UNIFIL issues to be raised with Kouchner

Israel to talk to French FM next week about inability of peacekeeping force to stop arms smuggling.

Hizbullah fighters 224.8 (photo credit: AP [file])
Hizbullah fighters 224.8
(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel is expected to air complaints on UNIFIL's performance in Lebanon with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in Jerusalem this week, diplomatic officials said Tuesday. Kouchner is scheduled to arrive Wednesday evening for two days of talks. Israel is concerned that despite the UNIFIL peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, and in contradiction to UN Security Council Resolution 1701, thousands of rockets have been smuggled south of the Litani River, according to the officials. Jerusalem has also recently complained that UNIFIL was failing to report illegal Hizbullah activity in southern Lebanon so as to avoid a confrontation with the group. Kouchner is scheduled to meet separately with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Vice Premier Haim Ramon on Thursday. He is also set to attend the Palestinian Authority investment conference in Bethlehem on Thursday and on Friday meet with President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. France, with an estimated 2,000 troops in the UNIFIL mission, has the third largest UNIFIL contingent, after Italy and Germany, which each have about 2,500 men involved in the force. The overall assessment of UNIFIL's performance in Jerusalem is that it does a good job where it operates in southern Lebanon, but that it does not operate in the villages, where Hizbullah has increased its strength considerably since the Second Lebanon War ended in August 2006. Unlike before the war, Hizbullah is no longer operating in the open areas, but rather inside the villages, and under its rules of engagement, UNIFIL cannot go into the villages without first getting the approval of the Lebanese army, something that drastically reduces its effectiveness. This assessment received backing from an unlikely source, when the anti-Hizbullah Shi'ite mufti of Tyre, Ali al-Amin, blasted UNIFIL in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera on Saturday. "Peace mission?" he said of UNIFIL. "You must be kidding. I will tell you what UNIFIL troops in southern Lebanon are. They are tourists, simple, faint-hearted and ignorant tourists." Amin, who fled Tyre earlier this month for Beirut, said UNIFIL "should be helping the Lebanese army guarantee democracy, but it is a mere illusion. The events of the last few days have strengthened Hizbullah even more. "Everyone knows that the national army is too weak to take Hizbullah on, and UNIFIL forces pretend not to see anything. Hizbullah has built its own cable telephone system and is getting re-armed right outside their [UNIFIL's] bases. Can they really do nothing to stop it, can they not report it?" Israel would like the UN to amend UNIFIL's mandate, which needs to be renewed in August, and give it more robust rules of engagement that would enable it to enter Lebanese villages without a Lebanese army escort. This, however, is considered very unlikely. Lebanon's Daily Star on Tuesday reported that Italy's new defense minister, Ignazio La Russa, who visited his country's UNIFIL contingent on Saturday, told the Italian press that there was no need for any "drastic changes" in UNIFIL's rules of engagement. "Our soldiers are today doing exactly what they were doing a month ago. I do not see a reason to drastically modify our goals or tasks at the present time," he was quoted as saying. Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.