Israel okays Indonesian UNIFIL troops

Israel agreed over the weekend to Indonesia's participation in the UNIFIL force in Lebanon, backtracking from its previous objection to the participation of troops from countries that don't have diplomatic relations with Israel. Indonesia said Saturday it will send up to 1,000 troops to southern Lebanon by the month's end. Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem said Saturday night, however, that Israel still was opposed to the participation of Malaysia and Bangladesh in the force. Both those Muslim countries have also expressed interest in taking part. The sources said the difference between Indonesia and Malaysia and Bangladesh was that while the latter two countries openly supported Hizbullah in the recent conflict, the Indonesian government took a much more "moderate" approach. Furthermore, the official said, Israel has for years had some quiet diplomatic activity with Indonesia, something that cannot be said about Malaysia and Bangladesh. "We are ready to send troops by the end of the month at the latest," Indonesia's Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda told reporters while attending a conference on the resort island of Bali. Both Israel and the European countries who are making up a large part of the force have said it was important to make sure that Islamic countries were involved, so that the force did not appear to be a crusade of the West against the Islamic world. The force began to take shape Saturday as 1,000 Italian soldiers started moving in, the first large contingent of the force to arrive. According to UN Security Council Resolution 1701, the force can reach up to 15,000 troops. Turkey, another Islamic country, has also indicated it will send a contingent to the force, with the Turkish government on Friday submitting a resolution to parliament to send peacekeepers to Lebanon despite public opposition to the deployment. The parliament is expected on Tuesday to vote on the resolution authorizing a one-year deployment of an unspecified number of troops. On Friday, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul reassured Turks that Turkish soldiers would not disarm gunmen. "But of course, if the soldiers come under attack they would defend themselves," he said. Israeli government officials, while publicly welcoming Turkey's participation, have privately said that Turkey's participation could complicate Jerusalem's delicate relationship with Ankara. This relationship has become more complicated since the victory of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2002. The Turkish contribution to the expanded UN peacekeeping mission would include a naval task force to patrol the eastern Mediterranean and prevent arms smuggling. Many Turks fear that their soldiers could end up facing hostile fire or could clash with their fellow Muslims. But Erdogan offered assurances that Turkish soldiers would not be disarming Hizbullah. According to the resolution, Turkish forces would also help train Lebanese army troops and provide sea and air transport in support of other national contingents in the UN force. "Turkey having a military presence beyond its borders would be a prestigious development," Turhan Comez, a legislator from the ruling Justice and Development Party, acknowledged. "However, such a risk taken under these unstable conditions will draw Turkey into the line of fire, and I don't even want to think of the consequences." The government asked parliament Friday to approve sending peacekeepers. The lawmakers are expected to vote on the resolution Tuesday - the day UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is to arrive in Ankara. The number of troops is expected to range between 500-1,000. "Turkey has an obligation as a regional power and the old guardian of the Middle East to exert its positive influence on developments," Editor-in-Chief Ilnur Cevik wrote in The New Anatolian. "It would be treason to our history, our future and the high interests of our people to stay away," Erdogan said Thursday, playing on the emotional outpouring of support for the Lebanese and calling it Turkey's duty to protect the innocent women, children and elderly of Lebanon. "Let's not forget: If we shut our doors, we can't escape the flames that are surrounding us," Erdogan told the nation in a televised address Thursday. "The only way to protect our interests is to be part of the process nearby instead of remaining as spectators." "If you stay away, you become spectators to the killings of innocent people and to your own future," he said. The government also is aware that responding to the EU call for help could boost Ankara's efforts to join the European Union. Meanwhile, Spain's Cabinet on Friday approved sending 1,100 troops to the force, calling it a "legitimate" mission to help maintain peace in the region. Parliament is now set to vote on the deployment next Thursday. The Socialist government - which in 2004 withdrew 1,300 troops from Iraq shortly after taking power from the previous, conservative administration, saying the US-led invasion was illegal - said the new deployment is legitimate because it has a UN mandate. Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said both Israel and Hizbullah agreed to the force, and that Europeans will form the core of the mission. "It is an operation that falls within international law," she told a news conference. "It is a peace operation in a country that has been destroyed."