JERUSALEM (Jun. 9)
Israel was embroiled over the weekend in a serious conflict between its ally, the South Lebanon Army (SLA) and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
The incident, described by sources here as “bizarre” and “complex”, occurred last Friday when II soldiers of the mainly Christian SLA were removed from their positions in the south Lebanon security zone allegedly by members of the Finnish contingent of UNIFIL and handed over to Amal, the Shiite Moslem militia.
Gen. Antoine Lehad, the SLA commander, seized 24 Finnish soldiers to hold against the return of his own men. Last night he released four of them as a “goodwill gesture.” The Cabinet was briefed on the incident today and discussed its diplomatic and military repercussions.
Israel accepts the SLA version of the incident — that its men were kidnapped by the Finnish unit in colusion with Amal. The Amal leader in Beirut, Nabih Berri, has demanded that Israel free Lebanese detainees at the Atlit military prison in Israel in exchange for the SLA men. Informed sources said today Israel would not accede to this demand.
ISRAEL TO COOPERATE WITH UN INQUIRY
But Israel announced today that it would cooperate with an inquiry committee set up at the orders of the United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar to investigate the incident. The committee is instructed to report its findings by Tuesday when de Cuellar’s deputy, Brian Urquhart, arrives in the region, Another UN official, Jean-Claude Aimee, met today with Foreign Ministry Director General David Kimche to discuss the incident.
Israeli officials reiterated today Premier Shimon Peres’ pledge by telephone to Prime Minister Kaleva Sorsa of Finland that Israel would “do everything” to ensure that the Finnish soldiers held by the SLA would not be harmed and eventually would be released.
“Senior defense establishment sources” quoted by Israel Radio today said Israel had proof that there was prior coordination between the Finnish unit of UNIFIL and Amal. Peres told the Cabinet that an Israel Defense Force investigation bore out the SLA version of events rather than that of UNIFIL which indicated the SLA men were seized by Shiites, A group of 28 SLA soldiers deserted recently.
Defense sources were quoted as saying that Israel would continue to support the SLA even if this caused inconvenience to UNIFIL. The SLA is totally dependent on Israel for its food, arms, equipment and other supplies. Israel is determined that the SLA patrol the security zone in south Lebanon to prevent the infiltration of Palestinian terrorists or hostile guerrillas. The last IDF units left Lebanese soil Thursday, June 6, the third anniversary of the invasion of Lebanon. But a cadre of IDF officers remained in the security zone as liaison and advisors to the SLA.
Israel acknowledges that UNIFIL is dissatisfied with its arrangements with the SLA and that there was abundant altercation, provocation and tension between the SLA and UNIFIL long before the IDF withdrew.
But the Israelis accuse UNIFIL of bias toward Amal which they insist is improper. UNIFIL refuses to recognize the SLA because it is an “armed force” and not a “regular force”, the nomenclature used by the UN to differentiate the numerous “militias” operating in Lebanon from regular armies.
UNIFIL has always contended that it need not maintain contact with the “de facto forces” as it has called the SLA. But Israeli sources point out the UNIFIL’s contact with Amal is just as irregular since Amal is also a non-governmental force.
Some Israelis believe the incident may have a favorable outcome from the point of view of Israel because UNIFIL might feel obliged under the circumstances to deal formally with the SLA. Israel Radio reported today that the deputy commander of UNIFIL has received permission from his superior officers to talk to Gen. Lehad. the SLA commander. According to the radio he will ask for permission to interview the commander of the SLA unit holding the Finnish soldiers.
ISRAEL WANTS MODUS VIVENDI
Israel is interested in a reasonable modus vivendi between UNIFIL and the SLA, especially now that the IDF has quit Lebanon. The dispute apparently is over control of the security belt. UNIFIL holds that it is mandated to deploy as far south as the international border and has sole responsibility for guarding the region against infiltration. Israel has based its security plans on the SLA, successor to the late Maj. Saad Haddad’s Christian militia which cooperated with Israel in south Lebanon for years before the June, 1982 invasion.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who returned to Israel from the U.S. this afternoon, said the incident was very serious and that every effort would be made to ensure the safety and freedom of the detained UNIFIL and SLA soldiers. He remarked that “it is lucky that it is with the Finns” that the incident occurred. This reflected the view of many Israelis that the Finns are the most neutral group in UNIFIL.