By Pierre Heumann in Tel Aviv
Flights above Lebanese territory have been routine for the Israeli air force for years. Israeli pilots jump into action as soon as their radar registers anything that can't immediately be accounted for. The point, explains Eitan Ben-Eliahu, former commander of the Israeli air force, is to gather information about Hezbollah's activities.
But are such flights really necessary now that the UN-mandated cease-fire is in effect? The truce, implemented in mid-August after a month of fighting in Lebanon between Hezbollah and Israel, is being only formally observed by Beirut, says Ben-Eliahu and that the Lebanese are allowing the Shiite militia to rearm. Terje Roed-Larsen, the United Nations special envoy to Lebanon, joins him in that assessment. The Lebanese, he says, have observed weapons being smuggled in from Syria until very recently.
How effective is the UNIFIL fleet?
So what of the German navy's mission in the eastern Mediterranean -- a mission with the explicit goal of preventing such arms smuggling? While in Israel the international UNIFIL fleet's operation has been welcomed, experts wonder about how effective it really is.
For one thing, says an Israeli diplomat, the operation off the coast of Lebanon lacks a clear mandate; he calls it a kind of hybrid between a pure observation operation and a military mission. He says the effectiveness of the counter-smuggling mission has been further reduced by the restrictions placed on the German navy's mobility.
"When a ship carrying weapons for Hezbollah leaves a Syrian port and heads south, its captain feels safe as long as he doesn't stray more than 11 kilometers from the coast," says Gad Shimron, an Israeli security expert who works for the daily Ma’ariv. The Syrian captain can head comfortably for Hezbollah positions in Lebanon, Shimron elaborates, as if he were shipping a cargo of tomatoes or olives, and the German navy isn't allowed to interfere with his journey.
Originally, the Germans had thought they would have freedom of movement off the coast of Lebanon as well as the right to board suspicious ships. But those rights were limited in the final draft of the mandate. The Germans must request the Lebanese to interfere with suspicious vessels, and they must register with Lebanese authorities if they plan to travel inside six kilometers of the coast.
Even without such restrictions, tracking arms shipments would be difficult; dozens of ships and boats travel along the Lebanese coast every day, without the UN troops being informed about their cargo. Shimron believes Hezbollah's strategists are already using the maritime security gap to stock up on weapons. "No one will be able to stop Hezbollah from doing so," he says.
Avi Primor, the former Israeli ambassador to Germany, is similarly skeptical about the German navy's peacekeeping mission. The German navy is "definitely" causing difficulties for the arms smugglers, he says -- but can it stop them? Primor answers the question diplomatically, with a dry "Well, maybe."
One Israeli officer is even more cynical of the mission. The greatest contribution the Germans have made so far was that of rescuing Syrian sailors at sea, he says.
The peacekeeping operation is politically controversial too. On the one hand, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is celebrating the deployment of the international peacekeeping force as a political victory. On the other, though, the force's presence means an internationalization of the conflict in Lebanon. Israel's violation of Lebanese air space, for example, has been criticized by France; the European Union has also called on Israel to respect Lebanon's borders.
"Tracking enemies and terrorists"
But Israel has become used to treating the air space above Lebanon as if it were its own territory, despite protests from the UN. "They can protest as much as they like. Our reconnaissance flights will continue," Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said on the radio recently. The low-altitude flights above Lebanese territory, he says, are for "tracking enemies and terrorists."
Lebanon, not surprisingly, sees things a bit differently. Israel's intention isn't that of gathering information, Beirut complains, but rather that of intimidating the population and making a show of force. Israel, after all, disposes of sophisticated espionage technology and has its own satellites in orbit, a commentary in the Beirut-based newspaper Daily Star points out.Buzzing Beirut makes little sense neither politically nor militarily.
But it has become routine. Indeed, the recent incident which say an Israeli F-16 fly low over a German ship off the coast of Lebanon was likewise hardly out of the ordinary. Indeed, the Israeli air force didn't even feel the need to report it. Defense Minister Amir Peretz only asked for information once the press got a hold of the story.
Now, of course, the Israeli air force is in possession of new orders designed to prevent such "routine incidents" from occurring again. The plan is for the air force to improve its coordination with the German navy. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has apologized to German Chancellor Angela Merkel for the incidents -- obviously aware that the peacekeeping mission could become controversial in Germany. His call to Merkel was partially designed to ensure that her position didn't erode, government sources say.
But even if Israel doubts the political and military effectiveness of the UNIFIL, one side effect of the UN's increased presence in the region is hard to overlook: The intensified security controls along the border between Israel and Lebanon have caused major problems for what used to be a flourishing drug trade. Cannabis, illegal in Israel, is now eight times more expensive than it was before the war.
Pierre Heumann is the Middle East correspondent of the Swiss newspaper Weltwoche
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