Halutz says ‘dispute’ over Hizbollah delays withdrawal from Lebanon

news41.jpgOCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AFP) — Disputes over how the Lebanese army and UN peacekeepers will deal with Hizbollah fighters is holding up the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon, Israel’s military chief of staff said Wednesday.

“Yesterday we met with UNIFIL and the Lebanese army,” a government official quoted Lieutenant General Dan Halutz as saying, referring to talks held under the auspices of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

“The issues of rules of engagement and enforcement of [UN Security Council]  Resolution 1701 have not all been agreed upon. At this stage we are delaying the transfer of the territory until we reach agreement,” he said.

Halutz said Israel considered “any use of military equipment, including intelligence gathering means which are not of the Lebanese army or UNIFIL are violations” of 1701, which ended the 34-day war against Hizbollah on August 14.

“We have made it clear that we will act in self-defence against any suspected terror activity,” Halutz said, according to the official.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was also officially quoted as saying “we must insist on the application of Resolution 1701 and adherence to it”.

“We must continue to monitor its application. The situation today is much better than before July 12 [the start of the Israeli war on Hizbollah], but if necessary, we will have to react with the tools we have.” Hizbollah supporters have demonstrated twice recently along the border, allegedly throwing stones at Israeli patrols and tampering with security fences.

Halutz said Israel would react forcefully to any such “provocations” in the future.

“We made it clear [to the UN and the Lebanese army] that we will use demonstration dispersal means… used against violent protests,” including “tear gas, firing in the air and firing at the legs of the protesters.” “If there are any weapons, we will react differently,” he said.

“We are still not firing at people because there’s been no weapons.” The Israeli press earlier highlighted disputes over rules of engagement as being obstacles to a final pullout, but Israeli and UN officials insisted after an inconclusive meeting Tuesday that the problems were not intractable.

General Alain Pellegrini, UNIFIL commander, said the meeting had been “constructive” and that the withdrawal could still go ahead by Saturday.

But on Wednesday, a source close to UNIFIL said there were “contradictions and problems… as the Israeli high command is saying something and the Israeli prime minister is saying something else.” For his part, UNIFIL spokesman Alexander Ivanko said “we are working closely with the parties to finalise the withdrawal in line with the positions taken by [Pellegrini], who expects the withdrawal to be completed by the end of the month.” He added that he was not aware of any meetings planned for this week.

Disagreements over what the rules of engagement should be contributed to delaying a decision by UN members to commit troops to an expanded UNIFIL.

Resolution 1701 is vague on the question.

It calls for establishing “an area free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL” between the Israeli border and the Litani, a strategic waterway that runs between five and 30 kilometres north of the border.

It stipulates that UNIFIL should “assist the Lebanese armed forces” in achieving that.

Hizbollah has agreed to abide by the ceasefire, but has resolutely refused to lay down its arms until it is satisfied that Israel has ended its occupation of Lebanese territory.

In an interview two weeks ago, General Pellegrini said the force would act on its own if necessary.

“If the [Lebanese army)]fails to act, we must assume our responsibilities as a UN force. Someone will have to intervene, with all the consequences that this might have for the Lebanese authorities.” Israel has twice pushed back the date for withdrawing its remaining several hundred troops from south Lebanon.

On the ground, a 12-year-old child was killed and three others wounded in the region of Marjayun when one of the estimated one million unexploded Israeli cluster bombs left in southern Lebanon blew up, medics said.

Some 15 civilians have been killed and some 90 maimed by Israeli cluster bombs left in southern Lebanon since the August 14 ceasefire, according to an AFP count based on UN figures.

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