October 19, 2006
Israeli overflights of Lebanon are a violation of the U.N. cease-fire resolution and if current diplomatic efforts fail to stop the incursions force might be considered in the future, the U.N. peacekeeping chief in Lebanon said Thursday. Maj. Gen. Alain Pelligrini said France has deployed anti-aircraft missiles to southern Lebanon but at the moment the missiles can only be used for self-defense to protect French soldiers serving in the U.N. force. He said new rules of engagement would be needed to use force to prevent Israeli overflights.
The overflights have sparked a disagreement between Israel and Lebanon. Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz told a parliamentary committee on Monday that French peacekeepers in Lebanon have warned Israel that their jets may not remain immune if they continue to violate Lebanese airspace.
Israel contends its overflights do not contradict U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which included the cease-fire that brought an end to 34 days of fighting between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas on Aug. 14. The resolution calls for both sides to respect the U.N. boundary known as the Blue Line drawn by the U.N. after Israel ended its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.
Pelligrini, who is a French national, disagreed with the Israelis.
"They are violations because you have a foreign jet crossing first the Blue Line and entering the national Lebanese airspace," he said.
Under Resolution 1701, he said, U.N. peacekeepers have "formal tasks of monitoring the Blue Line and a foreign jet crossing the Blue Line is a violation."
Pelligrini said the Israeli air violations are "our major concern" even though the number has diminished slightly, and every one is immediately reported to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and protests are sent to the Israelis. "At the moment, we have not other means to prevent this kind of violation than dialogue and diplomatic ways," he said. "If the diplomatic means should not be enough, maybe it could be considered other ways, we never know."
Did that mean that in the future the U.N. force might consider preventing the overflights by force? "It could be. It could be," Pelligrini replied. "l think that it could be considered, and it will depend on new rules of engagement drafted and decided here" at U.N. headquarters, he said.
Aside from the air violations, Pelligrini said, there have been no cease-fire violations on the ground. "At the moment, we have not detected, spotted, any person with illegal weapons" in the U.N. area of operations from the Litani River to the Blue Line in southern Lebanon, he said. Pelligrini said he had received reports from the Lebanese army on smuggled weapons its forces had intercepted elsewhere, presumably on the Syrian border. "I think all these moves decreased very rapidly, and now they stopped according to what I know," he said.
The U.N. force commander said he was "very pleased" with the rapid deployment of the Lebanese army throughout southern Lebanon for the first time. Pelligrini said the U.N. peacekeeping force currently has 7,200 troops, including 1,500 that are part of a maritime task force led by Germany whose aim is to prevent weapons smuggling by sea.
The Security Council authorized up to 15,000 troops for the U.N. force, known as UNIFIL, but Pelligrini said with more than 10,000 Lebanese troops also deployed in southern Lebanon such a large U.N. force is not necessary. "For us at the moment, it's not useful to reach 15,000 for UNIFIL, and we stop before â€” maybe around 10,000," he said. "We'll see, according to the situation and the need."
Israeli troops withdrew from south Lebanon on Oct. 1, but they held onto a small piece of land in the divided border village of Ghajar. Pelligrini said the residents are Syrians who have Israeli citizenship. Last week, Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh called the dispute over Ghajar a "time bomb."
Pelligrini said talks are under way to have a UNIFIL representative or unit based in the northern part of the village, which is now Lebanese, to enable Lebanese authorities or troops to enter and affirm their authority. At the same time, he said, UNIFIL's presence would enable Israelis responsible for the medical and social welfare of their citizens to cross the Blue Line to the Lebanese-controlled northern part of the village. "I have good hope to find some solution in the next few days," Pelligrini said. "I consider that already we made good progress."
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