TEL AVIV (Jun. 16)
The Israel-backed South Lebanon Army (SLA) released 21 Finnish soldiers of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon Friday after holding them prisoner for eight days. But UNIFIL sources complained today that the SLA continues to harass its troops. The most recent reported incident involved Norwegian UNIFIL soldiers in Ibel Saki village.
By coincidence, Norway’s Chief Rabbi, Bent Melchior, is visiting Israel. He said in an Israel Radio interview today that recent incidents involving the SLA and Norwegian UNIFIL troops has created an upsurge of anti-Israel sentiment in Norway. He said the Norwegian soldiers who joined UNIFIL came to the Middle East as friends of Israel but return home highly critical of the Jewish State.
The capture of Finnish troops by the SLA was also an embarrassment for Israel. The SLA said it seized the Finns because they had “kidnapped” II SLA soldiers and turned them over to the Shiite militia, Amal, which is hostile toward both the SLA and Israel.
The Finns were released after the International Red Cross stated that the SLA men were not kidnapped but defected. The Red Cross said its representatives interviewed each of the men separately, with no Amal guards present and all reportedly said they did not want to return to their homes in the SLA-patroled security zone just north of the Israel border. Some opted to stay in Tyre or Sidon and others preferred Beirut but none wanted to rejoin the SLA, the Red Cross reported.
Gen. Antoine Lehad, the SLA commander, said he was not entirely satisfied by the Red Cross report because his men were interviewed while still held captive by Amal. Lehad and Israeli sources had proposed the interviews be conducted at UNIFIL headquarters in Nakura, away from Amal influence. But that was not done.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin stressed meanwhile that the Israel Defense Force has adopted an activist policy to counter terrorist attacks or infiltration attempts in the security zone. He said in a radio interview over the weekend that the IDF systematically patrols the zone although all Israeli forces were officially removed from Lebanon a week ago.
“Though we do not want any permanent military presence in Lebanon, we also will not stand at the border fence waiting for terrorist attacks to happen. We will meet them before they get to the international border line,” he said.
He acknowledged that Katyusha rockets which recently fell in Galilee — causing neither casualties nor damage — had been fired from the security zone. The IDF was engaged in at least one skirmish with terrorists in the zone since its official withdrawal from Lebanon. Four terrorists were killed and two Israeli soldiers were wounded.
Israel has to deal not only with terrorists but hostile Shiite guerrillas. Rabin said attempts to open a dialogue with Amal have proven unsuccessful so far.