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Monday, October 30, 2006

Germans questioning their government's commitment to UNIFIL

There's an interesting story in Der Spiegel today about some of the fallout from the two incidents last week involving IAF bombers and the German spy ship Alster. From the sounds of it, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's apology to German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the weekend should resolve the issue between Israel and Germany. But the Germans are upset with UNIFIL's lackluster rules of engagement, and the opposition is questioning why Germany is involved in this in the first place. Der Spiegel also has a couple of fascinating tidbits of how things are being run in Lebanon right now. And, I am pleased to tell you, that if the average German thinks the way Der Spiegel does, they are probably quite supportive of Israel.
As it turned out, the Tuesday incident wasn't the first time tempers had flared. At first the Israelis claimed to know nothing about the Alster flyby, only to then loudly complain that on Tuesday morning a helicopter, heading for the coast, had taken off from a German ship without first issuing the necessary notification. According to the Israeli air force, this was why fighter jets had to be sent out. The Germans, though, knew nothing about it because the reports had not been sent up the command chain.

Two weeks previously, a similar event took place. In both cases though the Israeli fighter jets did at least turn back as soon as the German helicopter pilot identified himself over the radio. But both cases do demonstrate how threatened the Israelis feel, despite the ceasefire.

The reasons are obvious -- even though the international community is now present in Lebanon, many of the causes for the July conflict between Israel and Hezbollah have not disappeared. Because Hezbollah has openly rejected the UN Security Council resolution which led to the Aug. 14 ceasefire, the UN's main demands have gone unfulfilled. The two Israeli soldiers who were abducted on July 12 -- the event which triggered the war -- are still in Hezbollah custody and Israelis fear that the Shiite militia are still being supplied with weapons by Syria. Indeed, it is to prevent such weapons traffic that Israeli military planes carry out daily reconnaissance flights in Lebanese airspace -- flights which are in turn seen as provocative in Beirut.

Just how much power Hezbollah still has in Lebanon is evident from an incident a little over two weeks ago. A patrol of Spanish peacekeepers was stopped by Hezbollah fighters. The Spanish called the Lebanese army for support, but they never showed up. The Spanish had to turn back.

The freedom of movement of the UNIFIL fleet has also been limited by pressure from Hezbollah. In October, after the German parliament had approved sending a naval force to the Middle East, the Lebanese government -- in negotiations with the UN -- was able to impose restrictions on the fleet's movements. According to this agreement, UNIFIL ships are only allowed within six miles of the coast "when Lebanon requests it" -- that, at least, is what is noted in a confidential Bundestag defense committee document.


But that's not what Merkel promised during the parliamentary debate on the mission. She had said that Lebanon doesn't have any right to veto. "We are allowed to travel in the whole region," was the promise she made before the German government agreed to the decision.

The FDP opposition party is now criticizing Merkel for misleading parliament. The mandate given to UNIFIL was never quite as "robust" as it was claimed to be, say FDP politicians. "Deliberate deception to pass the Lebanon mandate," accuses FDP functionary Dirk Niebel. "Absurd," is the government's answer -- at least for now.

But during a special meeting of the defense committee on Friday, Minister Jung had to admit that German naval ships were not always allowed to travel everywhere they wanted. The agreement, which was negotiated on Oct. 12, really does state that the ships may only enter the six mile zone when this is really required, in order to follow suspicious vessels for example. If naval ships want to travel into this zone for other reasons, a fuel stop at a Lebanese harbor for example, then they must first register with the authorities.
It should be obvious from reading this that the UNIFIL force is not a long-term solution. The questions that remain are how long this relative lull will last and what each side is doing to prepare for the next battle. Unfortunately, in Israel's case, my impression is that we are not doing enough.

Read it all.


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