IAF jet 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Contrary to Israeli hopes that the new multinational force in Lebanon will engage and disarm Hizbullah, the beefed up UNIFIL will not immediately open fire on Hizbullah guerrillas if they are on their way to an attack or even in the midst of an attack on Israel, the commander of the UN peacekeeping force, Maj.-Gen. Alain Pellegrini, told The Jerusalem Post Thursday in an exclusive interview.
In his first interview to an Israeli paper since the war in Lebanon, Pellegrini revealed that last week a Syrian weapons convoy on its way to Hizbullah was intercepted by the Lebanese army near the Lebanese-Syrian border.
While the new rules of engagement set by the UN allowed the new UNIFIL force to open fire in order to implement resolution 1701, Pellegrini said he would not automatically order his troops to open fire on Hizbullah guerrillas if they were spotted on their way to the Blue Line to attack Israel. The job of the new multinational force, he said, was to assist the Lebanese army and not to disarm or engage Hizbullah or even to prevent its attacks.
According to UN Security Council resolution 1701, UNIFIL was in Lebanon to "assist the Lebanese army," Pellegrini said, and "to inform them and advise them how they can do their job."
"We first will observe and then inform the Lebanese army," he said. "If we see something dangerous we will inform the Lebanese army and it will decide whether it will act independently or consider having a joint reaction together with us."
UNIFIL's lack of initiative was demonstrated Thursday afternoon when hundreds of Hizbullah supporters marched right up to the border fence just north of Metulla waving Hizbullah flags.
The UNIFIL chief slammed Israel for what he called "dangerous behavior" by continuing to fly over Lebanon despite the deployment of the Lebanese army in southern Lebanon alongside the multinational force. He said there were one to five daily IAF flights over Lebanon, which he said were used to "refresh [Israeli] intelligence files of Lebanon."
"This is at the same time unacceptable and dangerous," he said. "These violations are not justifiable with the deployment of the Lebanese army and the enhancement of UNIFIL. This is not justified any longer."
Pellegrini said UNIFIL did not intend to deploy along the Lebanese-Syrian border but would only serve as a consultant to the Lebanese army on how it should deploy there. Israeli officials have expressed deep concern that, without proper supervision, the border would once again be used as a conduit to transfer weapons to Hizbullah from Syria and Iran.
"UNIFIL does not plan to deploy along the border between Lebanon and Syria," he said. "This border is airtight and hermetically closed by the Lebanese army."
New supplies of weapons, he said, were not reaching Hizbullah since the Lebanese army was fulfilling its role and preventing the illegal flow of arms from Syria into Lebanon.
"We were informed of several interceptions by the Lebanese army of weapons being smuggled from Syria into Lebanon last week," he said. "The Lebanese army is doing its job and taking its task seriously."
By Thursday, close to 5,500 foreign troops had arrived in Lebanon alongside four brigades from the Lebanese army, Pellegrini said, adding that by the beginning of November the number would rise to 8,000.
Responding to IDF predictions that a new round of violence with Hizbullah could erupt within a year, Pellegrini said it was still too early to make such a prediction.
"It is very difficult to foresee and it depends not only on the domestic situation in Lebanon but also [on] the evolution of the situation in the region," he said, adding that one thing was for certain: "Hizbullah has to recover before taking any major initiatives."
Regarding international claims that Israel's response to the July 12 kidnapping of IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser was disproportional, the UNIFIL chief refrained from repeating the word, saying, "For me, it [Israel's response] was severe punishment." The IDF Spokesperson's Office, in response to Pellegrini's accusations that the IAF was violating the cease-fire, claimed that Israel had the right to conduct surveillance flights over Lebanon until the kidnapped soldiers were returned. The IDF further called on the Lebanese army to prevent acts of aggression against Israel and to implement UN resolution 1559, which called for Hizbullah's disarmament.
"Israel has the right to continue conducting surveillance as long as the kidnapped soldiers are not returned - as is ordered in resolution 1701 - and as long as there are attempts to smuggle weapons from Syria to Lebanon without an effective response by the Lebanese army and without any effective assistance by the UN to help the Lebanese seal their border with Syria," the statement read.