UNIFIL denies failing to report Hizbullah activity

Defense Ministry hopes to obtain commitment from the UN that it will engage Hizbullah fighters.

UNIFIL 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
UNIFIL 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
UNIFIL on Tuesday denied Israeli accusations that the international force was failing to report illegal Hizbullah activity in southern Lebanon so as to avoid a full-blown confrontation with the guerrilla group. In a statement, UNIFIL said that it operated according to the correct procedures and according to the situation on the ground, emphasizing that it submits reports of illegal activity to the United Nation Security Council. At the end of March, UN forces confronted a suspicious pickup truck that was carrying weaponry, and armed men following it in two vehicles. Defense officials said Monday that a full report on the incident had not been submitted to the Security Council. According to the officials, the UN troops had the option of using force to stop the weapons shipment, but instead decided to withdraw and not engage the armed men. According to the officials, the UN troops had the option of using force to stop the weapons shipment, but instead decided to withdraw and not engage the armed men. Meanwhile, ahead of the renewal of UNIFIL's mandate this summer, and especially in light of suspicions that UNIFIL was not acting as required by its current mandate, the Defense Ministry is hoping to clarify the peacekeeping force's rules of engagement and obtain a commitment from the UN that it will engage Hizbullah fighters when they are spotted and not only when fired upon. UNIFIL operates according to a Chapter 6 mandate, which allows it to open fire only in self-defense and prevents it from entering Lebanese villages without an escort from the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Ideally Israel would like the UN force to receive a Chapter 7 mandate, which would give UNIFIL robust enforcement capabilities, but is aware that the UN and Lebanon will not agree. "We want UNIFIL to employ a more lax interpretation of the 'self-defense' concept," a top defense official said Monday. "In the case in March, they decided to withdraw, since they were not under attack. We [however] understand the fact that there are armed men to be enough to use force in self-defense." While Israel wants UNIFIL to be straightforward in its reports to the UN, the official said Israel understood that UNIFIL was under immense internal pressures and was concerned that if it portrayed its mission as dangerous, European countries might begin to withdraw their troops from the peacekeeping force. Noting the current situation in Afghanistan, where a number of countries have begun downsizing their participation in the UN force, the senior defense official warned that the same thing could happen with UNIFIL. In February, The Jerusalem Post reported on growing concern in the Defense Ministry that European countries might begin to gradually reduce their participation in UNIFIL over the coming year due to the political deadlock in Lebanon and Hizbullah's threats to renew of hostilities with Israel. According to Dr. Efrat Elron, an expert on multinational peacekeeping forces and currently a visiting scholar at NATO's Defense College in Rome, this was certainly a possibility. "The more the mission is portrayed as dangerous, the greater the chances are that countries which contribute forces will not want to continue contributing," Elron said. "Afghanistan is a perfect example." With all the due respect for that concern, one government source said Monday evening, there was frustration that while every IDF plane that flew over Lebanese airspace was duly reported to the Security Council, there was only selective reporting of Hizbullah infractions. The net result, the official said, was that the Security Council, which was charged with supervising the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, was not getting a full picture. "There are thousands of rockets south of the Litani," the source said. "The factual situation on the ground is not good, and the UN is being given only selective information. That causes frustration." The source said Israel was making its concerns known to the various members of the Security Council through diplomatic channels. The source also admitted that expectations were low in Israel that UNIFIL's rules of engagement would be changed. "They [UNIFIL] themselves are not that excited about the idea," the source said. "And it is not that easy to change a mandate."