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UNIFIL would like a more aggressive mandate for its forces to engage Hizbullah on their own, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
After last summer's war in Lebanon and the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, UNIFIL was beefed up from 2,000 troops to more than 12,000 and received a mandate stipulating that the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) be present during any incident involving Hizbullah in southern Lebanon.
According to the mandate's rules of engagement, UNIFIL soldiers are not allowed to engage Hizbullah guerrillas independently. They must first contact the LAF and wait for their arrival and decision whether they request UNIFIL assistance.
"There is a feeling of frustration within UNIFIL that under the current rules of engagement they are not free to do their job, which is to prevent Hizbullah rearmament in southern Lebanon," an Israeli defense official told the Post.
UNIFIL, commanded by Maj.-Gen. Claudio Graziano of Italy, cannot make changes to the rules of engagement on its own. The decision needs to be made by the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, in conjunction with countries that contribute forces to UNIFIL.
UNIFIL is considering rules of engagement that would allow its forces to engage Hizbullah if the LAF does not arrive after being alerted to an incident within a specified, and as yet undetermined, length of time. According to Israeli officials, UNIFIL sometimes waits a long time before the LAF arrives at the scene of an incident.
"This would certainly be in Israel's best interest," a source in IDF Northern Command said. "With more aggressive rules of engagement, UNIFIL would be able to more effectively carry out its role at preventing Hizbullah from rearming."
Sources in Northern Command said they have been satisfied with UNIFIL's performance and believed more could be done within the framework of the current rules of engagement.
The sources said OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot and Graziano had a good relationship. When the two met last week, they reportedly reminisced about the year they spent together at the US College of Military and Security Studies.
A senior government official who deals with the UN said he did not know of any move by UNIFIL to alter its rules of engagement. The official said UNIFIL has "enough tools to operate within the framework of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, both south and north of the Litani."
Meanwhile Thursday, the Turkish press reported that Ankara was bidding to take over command of the UNIFIL maritime force when Germany's term ends in July.
A local Turkey expert could not confirm the reports, but did say such a move would make sense from a Turkish point of view. According to the source, such a mandate would allow Turkey to raise its profile in the Middle East, something it has been trying to do for some time, at only minimal risk. In addition, the source said, the Turkish and Israeli navies had a good working relationship.
The source said a decision to take over the maritime command likely would face little opposition inside Turkey for a number of reasons: first, because it would not be considered dangerous, and second because it would not entail moving Turkish forces from the southern border with Iraq.
Turkey has 87 engineers in the multinational force, and there was some internal opposition to sending troops to the force because of the feeling that the Turkish military should concentrate on the volatile situation on its southern border with Iraq. The Turkish navy, by contrast, is not involved in the situation on that landlocked border.