JERUSALEM (AFP) – Israel has welcomed an EU pledge to contribute up to 7,000 troops to a beefed-up peacekeeping mission in Lebanon capable of enforcing the fragile truce with Shiite militants of Hezbollah.
“Israel congratulates European countries on their decision to send these contingents for the international force in Lebanon,” foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev said following Friday’s decision by the 25-nation bloc.
“This decision will greatly contribute to the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701,” he said, with the EU now supplying more than half the extra soldiers needed to bring the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) up to its mandated 15,000 from its current count of 2,000.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who is due in Beirut on Monday to discuss the deployment with Lebanese leaders, hailed the EU’s decision.
“We may have a unique opportunity to transform the cessation of hostilities into a durable ceasefire,” he said in Brussels.
Half of the EU troops are to be deployed rapidly, with the 2,000 troops France has pledged to arrive within 20 days, Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told The Wall Street Journal.
But French President Jacques Chirac, who was speaking separately Friday in Paris, said a level of 15,000 troops was “excessive” and it made “no sense” to have such a large contingent alongside the Lebanese army in the region.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy put the EU deployment at “6,500 to 7,000 soldiers on the ground, which means that the spinal column of the reinforced UNIFIL will be European.”
The force is crucial to shoring up Resolution 1701, which on August 14 brought an end to the brutal 34-day conflict in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah.
The UN chief also proposed that France see out its current term as commander of the force, which expires at the end of January, after which Italy would take over.
Italy is expected to supply up to 3,000 soldiers, which would make it the biggest contributor to the force. Its troops could start deploying as early as Tuesday.
France, though, played a key role diplomatically in revamping the force, having co-authored the UN resolution with the United States. It also enjoys close relations with Lebanon, a former colony.
A vanguard of 170 French reinforcements arrived in Lebanon on Friday, making France the only country so far to have actually sent troops.
Chirac said he agreed to send the extra two battalions after winning a robust mandate for UNIFIL as well as guarantees the force would be able to cope if hostilities flare up again.
While UN peacekeepers are usually allowed to use lethal force only when directly threatened — a limitation which hobbled UN peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia and elsewhere — Alliot-Marie said France had received assurances that troops could use force in other situations.
As an example, she said that if a UN patrol was blocked on the road by the Hezbollah militia — but not shot at — UN troops could do nothing under the normal UN rules of engagement.
“What we got was that they can,” Alliot-Marie was quoted as saying in Saturday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal. “I don’t want to send men so that they can be humiliated on the ground.”
The announcement of the French reinforcements spurred some other EU countries into firming up previously vague promises to contribute.
Spain said it would send 1,000 to 1,200 soldiers, Poland another 300 in addition to the 200 currently serving in UNFIL, Belgium 300 within two months and possibly another 100 later, and Finland 250.
Greece is offering a frigate, helicopter and special forces while other countries, notably Portugal and Latvia, have indicated they could send soldiers, but no details were given Friday.
Germany, wary of potential confrontations with Israel because of its Nazi past, is prepared to offer naval units, not troops, as is Sweden.
Britain — heavily deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan — said it was too stretched to send ground troops, but might supply “specialised” units.
Russia, which is not an EU member, said it was still considering the possibility of sending troops.
Annan said Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia had offered to participate in UNIFIL — though Israel has opposed contributions from those Muslim countries because of an absence of diplomatic relations.