Peacekeepers 'lost contact with Israeli general'

Analysis The Israeli general responsible for liaison with UN peacekeepers did not pick up his phone, three UN officials reveal.

At a critical juncture during Tuesday's fighting along the Lebanese-Israeli frontier, the Israeli general responsible for liaison with UN peacekeepers did not pick up his phone, three UN officials said yesterday. It was the first time since the 2006 Lebanese-Israeli war that the multinational UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) was unable to communicate directly with key officials of the Israeli military, formally known as the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).

"At some point at the height of the incident, IDF-Tel Aviv command closed contact with Unifil," one UN official told The National. Communication did eventually resume, but no formal ceasefire ended the fighting. Instead, the official said, "both sides just stopped shooting". At that point, a large force of peacekeepers was deployed and Unifil's deputy commander, Santi Bonfanti, was sent to survey the area by helicopter.

"When they stopped shooting, Unifil took the action of flying in the deputy commander, and we said: 'We're flying in, don't shoot.' It probably froze a situation that still had the ability to escalate," the UN official said. A senior Israeli military spokesman yesterday denied that its forces were ever out of contact with Unifil, and said that there was a Unifil liaison officer present at all times.

Unifil, which in recent years has bolstered its military capability but also has found itself subject to a steady stream of criticism over its impartiality, was closely involved in nearly every stage of the conflict on Tuesday. UN officials say a small contingent of Unifil troops from an Indonesian battalion were on the scene when the first shots were fired by Lebanese army soldiers. An Israeli military unit was removing a tree from an area near the international line of demarcation, known as the Blue Line.

The Indonesian troops had attempted to stop any escalation in the fighting, but when the exchanges grew heavy, they were ordered to retreat or find cover. Hizbollah's Al Manar television showed images on Tuesday night of stunned and dehydrated Indonesian peacekeepers being attended to by local medics and helped into a taxi, in a village near the fighting. Milos Strugar, Unifil's senior political adviser, told Israel's Army Radio yesterday that the Israeli military had followed agreed-upon protocol and "informed Unifil that it was going to conduct maintenance works" along the border.

Tensions were already high early Tuesday morning, several UN and Unifil sources said. Unifil initially had asked the Israeli military to delay the tree removal because they were unclear as to what exactly was to take place, but the IDF denied this request. At around 7am, Unifil informed the Lebanese army about the Israeli plan to prune or cut down the tree. Two hours later, the Lebanese military officials replied, saying they would not approve the work.

Not long after the tree-cutting began at mid-morning, a patrol of Lebanese soldiers began to trade verbal insults with the Israeli soldiers doing the tree-cutting work. Indonesian soldiers tried to intervene with the Lebanese soldiers, but the situation only intensified. Unifil officials said that they believe the first shot was fired by a Lebanese army sniper, but the investigation of the exact origins of the firefight was continuing.

"Maybe we'll never know," said the UN official. "Was it an exchange of AK-47 fire and then the sniper shot, or did the sniper fire first? All we know is that from the moment the IDF saw there was a casualty, they decided to engage." UN peacekeepers did not escape the confrontation unscathed. Al Manar TV reported that in some cases, villagers attempted to block Unifil vehicles from fleeing the combat zone, demanding that they return and fight. But current and former Unifil officials said that at that point in the conflict, it was out of peacekeepers' hands.

"I've been in these situations before," said Timur Goksel, a former Unifil spokesman. "When everybody is determined to shoot each other, there's nothing you can do." Maj-Gen Alain Pellegrini, the French officer who was Unifil force commander from 2004-2007, said: "The problem is, in cases such as this, if you intervene to protect the IDF, for instance, Unifil will be accused by Hizbollah or the people of protecting the Israelis, and collaborating with the enemy. On the other side, if we do the same with the Lebanese, Israel will accuse Unifil of collaborating with Hizbollah."

Questions linger on where exactly the Israeli unit was positioned when the fighting broke out. A news agency photograph that circulated on Tuesday showed the arm of an Israeli mechanical digger extended over a security fence, incorrectly asserting in the caption that the machine had crossed into Lebanese territory. The Israeli-maintained security fence runs parallel to, but does not always coincide with, the Blue Line.

Part of the problem is a lack of clarity as to the precise location of the border, which has led to confrontations in the past. One high level Unifil official involved in border demarcation said that large blue barrels, which Unifil is in the process of placing at approximately 1km intervals along the line, have not yet been installed at the point where Tuesday's conflict occurred. This part of the Blue Line is doubly confusing because a main road on the Lebanese side of the fence - which has been open to military and civilian traffic - is actually on the Israeli side of the line, he said. Allowing the road to be used by Lebanon "was one of Israel's concessions" during negotiations over the line in 2000, the official said.

Disputes over the Blue Line have long been a problem for Unifil. "Very often, even the [Lebanese] authorities have confusion and believe the technical fence is the Blue Line," Gen Pellegrini said.