Friday, November 17, 2006

Playing Chicken with UNIFIL

1650 French casques bleues are currently deployed in Lebanon

Le Figaro and Ynet report that Israeli F-15s again buzzed French UNIFIL troops on Wednesday. A similar incident was reported on October 31 and by German navy forces earlier in October (see our post from October 25). In both of those cases, UNIFIL commanders reported that their troops had been "seconds away" from activating their anti-aircraft batteries. At a European Union meeting in Brussels on Monday, November 13, the French Minister of Defense Michele Alliot-Marie warned ominously that French forces were liable to act "automatically" in self-defense, if they felt threatened. However, she also announced that the Israeli air force had stopped its "mock attacks" on multinational force positions in Lebanon. It appears that she spoke a bit too soon.

Until now, Israeli government spokesmen have denied any hostile intentions. The official explanation to the Germans was that the planes had merely dropped flares - not fired warning shots - and that there was no attempt to target UNIFIL troops. Likewise, government spokesmen argue that the French troops misinterpreted Israeli actions in this latest incident. They did not, however, deny that Israel was in violation of the cease fire stipulated by UN Security Council Resolution 1701.

So what is going on here? First, clearly the Israelis are not going to stop monitoring Hizbullah arms smuggling and movements. Everyone knows that Hizbullah is violating the cease fire every day, now under the noses of UNIFIL troops. Thus, I don't see Israel abandoning its overflights anytime soon - Israeli drones and fighter planes will continue roaming Lebanese air space.

But what is the rationale behind these mock raids on French and German troops? Why antagonize European public opinion, military commanders, and political leaders? This seems like a stupid and irresponsible course of action, with relatively few benefits to offset the costs, at least at first glance. But maybe there are some more reasonable explanations.

For one, it appears that the Israeli air force is playing chicken with the casques bleues to test how serious the French UNIFIL commander in Lebanon Alain Pellegrini was when he threatened to fire on Israeli jets violating the cease fire (Ha'aretz, October 20). It is still not clear to me what he hoped to accomplish with this needless posturing - perhaps it was directed more for Lebanese domestic consumption. Right now, it looks like Israel called Pellegrini's bluff. Of course, there is always a chance of someone blinking - with disastrous consequences.

Initially, the Olmert government tried to sell the UNIFIL intervention as a victory for Israel. I had hopes that a "robust" European-led force would be able to prevent Hizbullah rocket attacks should the organization try to renew them. But while there have been several complaints about Israeli violations of the cease fire, I have not seen a single report testifying to attempts by UNIFIL to stop or monitor hostile actions by Hizbullah. I still have hopes that UNIFIL will be successful in preventing the outbreak of renewed hostilities, but it is possible that the Israelis are trying to prepare for what many believe to be inevitable: Hizbullah rockets raining on Israel with "cover" (unintentional, of course) provided by UNIFIL troops.

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