Julie Stahl | Jerusalem Bureau Chief | Tuesday, August 22, 2006
According to United Nations Security Council resolution 1701, up to 15,000 international forces are supposed to be deployed in southern Lebanon to help the Lebanese army take control of an area long overrun with Hizballah - a "state within a state," President Bush has called it.
President Bush on Monday said the international force must be given "robust rules of engagement" and deployed "as quickly as possible to secure the peace."
But Dr. Yuval Steinitz, former head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said the new force is likely to cause more problems in the long term than it solves - and he said Israel should abandon the idea altogether.
"It is better to proceed without a force," Steinitz said in a telephone interview. "Even in the past [Israel] has been skeptical about the function of UNIFIL. In numerous cases, they [U.N. Interim Forces in Lebanon] even helped Hizballah.
Steinitz said Israel should be even more skeptical of such a force this time - if it includes Muslim countries that don't have diplomatic relations with Israel.
So far, both Israel and Lebanon have welcomed an Italian offer to lead the force, but there has been very little response from other Western nations. But three countries that were among the first to offer troops are the Muslim countries of Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh - none of which have diplomatic ties with Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said earlier that Israel did not want any country participating in the force with whom it does not have diplomatic ties.
Steinitz said he is concerned that deploying troops from Muslim countries will invite Hizballah to have a greater influence in those countries - inviting them to become more heavily involved in Hizballah's (and Iran's) side of the conflict.
According to Steinitz, even though U.N. resolution 1701 calls for the deployment of international forces, Israel could reject such a deployment. "It was a great mistake to invite such a force," he said. In trying to solve an immediate problem it is going to create an even bigger problem in the long run, he said.
Sheikh Naim Qassem, a Hizballah leader, said the way he sees it, the Lebanese army is being deployed in southern Lebanon to defend the country against Israel and UNIFIL is being deployed to help the Lebanese army.
Under U.N. resolution 1701, the UNIFIL force is authorized to "take all necessary action...to ensure that its area of operations is not used for hostile activities."
"This refers to hostile activities that Israel might commit, because we do not carry out hostile activities," said Qassem said in an interview that aired on Hizballah's television station al-Manar last week. (The translation was provided by the Middle East Media Research Institute.)
Israel interprets "hostile activities" to refer to Hizballah's activities in southern Lebanon.
"In any case, they [the force] are not going to dismantle the Hizballah," said Steinitz. He said it is not in Israel's interest to have countries like that more involved in the conflict.
Steinitz also said he believes that inviting the participation of Muslim countries could open the door for al Qaeda to enter the area.
Until now, there has only been a minimal al Qaeda presence in Lebanon. The Iranian-backed Hizballah and al Qaeda represent different streams in Islam - Shiite and Sunni - which are now fighting each other in Iraq.
However, some experts believe there are connections between Hizballah and al Qaeda and that the two could join forces for the sake of fighting the common enemy of Israel and the West.
It is difficult to predict what will happen in Lebanon since Israel failed to destroy Hizballah, said Steinitz. But the ceasefire, he estimated, would only hold for a matter of months.
"It was clear from the outset that the only force that can fight Hizballah [and destroy it] is the IDF [Israeli army]," said Steinitz. Because the Israeli government was too "cautious and hesitant" to win the war against Hizballah, "it might easily lead to another war in the future," he said.
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