Force needed on Syrian border, UN tells Lebanon
NEW YORK - The United Nations recently proposed to Lebanon the deployment of a force under civilian authority along its border with Syria to stop arms smuggling from Syria to Hezbollah. Senior officials at the UN told Haaretz that the intention is to establish an international force of unarmed observers, and that the Lebanese government has not rejected the idea.
Weapons smuggling from Syria remains one the most problematic issues, as far as Israel and the international community are concerned, since the second Lebanon war ended on August 14 last year. Although Security Council Resolution 1701 includes a pledge to enforce an arms embargo on the Syrian border, this has not been done, mainly due to opposition from Syria and Hezbollah. Intelligence officers in the Israel Defense Forces General Staff have said on a number of occasions that large-scale smuggling - mainly of rockets from Syria to Lebanon - is ongoing, and that Hezbollah might restore its prewar capabilities by May.
A UN delegation met two weeks ago with the head of the research division in Military Intelligence , Brigadier General Yossi Baidatz, who presented his findings to the group: Its members called them unequivocal in terms of the extent of arms smuggling from Syria to Hezbollah.
A few weeks ago, UN representatives presented the plan for the new observer group to Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr. Senior UN officials say Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora will not oppose it. The officials said Syrian consent is not required because the new body will not be armed.
The UN plans to employ former UN workers and those of other international organizations in the new force. Germany recently sent a technical team to the area of the Syria-Lebanon border to check out the possibility for deploying observers there. In the mid-'90s, the UN deployed a similar force of civilian observers in Bosnia to enforce the cease-fire.
Hezbollah has complained to the UN about what it calls the over activity of UNIFIL (UN Interim Force in Lebanon) in southern Lebanon. The Shi'ite group claims UNIFIL is operating Armored Personnel Carriers in the south, conducting too many armed patrols and is also photographing Hezbollah activities.
About three months ago, a serious incident took place between Spanish UNIFIL troops and Hezbollah activists in the eastern sector of southern Lebanon. The UNIFIL troops stopped Hezbollah men carrying suspicious sacks. The sacks apparently contained weapons, although the UN declined to make an official comment on the incident.
The Hezbollah activists fled, but a few hours later another group came and demanded to be allowed to deliver the sacks to the Lebanese Army. UNIFIL's refusal incurred a physical response the next day: while on patrol, Spanish troops encountered explosives, which were easy to spot but apparently were intended to be a warning.
Senior UN officials concede that the lack of an observer force north of the Litani River in Lebanon allows Hezbollah operatives free reign in the region. However, south of the Litani Hezbollah maintains a lower profile due to the presence of UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army.
The UN also says that the situation in southern Lebanon is much better than it has been at any time in recent years: Hezbollah is careful not to station armed operatives openly and has not reestablished its positions along the border. Israel, say the UN officials, should now work to persuade Europe of the need for the new force along the Syrian border so that area as well will see improvement.