Israel concerned UNIFIL force may shrink

Defense official to 'Post': Spanish election outcome may mean country pulls troops out of Lebanon.

unifil attack 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
unifil attack 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
With Lebanon in political deadlock and Hizbullah threatening to renew hostilities with Israel, defense officials in Tel Aviv expressed concern on Monday that European countries will gradually reduce their participation in UNIFIL over the coming year. A high-ranking defense official told The Jerusalem Post that Israel had indications Spain was considering withdrawing its forces from Lebanon. Spanish peacekeepers have come under repeated attacks by terrorist groups in southern Lebanon and in July, six members of the Spanish contingent were killed in an attack on their convoy near the village of el-Hiyam. The official said that due to the attacks, Spain was under growing pressure to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, in the same way it pulled out of Iraq in 2004 following the Madrid terrorist bombings earlier that year. The official said the outcome of the national elections in Spain next month could determine whether the country would continue to participate in UNIFIL. "There are signs that Spain might be on its way out," one official said. "The combination of the attacks and the political pressure back home makes it difficult to see the country staying in Lebanon past the end of the year." "Once one country pulls out the rest of the contributors will also start to rethink their participation, and it could ultimately lead to the breakdown of the entire force," the defense official said. UNIFIL was significantly enlarged - from 2,000 soldiers to more than 13,000 - following the Second Lebanon War in 2006. The official said that if war broke out with Hizbullah due to the assassination of arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus last week, UNIFIL would be expected to immediately withdraw its forces from southern Lebanon. While Israel does not count on UNIFIL to prevent Hizbullah attacks, it does see importance in European participation in trying to maintain stability in southern Lebanon. The force has succeeded in preventing Hizbullah from reestablishing its positions along the border and in southern Lebanon generally; the group has moved most of its positions north of the Litani River, where the UN force's mandate ends. European Union Ambassador to Israel Ramiro Cibrian-Uzal said Monday that he did not know of any EU member state that was considering leaving UNIFIL. "No one thought participation in the UNIFIL force would be [as easy as] a military parade," Cibrian-Uzal said, adding that "as a matter of principle, the EU remains fully committed to UNIFIL." Adding to Israel's concern is the continued political deadlock in Lebanon over the appointment of a new president since Emile Lahoud stepped down three months ago. According to a new proposal, Hizbullah could get a third of the cabinet seats, granting it the power to veto major government decisions, including the renewal of UNIFIL's mandate later this year. Meanwhile Monday, the IDF deployed a Patriot Missile battery on the outskirts of Haifa as part of precautions against a possible attack by Hizbullah in response to Mughniyeh's assassination. Officials said the battery was put on standby for the first time since the Second Lebanon War. Patriot batteries were first deployed in Israel during the 1991 Gulf War, but they failed to stop most of the 39 Scud missiles fired by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. They were originally designed to intercept aircraft, and officials said that their role in the current situation could be to shoot down bomb-laden unmanned aerial vehicles as well as incoming rockets. Mark Weiss and AP contributed to this report.