Concern follows France, Italy decide to withdraw significant number of troops from the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon.
Israel is growing concerned that UNIFIL, the multi-national peacekeeping force in Lebanon, is headed toward collapse with a French decision this week to withdraw a significant number of its troops.
Following the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Israel succeeded in getting a number of European countries to contribute soldiers to the peacekeeping force, whose mandate was also beefed up as part of an international effort to prevent Hezbollah’s rearmament. The force was bolstered to include 12,000 soldiers in comparison to the few thousand it consisted of before the war.
Israel has held mixed views on UNIFIL in the almost six years since the war.
On the one hand, the government is satisfied with operations by the force, particularly in preventing Hezbollah from rebuilding its infrastructure and rocket launch sites in open areas in southern Lebanon.
Israel’s criticism of the force pertains to its mandate, which does not allow the international soldiers to independently enter villages and search for Hezbollah activity without coordination with the Lebanese Armed Forces.
In addition, the force’s mandate only allows it to operate in southern Lebanon but not along the border with Syria, which has served as the main conduit for arms transfers to Hezbollah in recent years.
Earlier this week, France announced that it was withdrawing 400 soldiers from the force, but that it would remain committed to the stability of Lebanon with the continued contribution of around 1,500 soldiers. Italy recently also announced plans to downsize its mission in Lebanon.
“This is concerning but expected,” a senior defense official said. “We hope the Europeans remain committed to the operation since without them it will be a force that is not particularly efficient.”
The official said that the Italian and French decision to downsize their contributions was the result of the global economic crisis as well as the growing frequency of attacks against the force.
A roadside bomb wounded five French peacekeepers in southern Lebanon in December, in the third attack of the year on UN forces in the area.
Italy reduced its contribution to UNIFIL last year to 1,100 soldiers from 1,800 after six of its peacekeepers were wounded in May, although diplomats said the decision to cut its contingent had been made before the attack.
By YAAKOV KATZ
Reuters contributed to this report