For Israel, the U.N. cease-fire deal is far from perfect. A U.N. force deploying in south Lebanon as part of the truce will have trouble keeping Hezbollah at bay for long or prevent the Iranian-supplied guerrillas from rearming, critics said, pointing to past failures of international peacekeepers.
The U.N. terms will buy temporary calm, but make the next war between Israel and Tehran’s proxy army inevitable, former Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and some military analysts warned.
“It begs the question, `What was it all for?'” Shalom said, reflecting a growing chorus of criticism.
Israel had little choice but to go along with the U.S.-backed compromise, after its vaunted army failed to subdue Hezbollah in more than a month of fighting. The guerrillas took heavy blows and suffered scores of casualties, but kept raining rockets on northern Israel throughout the war and clung to positions near Israel’s border.
In a race against a looming cease-fire, Israeli troops moved deeper into Lebanon on Saturday to try to capture all territory south of the Litani River, the area that is to be free of Hezbollah. Helicopters ferried hundreds of soldiers into the war zone, in the biggest military airlift in 33 years.
Israeli officials explained that the troops were trying to pave the way for the deployment of 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers and 15,000 Lebanese forces between the border and the Litani. However, some said the last-minute push was of questionable military value and unnecessarily endangered soldiers.
At least seven soldiers were killed Saturday, the first day of the wider ground war, and an Israeli helicopter was shot down.
On paper, a combined force of 30,000 patrolling south Lebanon appeared an impressive achievement for Israel, which has long demanded that the Lebanese government take control of that area.
However, the Lebanese army — composed of up to 50 percent of Shiite Muslims, the same faith as Hezbollah’s fighters — will at best have a symbolic role, and at worst be sympathetic to the guerrillas, said Shlomo Brom, a former Israeli military chief of planning.
If challenged by Hezbollah gunmen, the army would likely fold, Brom said. “That’s why a multinational force is needed,” he said.
However, international observers in the area have proven ineffective in the past. The 2,000 U.N. peacekeepers, known as UNIFIL, who have patrolled south Lebanon since 1978 are no match for Hezbollah, which built its state-within-a-state and acquired sophisticated weapons from Iran without interference.
The new beefed-up U.N. force was given a wider mandate, including permission to use “forceful means” if challenged by the guerrillas.
That wording is still vague, Israeli TV commentator Ehud Yaari said. “When you take into account the past record of UN forces … it’s hard to be hopeful,” he said.
Alvaro de Soto, a U.N. special envoy to the Middle East, said much of the criticism of UNIFIL was unfair, since its mandate had been limited. Even so, he said the force repeatedly had defused minor confrontations.
The U.N. resolution’s language on a weapons embargo also is problematic, analysts said. The truce deal bars the “sales or supply of arms and related material to Lebanon, except as authorized by its government” — of which Hezbollah is a member. An embargo also would be difficult to enforce on the ground, Yaari said.
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said his guerrillas would abide by the cease-fire once Israeli forces leave, but he expressed reservations about the deal.
The Islamic militant group wants a release of Lebanese prisoners in Israel and a return of Chebaa Farms, a disputed border region held by Israel. If progress is not made on those provisions, the guerrillas may be less willing to cooperate with the forces in the south.
Defense analysts warned more fighting was likely in the future.
Iran can easily reactivate Hezbollah for its own political needs, particularly if it were to be attacked by the West over its nuclear weapons ambitions, Israeli counterterrorism expert Boaz Ganor said.
Shalom, of the right-wing Likud Party, agreed that another war is inevitable. “This was just the preview for the main movie,” he said of the conflict that began July 12 when Hezbollah crossed the border and captured two Israeli soldiers.
“They (Hezbollah) will now rebuild themselves. We could then see long-range missiles, perhaps with non-conventional warheads,” warned Shalom.
Israeli leaders defended the deal against growing skepticism — and got a little help from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The deal, she told Israel TV in a telephone interview, “really does enhance Israel’s security.”
Defense Minister Amir Peretz acknowledged that Israel would have preferred a NATO-led force, rather than U.N. troops, but emphasized the expanded size and mandate of the peacekeepers.
Vice Premier Shimon Peres said Israel couldn’t expect to get everything it wanted. “If we opposed the U.N. resolution, the world would have turned against us,” he cautioned.
Karin Laub is AP news editor in Jerusalem and has covered the region since 1987.
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