Wednesday, October 18, 2006

UNIFIL denies French threat to fire on intruding Israeli jets

UNIFIL denies French threat to fire on intruding Israeli jets
By Rym Ghazal, Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Plenty of eyes turned upward Tuesday as disagreements soared over persistent Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace, with Israel claiming UNIFIL's French contingent had threatened to fire at its planes. According to Israeli media outlets, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said senior commanders of the French forces in South Lebanon had relayed a warning to Israel that its violations of Lebanese airspace might draw French anti-aircraft fire. In comments to the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Peretz said this was a "threat." "They said that planes fly over them and that there was no certainty that they wouldn't open fire on them," he said, citing the French commanders' alleged statement, which the minister said was made at a meeting of the joint Israeli UNIFIL-Lebanese military committee. But UNIFIL spokesperson Alexander Ivanko told The Daily Star he had no idea where the statement quoted by Peretz came from. "I am not aware of any such comments made by any senior UNIFIL officers," he said.

Sources close to the dispute said there are serious discussions about the French contingent bringing in aircraft to assist monitoring of Lebanese skies, but nothing has been decided yet. The French Foreign Ministry last week condemned Israel's violations and announced that France was working with the UN to "organize the rules of managing Lebanese airspace." "So far, we only have Italian helicopters, and discussions are still ongoing," Ivanko said. Beirut has repeatedly called for an end to Israeli transgressions, with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora describing the air intrusions as "hostile actions" and demanding an "immediate" halt to violations of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.

Israeli warplanes have been violating Lebanese airspace regularly for decades, gathering intelligence, making their presence known and sometimes setting off sonic booms. Given that the Lebanese military lacks effective anti-aircraft weapons, the Israeli jets are rarely challenged.

But Israel contends its overflights do not contradict 1701. Peretz said Israel would continue to patrol Lebanon's airspace as long as 1701 remained "unfulfilled," adding that his country is collecting evidence that Syria has renewed arms shipments to Hizbullah. "We intend to announce by means of the coordinating committee for Israel, the Lebanese Army and UNIFIL that if the transfer of weapons to Hizbullah becomes systematic, we will have to take care of it ourselves," he told the Maariv daily. In response, the Lebanese Army Command released a statement saying Lebanon's territory and national waters are "carefully controlled and there has been no transfer or entry of any arms into Lebanon." "The army considers the statements by the Israeli defense minister interference ... to cause disruption and instability, and an excuse to continue criminal Israeli acts against Lebanon," it said.

Israeli airspace violations were many on Tuesday, with aircraft flying over Tyre, Wadi Assel, the western part of the South and along the occupied Golan Heights. At the same time, according to the National News Agency (NNA), two Israeli bulldozers and three humvees crossed the UN-demarcated Blue Line near Kfar Kila. Dozens of Israelis then began digging canals to channel what appeared to be floodwater, caused by recent heavy rains, from Israel into Lebanon. Ivanko said UNIFIL had no knowledge of "any violation in that area" but added that some "engineering work" was taking place on the border fence. The NNA also noted an increase in the number of Israeli vehicles patrolling the border.

Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot said Tuesday that the US and a European nation offered Israel satellite images of Lebanon in return for a cessation of its flights. Yediot said Israel rejected the proposal, saying the flights were needed to collect intelligence. - With agencies, additional reporting by Mohammed Zaatari

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