Putting words in UNIFIL’s mouth

The Israeli English-language press reported this week that the UN had laid the blame for both the Khirbet Salim explosion and subsequent attack on UNIFIL soldiers who arrived to investigate the explosion, at the feet of Hezbollah.
Unifil deployment map.jpg

BEIRUT, July 24, 2009 (MENASSAT)-- On July 14th, an explosion in an abandoned building—allegedly stockpiled full of munitions-- rocked Khirbet Salim, a village in southern Lebanon close to the Israeli border.  UNIFIL troops who arrived to investigate the explosion a few days later were apparently refused entry to the homes of villagers and pelted with rocks, resulting in the light injury of 14 UN soldiers.

Weapons stocked prior to Resolution 1701 or not?

Following an Israeli complaint about the weapons depot, Alain Le Roy, UN Undersecretary for Peacekeeping Operations, conducted an oral briefing off the public record about the weapons depot. The conclusion of his testimony was reported differently by the Israeli, Arabic and US press—highlighting the rhetorical tightrope that the UN frequently walks when it comes to sensitive missions. The Arabic press, leading with Al Akhbar, noted that Le Roy had said the weapons cache was old and the investigation “ongoing.” The New York Times also said that Le Roy had confirmed to reporters that the weapons cache was an “older one,” while the Jerusalem Post claimed that Le Roy said “there was an ‘actively maintained’ weapons cache in southern Lebanon.”  

Resolution 1701, passed in August 2006,  prohibits Hezbollah from maintaining arms below the Litani river line where the stockpiled munitions were found.

He said, she said

The NY Times, in a characteristic display of semantic acrobatics, reported, “U.S. Deputy U.N. Ambassador Alejandro Wolff said U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy told the Security Council behind closed doors that the United Nations suspected an explosion in southern Lebanon last week was the detonation of an operational weapons cache that Wolff said Washington believes belonged to Hezbollah.” In plain English: the US said that the UN said that a weapons depot had caused the explosion, which the US said belongs to Hezbollah.  Note that the allegation that the weapons cache belonged to Hezbollah was not attributed to Mr. Le Roy in the New York Times piece.

But in an article entitled “UN official: Arms cache that exploded in Lebanon was Hezbollah's,” Israeli Ynet News claimed that “During a UN Security Council session that discussed Israel's complaints on the recent developments in Lebanon, LeRoy said that the arms cache that exploded in the area last week was used by Hezbollah.”

Not only did Le Roy attribute the weapons cache to Hezbollah, according to this report, but he also said Hezbollah was involved with the attack on UNIFIL soldiers:

“He claimed that the attack on French UNIFIL soldiers sent to investigate the explosion was not carried out by civilians, adding that Hezbollah men were spotted in the area,” YNet wrote.

A UNIFIL representative in Lebanon contacted by MENASSAT concluded that it was “impossible” that Le Roy made these claims, and that the statement – if true—would amount to “suicide” for UNIFIL. Ari Gaitanis, a spokesperson for Le Roy,  however told MENASSAT that, “in relation to the attack, Mr. Le Roy noted that some individuals present at the site were identified to UNIFIL as belonging to Hizbullah.” Mr. Gaitanis, who previously served as deputy spokesperson for UNIFIL, did however express bewilderment as to how Hezbollah could be distinguished from civilians, since “they don’t wear uniforms.”

Gaitanis did reiterate that Mr. Le Roy did not say the weapons cache was Hezbollah’s, but only that it was believed to be old and the investigation—as al Akhbar  and the New York Times had reported—was “still ongoing.” In other words, the UN undersecretary for peacekeeping operations does not stand by YNet News and the Jerusalem Post’s claims.

UNIFIL doing nothing

Further Israeli reporting on the incident was devoted to blaming UNIFIL, who, according to an article in Haaretz, knew of the cache for months in advance and never did anything about it.

“UNIFIL learned a few months ago about the cache of Katyusha rockets that exploded in the southern Lebanese village of Khirbet Salim last Tuesday, a government source in Jerusalem said. The source said UNIFIL had precise information about the cache and a number of other installations where Hezbollah is storing rockets, but that UNIFIL had done nothing,” Haaretz wrote.

Haaretz also alleged that UNIFIL have frequent confrontations with Hezbollah, but do not report them. “Government officials dealing with the Lebanon issue say UNIFIL soldiers encounter armed Hezbollah fighters or are detained by them, but the incidents do not appear in the reports submitted to the Security Council.”

Israel: defender of UNIFIL

Israel, which has caused the deaths of dozens of UNIFIL observers since the beginning of their peacekeeping mission in 1978, including a fatal attack on an observer post in July 2006 that was deemed “apparently deliberate” by then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, expressed outrage at Hezbollah’s use of force against the UN troops. “In the letter, [Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gabriela] Shalev also mentioned the attack on UNIFIL peacekeepers who attempted to search a suspicious building near the arms cache as an indication that Hezbollah was looking to ‘obstruct’ UNIFIL's mission, also by ‘using civilians in a violent manner.’"

UNSC finally responding

Israel, which according to the Lebanese government has violated UN Resolution 1701 over 4,200 times in three short years, expressed satisfaction at the UN’s condemnation of the weapons depot explosion. According to the Jerusalem Post, “Shalev told Israel Radio that this was the first time since the resolution was passed in 2006 that the UN had ‘pointed a finger at Hizbullah,’ and called it an achievement. Shalev spoke of multiple unanswered Israeli complaints to the Security Council in an effort to get a response over frequent cease-fire violations by Hezbollah.

"Hizbullah violates [the cease-fire] all the time, but now is the first time that one of the violations has been recognized. [The Security Council] tells us to bring in evidence and we say, 'What do you want us to do? To bring in Nasrallah hugging a missile?" Shalev asked rhetorically.”

Mandate strengthening

The Israeli press made no secret of the government’s intent to seek sharper rules of engagement for the UN’s mission in southern Lebanon, when the Security Council meets to renew UNIFIL’s mandate in late August.

“Shalev called for ‘concrete’ steps to confront a ‘new reality’ in the region immediately after the incident, saying that it was a ‘flagrant’ violation of the Security Council resolution. The series of explosions that rocked the area reflect ‘larger efforts by Hizbullah to rearm itself, in direct contravention of resolution 1701, Shalev wrote in a complaint to the UN.”

Haaretz also reported that Israel screened films at the Security Council meeting that showed Hezbollah setting up underground fortifications in villages below the Litani River—the area that UNIFIL operates in.

Both Hezbollah and Israel have made no secret of meeting preparations in the eventuality that another round of conflict takes place.
While it is unlikely that UNIFIL would agree to operate under more forceful rules of engagement in the south, the Israeli media’s depiction of the UN forces as unable or unwilling to confront Hezbollah might serve as a premise for actions by Israel in the future.