UNIFIL contingents in southern Lebanon.
Poland currently has 1,600 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and plans to send an additional 2,000 by the end of the year.
According to reports in the Polish media, the decision to send the extra forces to Afghanistan was made ahead of the upcoming presidential elections there in August, during which Warsaw fears it will see a rise in Taliban attacks in the Polish-patrolled southern province of Ghazni.
"Poland is the first to go but we fear that other countries will follow," one official said Saturday. "If the European countries pull out of UNIFIL, then we could find ourselves back to the same situation before the Second Lebanon War in 2006."
The defense establishment's fears focus on Spain, Italy and France, which are the primary contributors to UNIFIL. One defense official said it was possible that these countries would begin pulling troops out of Lebanon even before UNIFIL's mandate comes up for renewal in August.
UNIFIL is made up of just over 12,000 soldiers. Poland has been contributing to the force since it was formed in 1992.
UNIFIL was beefed up following Israel's war against Hizbullah in summer 2006 under UN Security Council Resolution 1701.
Last week, diplomatic officials said there had been concern for some time that France, Spain and Italy were beginning to show signs of fatigue regarding participation in multinational forces.
According to the sources, Spain, for domestic reasons, had considered pulling out of a peacekeeping mission in the Balkans - a worrisome sign of what it might want to do in Lebanon.
Italy, the sources said, was not accustomed to taking part in long-term military missions so far from its borders, while France had suffered losses in Afghanistan, leading to a national debate.
The Israeli sources said, however, that considering France's historic ties to the region, it was not expected to withdraw troops from Lebanon.