U.N. says Israelis to leave Lebanon by end of Sept
BEIRUT – A U.N. commander said on Tuesday Israeli troops should be out of south Lebanon within days, but Israel called for an agreement with the peacekeepers on rules of engagement before a full withdrawal.
Israeli forces have gradually been pulling out of territory they captured during a 34-day war with Hizbollah guerrillas that ended with a truce on August 14.
Israel has so far handed over around 90 percent of that territory to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which is beefing up its numbers to monitor the truce.
“It is my belief that with the necessary cooperation by both parties we should see the (Israeli army) leave south Lebanon by the end of this month,” Major General Alain Pellegrini, commander of the UNIFIL force, said in a statement.
Pellegrini discussed the continued Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon and the deployment of the Lebanese army in the area in line with U.N. Resolution 1701 that ended the fighting.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said the Jewish state hoped to complete the withdrawal during the coming week but that Israel had yet to agree with UNIFIL on rules of engagement to pave the way for a full withdrawal.
“I hope very much that during the coming week, at the most a few more days, we will complete the withdrawal,” Peretz said.
“There are arrangements, negotiations (and) deliberations which we intend to complete in order to set the rules — what is permitted and what is forbidden — from the moment we’re sitting on the Blue Line (on the border),” he told reporters.
Israeli military affairs commentators interpreted his comments as referring to rules governing when force could be used against Lebanese Hizbollah guerrillas after Israeli soldiers return to Israeli soil.
Israeli officials had said they hoped to bring the troops home by last weekend. Peretz’s comments seemed to suggest a full withdrawal would take place by the start of the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur, at sundown on Sunday.
“There are going to be all these international forces who speak different languages,” said Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. “They will all be under UNIFIL but there is a question of their coordination with the Lebanese army and their coordination with Israeli army.
“These rules of engagement entail who does what — do you call the Lebanese army, the Israeli army — what is going to be done.”
The U.N. resolution authorizes up to 15,000 UNIFIL troops to join a similar number of Lebanese army troops who are being deployed in the south as part of the ceasefire.
Around 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and 157 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed in the fighting that started on July 12 when Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.
U.N. agencies said on Tuesday up to a million unexploded cluster bomblets dropped by Israel are now the biggest threat to civilians in south Lebanon, where they litter streets, homes and orchards.
“A lot of these cluster bombs, small as they are, are caught up in the rubble and pose a continuing problem to any reconstruction,” Chris Clark, program manager of the U.N. Mine Action Coordination Center in southern Lebanon, said.