NEW YORK, May 17 (JTA) After a long and costly occupation of southern Lebanon, Israel is now formally laying the groundwork to satisfy a United Nation resolution that for 22 years has demanded Israel’s withdrawal.
Israel, in turn, wants the world body to uphold its end of the deal.
A far-less publicized component of U.N. Security Council Resolution 425 is that when Israel does withdraw, the United Nations is obliged to “restore international peace and security” and “assist the Government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area.”
With this in mind, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy visited New York this week and last, to urge the United Nations to expand the activities of its interim force in Lebanon.
If the force, known as UNIFIL, does not assume a greater role and there is no fluid handover of power when Israel pulls out as expected in July, Israeli officials believe that another player, such as Syria, Palestinian militants or Hezbollah gunmen backed by Syria and Iran will quickly fill the void.
Such a development could lead to further attacks against northern Israeli communities. It could also endanger the Lebanese who have sided with Israel in the conflict, namely the South Lebanon Army and civilians in the area.
“We cannot have a situation where you do something which is intended to be good, and at the same time you push others into a situation of a massacre of some kind,” Levy told reporters last Friday.
“We cannot desert people to an unknown future. We would like to reach an arrangement which is self-standing and we hope this will be the beginning of a new reconciliation in Lebanon.”
Israel first sent troops into southern Lebanon on March 14, 1978, in an effort to halt terrorist attacks by the Palestine Liberation Organization, which had set up headquarters there after being ousted from Jordan.
Soon after, the United Nations passed Resolution 425.
The first noncombatant UNIFIL troops arrived in Lebanon on March 22. The force, which started at 5,900, currently stands at more than 4,400, representing nine different countries, including Fiji, Nepal and France. For 22 years, UNIFIL’s stated duties have been limited to monitor the situation and protect civilians.
However, in 1996, about 100 refugees in the U.N. compound at Kana were killed in an Israeli mortar attack. The Israelis said it was accidental, and that they were targeting Hezbollah gunmen who were using the compound as a protective shield.
Israel is now eager to pull out for a number of reasons, primarily because the mounting death toll of troops has worn on the Israeli public.
Levy’s visit was the first step in establishing Israeli-U.N. cooperation in the pullout. Some U.N. officials have expressed support for the partnership, with some reservations.
One of the major sticking points appears to be the issue of disarming the SLA of its heavy artillery, tanks and communications equipment.
Israel believes the SLA seen as traitors by many Lebanese needs to be equipped to defend itself, while U.N. officials are insisting that Israel disarm the SLA.
Enhanced U.N. involvement “will depend on what kind of guarantees the parties on all sides will provide,” said a Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified. “If the heavy weapons remain on the ground, we’ll have problems. We don’t want a bloodbath in the region.”
Without guarantees, the United Nations may be particularly reluctant to step up its role, officials say, given the current fiasco in Sierra Leone, the African nation where several hundred U.N. peacekeepers were recently kidnapped.
Another hurdle may be Lebanon’s opposition to a unilateral withdrawal.
Lebanese officials recently sent a letter expressing their concerns to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and Annan will review them carefully, according to a U.N. official.
The letter addresses a new Lebanese claim for a patch of land and hamlets known as Shabaa Farms, which lies within Israel near the Lebanese and Syrian borders.
Israeli officials suspect Lebanon raised the issue to complicate Israel’s planned withdrawal.
The demand for Shabaa Farms could prove significant because it would enable Lebanon to maintain in the international arena that Israel did not fully withdraw from all Lebanese territory.
Moreover, Hezbollah has vowed to keep launching attacks on Israel if the Jewish state does not withdraw fully.
Levy stated last Friday that no maps exist that prove the area was ever Lebanon’s.
Overall, though, Lebanon’s primary concern appears to be the prospect of having to confront Hezbollah alone, a role Israel has played until now.
In addition to seeking a U.N. peacekeeping role, Israel is hoping to get “credit” for its withdrawal from Lebanon in the world body, where Israel is a popular target for condemnation.
A withdrawal, combined with the expected inclusion of Israel into the Western European grouping at the United Nations, is expected to bolster Israel’s standing within the world body.
“Hopefully, the pullout will remove some of that criticism” about the occupation, said a senior Israeli diplomat, “and will alleviate our general situation in the U.N.”
Indeed, the recent developments are making an impression, helping, in the words of the Western diplomat, to “normalize relations” between Israel and the United Nations.
But, he added, as long as there isn’t peace in the region and “Israel hasn’t implemented other U.N. resolutions, there’s still a stumbling block to a completely normal relationship.”