August 21, 2006
Ceasefires can have more than one purpose but the primary one must always be to stop people fighting, which is why the UN secretary general was right to condemn Israel's unjustifiable incursion into Lebanon over the weekend. By speaking out firmly and quickly, to Israel's evident discomfort, Mr Annan laid out some much-needed boundaries as to what is and what is not acceptable in the current, dangerous interregnum between war and peace. Israel has tried to justify Saturday's raid on the village of Bodai, in the Bekaa valley, as a defensive move, permitted under the terms of UN resolution 1701. But by attempting to sustain hostilities Israel violated the resolution in the most elemental manner. It was an act properly condemned by the secretary general's office for endangering "the fragile calm" which has allowed reconstruction to begin.
There is no doubt that Hizbullah sees itself as the victor in the conflict and this in itself is a provocation to an Israeli government which is under pressure at home to show it can still protect its territory. As such, the Bekaa raid may have been a symbolic exception to a policy of compliance with the UN resolution, rather than a disturbing indication of flagrant breaches to come. Hizbullah, too, may well be testing the ceasefire, which calls for an arms embargo, by trying to re-equip. But if Israel has evidence of this, it should not take the law into its own hands. The proper course would have been to request action from the UN and the Lebanese government. Yesterday's clear statement from the Lebanese defence minister, Elias Murr, warning militias in southern Lebanon not to attack Israel, was a sign of continued Lebanese support for the UN process.
The problem is that no one - apart from the UN secretary general - is holding the ring yet. Talk of a 15,000-strong UN force remains just talk. France, which is taking the lead in Europe and commands the existing force in Lebanon, has only managed to send 49 engineers to the country, although 150 more set sail yesterday. That is well short of even the 3,500 troops the UN says it wants on the ground by the end of the month. Other EU states, such as Germany, need to do more. But so do other, primarily Muslim, countries. An international force which is made up only of European soldiers risks being portrayed by Israel as one sent to protect its borders. But the force's responsibilities under the ceasefire extend well beyond the suppression of Hizbullah, which anyway will only cooperate with the UN and the Lebanese army if it sees the peace process as even-handed. By acting precipitately in the Bekaa valley, Israel has made the UN's position much more difficult and only served to complicate the task of putting together an international force. UN member states who may have been prepared to volunteer may now fear becoming trapped between recalcitrant Hizbullah elements and freelance Israeli attempts to "enforce" the ceasefire through armed raids on Lebanese territory.
The risk now is that the UN, France and Germany may try to restrain Israel from any further action while Britain and the United States remain silent. Such an international split over the interpretation of the UN resolution will greatly weaken efforts to implement it, even if a force can be assembled. Unless the US is willing to restrain Israel from carrying out more raids, and make its view clear in public, it is unlikely other nations will want to expose their troops and the peacekeeping force may collapse through international inertia. This is a test of Tony Blair's influence over the US president and of whether his trust in Washington's goodwill has really sunk to the earthy levels suggested last week by John Prescott. It is also a test of whether Mr Blair can bring himself to speak out against Israeli breaches of the ceasefire, as Mr Annan did so promptly and properly at the weekend.
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