Wednesday, October 25, 2006

UNIFIL-Israel Tensions Rise

German Navy Frigate Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

On Wednesday, German newspapers reported (see e.g. FAZ) that there had been an "incident" involving Israeli F-16s and a German navy vessel off the Lebanese coast. The German press reports claimed that six Israeli fighter jets overflew the UNIFIL vessel at low altitude, and that they had dropped infrared decoy flares (which are meant to throw off anti-aircraft fire), and that two shots had been fired into the air from the cannon of one of the jets. Of course, Israel reacted at first by rejecting the account entirely, with Minister of Defense Amir Peretz denying that there had been any such incident. Later, the IDF spokesperson acknowledged that there had in fact been an incident involving a helicopter, ship, F-16s, and infrared decoys but that the reports in the German media of shots having been fired were incorrect.

According to the IDF (see Ha'aretz), the incident began when the Air Force spotted unidentified helicopter off Rosh ha-Nikra on Tuesday morning. Two F-16s were scrambled to investigate. Upon seeing that it was a German Navy helicopter, the planes returned. The spokesperson explained that the helicopter flight had not been coordinated with Israel, and that this was the reason that this situation had arisen. The Israeli government took pains to reassure the German government that UNIFIL personnel were not in danger.

Germany currently has 2 frigates, 2 transport helicopters, 4 speedboats, and 2 supply ships covering a 50 x 130 nautical miles area off the coast of Lebanon and northern Israel. The zone for which the Germany navy vessels are responsible begins 12 miles west of the Lebanese shore. There are approximately 1,500 sailors manning those vessels, with another 900 servicemen responsible for logistics and training. Their mission is to stop Hizbullah weapons smuggling (FAZ).

Thank God no one ended up being hurt. I'm inclined to believe the German reports rather than the IDF's version. This incident is not the first confrontation between IDF and UNIFIL forces. Several weeks ago, a short standoff ensued between Israeli forces and a French tank unit just across the border in southern Lebanon. The incident was not widely reported. The latest incident, of course, occured against the backdrop of the stern warnings by the French UNIFIL commander in Lebanon, Alain Pellegrini, that his forces would fire on Israeli jets continuing overflights of Lebanese airspace. Peretz has said that Israel will continue those flights. Israel expressed its hopes for better cooperation between UNIFIL and IDF forces in the wake of this event. I am not sure whether the incident on Tuesday was simply due to a lack of coordination, or whether the Israelis were also trying to "test the waters." In any case, it's worrisome that there could be more such confrontations, which might not end so well. Even scarier for Israel, of course: it's becoming increasingly clear that UNIFIL is doing almost nothing to prevent Hizbullah from re-arming and digging in again. The overflights are the only means of monitoring those activities that Israel has at its disposal. Why can't the French be a little more understanding on this point? Are they trying to appeal to Lebanese public opinion?

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