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UNIFIL peacekeepers are chronically at leisure
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By Sharon Gal
Ha'aretz Correspondent

Since the withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces from southern Lebanon in May, there has been a "summer camp" atmosphere in the UNIFIL (UN Interim Force in Lebanon) positions stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Syria-Lebanon-Israel border to the east. The border area has not been quiet over the past month: Three IDF soldiers were kidnapped by Hezbollah guerrillas; two grenades were thrown at IDF positions; and stone-throwing incidents have become more frequent. Nonetheless, UNIFIL soldiers did not get involved in any of these instances.

The main reason for the absence of any involvement of the UNIFIL troops is the fact that their nine positions are situated at a distance from any of the crisis points. Many of the IDF officers in the Northern Command believe that this is a conscious decision on the part of the UN.

"They do the absolute minimum," an IDF officer said. "In other words, they do nothing."

Since the pullout, Israel has filed 636 complaints with the United Nations against the government of Lebanon for violations along the border between the two countries. In practice, this is purely a formality.

Even the reinforcement of the peacekeeping force with 1200 more soldiers since the withdrawal - bringing the total to 5700 - has not done much to keep the border quiet.

"The fact that they are situated across from our positions instead of across from Hezbollah posts reflects what they are doing or, more correctly, what they are not doing," a senior IDF officer said yesterday. "Their presence has been felt even less since the kidnapping of the soldiers. One would expect them to be more active, to take preventive action, to first of all position themselves correctly," he added.

UNIFIL spokesman, Timor Goksel, is familiar with the Israeli claims regarding the passive approach of the peacekeepers and does not reject them off hand. Nonetheless, "the responsibility lies with the government of Lebanon," he said. "UNIFIL cannot fulfill the function of the Lebanese police," Goksel explained.

The UNIFIL position across from kibbutz Manara includes 10 soldiers from the Ghanean Battalion, six tents, an observation position and an armored personnel carrier. A single guard was on duty when we arrived. The rest of the soldiers were taking an afternoon nap.

"It's boring here. We sleep and watch television all day," one of the soldiers told us later.

What would happen if someone tried to cross the border?

"If it's in our area, we will try to talk with them and convince them not to cross. Whoever wants to cross should do it over there," the UNIFIL soldier said pointing at a point far removed from him. "There is no longer our problem."

The UN spokesman in southern Lebanon said that at one trouble spot, the Tomb of Rabbi Ashi, UNIFIL soldiers stationed there had asked Lebanese civilians to refrain from throwing stones at IDF soldiers. "But they responded that it is their country and that they can do whatever they want," Goksel said.

"So, what can we do? We have no right to arrest them or to take action against them. What would we do at the Fatma [gate]?" Goksel continued. "The UN has appealed to the Lebanese with regard to the Israeli complaints and its response was that the withdrawal has not been completed because of the Israeli presence at Sheba Farms [a claim not recognized by the UN]."

So then, what is your role along the border?

"To ensure that there is no violence. When something happens, we immediately go to the Lebanese government.

© Haaretz 2000

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