Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Anes Alic, "Impasse in the Middle East," International Relations and Security Network, August 2, 2006.

The deployment of an international peacekeeping mission in the Middle East remains a distant thought while calls from certain EU and UN member nations for a “cessation of hostilities” win out over calls for an immediate ceasefire.

Compiled by Anes Alic for ISN Security Watch (02/08/06)

The decision over the deployment of an international peacekeeping force to Lebanon has been stalled as potential contributors are hesitant to enter the conflict zone without a ceasefire. Additionally, an EU statement on Tuesday watered down calls for an immediate ceasefire.

In the meantime, Israel has stepped up its air and ground offensive against Hizbollah, launching its deepest incursion into Lebanon since the start of the three-week war. News agencies reported late on Tuesday that Israeli army commandos had seized three Hizbollah fighters during an operation in the northeastern Lebanese town of Baalbek, 83 kilometers east of the Lebanese capital Beirut, while Israeli forces penetrated 100 kilometers north of the border. Reports said that at least seven civilians were killed during the Baalbek operation.

In a joint statement adopted at an emergency meeting on Tuesday, EU foreign ministers called for a “cessation of hostilities,” but backed down from calling for an immediate ceasefire at the insistence of Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic. No time frame for the “cessation of hostilities” was given, leaving the decision for a peacekeeping force hanging in the balance.

On Monday, the UN postponed for a least three days a meeting called by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to begin planning the peacekeeping force for Lebanon. However, the UN extended the mandate of its interim force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) for one month, though that force has been ineffective. The UNIFIL had just finished its six-month mandate.

On Friday, the UN replaced 50 unarmed observers from posts along the Israeli-Lebanese border with lightly armed UN peacekeepers.

The UN decision came three days after an Israeli air strike destroyed one UN outpost, killing four UN observers from Austria, Canada, China and Finland. The observer mission, known as UNTSO, had kept about 50 observers in four posts along the border while two posts had already been abandoned.

The UN Security Council agreed to extend the UNIFIL mission until a decision is made on a new peacekeeping force.

But that decision appears a long way off, as key members say they will not deploy forces without a ceasefire and without the consent of Israel, Lebanon and even Hizbollah.

There are deep divisions within the UN over the conflict, with some demanding an immediate ceasefire and others, namely the US and Britain, demanding a gradual ceasefire that would be part of a package of steps to end the conflict, including the deployment of peacekeepers.

Washington has played down the significance of the postponement of peacekeeping talks, with US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, portraying the postponement as a mere scheduling difference that reflected the fact that some senior officials were busy and could not attend the meeting.

Reports said the US was expected to put forward its proposal for a peacekeeping mission later this week.

For its part, Israel is calling for a new peacekeeping mission, as opposed to an expansion of the current 2,000-strong UNIFIL mission, which Israel says is not prepared to deal with the conflict or to monitor a ceasefire. Israel's ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, told reporters the situation in southern Lebanon required more professional and better-trained peacekeepers.

But both Syria and Lebanon oppose the creation of a new international force.

An international peacekeeping force in Lebanon must be decided on by the UN Security Council’s 15 member nations, and only after it has approved a mandate for the new force will countries decide whether they will participate.

Some countries - including Spain, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, France, Italy, Germany, Ireland and Turkey - already have said they would consider participating in the mission.

In a resolution circulated at the UN, France insisted that a ceasefire be in effect before peacekeepers are deployed to create a buffer zone in southern Lebanon.

According to the French draft resolution, the new peacekeeping force would be granted authority under the UN charter, which gives UN-backed troops a broader mandate to respond to attacks.

The conditions for a permanent ceasefire include a buffer zone stretching from the Blue Line, which Israel withdrew behind in 2000, to the Litani River, the northern border of Israel's occupation of Lebanon in 1982.

Lebanese ally France is expected to play a major role in any peacekeeping force, but will only do so it if wins a strong mandate to act and strong support from other countries in the region.

The US has rejected demands for an immediate ceasefire, saying that Hizbollah must be crippled for a ceasefire to work, pointing to the fact that Hizbollah is better trained and equipped than the Lebanese army.

NATO member Turkey has been mentioned as one possible nation to lead the peacekeeping mission, positioned close to the conflict zone, making it an obvious choice to facilitate logistics.

The peacekeeping force will take on one of three forms: either an essentially US-led NATO mission, a UN mission or an EU mission.

But before these key decisions are made, all parties involved must agree to the peacekeeping force and hostilities must end. These factors make the prospect of a mission unlikely in the immediate future.

"You cannot discuss the mandate in isolation of the political process, which in a way underpins the mandate. Like any force that comes after a conflict, that force will be there to implement whatever has been agreed among the actors," UN peacekeeping chief Jean-Marie Guehenno told reporters.

A one-day emergency meeting in Rome on 26 July - which included the US, Britain, Egypt, France, Italy, Jordan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Spain, Greece, Cyrpus, Canada, the UN, the World Bank and the EU - failed to achieve anything except highlight the divisions between the US camp and France, Turkey and Arab nations.

In the meantime, the conflict has intensified as Israel presses ahead with plans to create a “security zone” along the Israeli border inside Lebanon. Some 1,800 rockets have been fired at northern Israel since the latest conflict started on 12 July. Lebanese authorities say that some 750 people, mainly civilians, have been killed by Israeli fire, while other reports put the figure at around 550. Eighteen civilians in Israel have been killed and some 300 wounded.

What the papers say
In the US, the Washington Times quoted Haim Laka, Middle East fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies as saying that the conflict was putting Arab nations in a difficult position. “Many Arab regimes want to see Hizbollah defeated militarily, and if Israel can do the dirty work, all the better. But as long as there are civilian casualties, it’ll be difficult for those countries to support Israel and criticize Hizbollah,” he said.

The daily also quoted Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Iraq as condemning "Israeli aggression" and warning that "Islamic nations will not forgive the entities that hinder a cease-fire" - a clear reference to the US.

In a commentary for the Christian Science Monitor, author John Hughes said: “It is in almost nobody's interest - perhaps with the exception of Iran - that this devastating bloodletting should continue. But the contestants are in a race against time. […] World opinion demands a ceasefire. Much more essential is a ceasefire that leads to an overall solution.

"The ideal shape of a solution beyond a cease-fire has already been determined. It is in the language of United Nations Resolution 1559 that requires that Hizbollah, the armed militia that the Lebanese government has been unable to tame, is to be disarmed. That would give Lebanon's fragile democracy a chance to survive and gather strength. Hizbollah could make its voice heard in the parliament, where it already has representation, rather than through the barrel of a gun."

Writing for Mother Jones, commentator Michael Shtender-Auerbach called on the EU to act decisively to counterbalance US unilateralism. “[…] the chief problem is that the European Union, which has an unprecedented opportunity to bring regional stability and an end to the deadly conflict between Israel and its neighbors, is holding back, as if it needs a permission slip from the United States before it can act."

Shtender-Auerbach also wrote, "Unlike the United States, whose inaction in the face of the widening catastrophe has squandered its bona fides as a negotiator for peace, the European Union is still a credible broker in the region […] The European Union also has normalized diplomatic and trade relations with Iran, the implicit puppet-master of this proxy war."

In a commentary in the Washington Post, David Ignatius stated: “The strategy of Israel's (and America's) enemies today is to lure the military superpower into a protracted conflict. To accept the bait, as the Israelis did in assaulting Lebanon and as America did in Iraq, is to risk stepping into a trap. "As Lawrence Wright says in his new book, 'The Looming Tower,' the master of this approach is Osama bin Laden: 'His strategy was to continually attack until the US forces invaded; then the mujahideen would swarm upon them and bleed them until the entire American empire fell from its wounds,'" Ignatius wrote.

Arab media, even in traditionally US-friendly countries, have lashed out against the US and Israel.

The Daily Star of Beirut wrote: “Now that fresh images of the broken bodies of the women and children of Qana are being shown on our television screens, the idea of forgetting has become all the more unthinkable. These images have stirred the anger and outrage of even the most moderate Lebanese, proving that Israeli brutality - not Hizbollah - has become Israel's own worst enemy. Israel's unabashed butchery in Qana has only demonstrated to many of those who were on the fence that there is indeed a legitimate need for resistance.”

In Israel, writing for Ha’aretz daily newspaper, Akiva Eldar ommented: “Irrespective of when the war in the north ends, it already has claimed a place of honor in Arab victory albums, along with the Egyptian 'victory' in 1973. The political leadership is beginning to grasp that even if we manage to send Hassan Nasrallah on the journey taken by Ahmed Yassin, Hezbollah [the Party of Allah], like Hamas, will not disappear from this world.

"Moreover, according to the plan Condoleezza Rice is carrying around, Hezbollah is expected to exit this war having extricated the Lebanese prisoners and the Shaba Farms from Israel, and still get to keep some of its arsenal.”

Anes Alic is a senior ISN Security Watch correspondent and analyst.
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