Din over tape ‘political not humanitarian’

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The Hullabaloo Israel is making over a videotape filmed by an Indian soldier after Hizbollah snatched three Israeli soldiers last October has nothing to do with the captives, held incommunicado for the past nine months. Israel’s aims are political not humanitarian.

According to Israeli columnist Narhum Barnea, writing in the mass circulation daily Yediot Ahronot, the fuss over the tape is intended to discredit the UN with the aim of preventing the deployment of international observers in the occupied Palestinian territories. The task of these observers would be to oversee the implementation of the “confidence-building measures” proposed by the Mitchell Commission if and when the ceasefire takes hold. Israeli has always resisted the introduction of observers or monitors in territories under its control. Now is no exception.

Other Israeli analysts suggest a second important reason for raising a fuss over the “Indian tape”. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon seeks to divert the attention of ordinary Israelis from his failure to abide by his election pledge to bring to an end, “within 100 days,” the conflict in the occupied Palestinian territories. By conducting a war of words with the UN over the tape, Sharon grabs the headlines, but does not exacerbate tension with Hizbollah on the ground in southern Lebanon. Sharon would like to avoid, at this critical juncture, opening up a “second front” by indulging in tit-for-tat exchanges of fire with Hizbollah. He must also curb his impulse to stage air raids against Syrian military installations on Mount Lebanon and the Bekaa if he is to maintain the illusion that he is following a policy of “restraint”.

A third reason to mount a noisy campaign against the UN and its force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) is to mislead the Israeli public about who is really to blame for the capture of the three Israeli soldiers in the Shebaa Farms sector. There is absolutely no doubt that the Israeli army command is guilty of operational laxity and gross miscalculation. On the one hand, senior officers did not instruct soldiers operating in this exposed area to conduct irregular patrols and observe normal security procedures. Relaxed routine patrols at fixed times put troops at risk.

On the other hand, Israel misread Hizbollah’s intentions. UNIFIL’s veteran spokesman Timor Goksel revealed that the Israeli army ignored the protracted presence of Hizbollah intelligence agents at the very spot where the abduction occurred. “Everybody knows that for three months prior to the incident, three Hizbollah members who were apparently unarmed had been sitting in the area and had become part of the local scene. They were … seen by [Israeli] patrols two or three times a day, and their presence did not signal anything unusual.” Furthermore, other sources said Hizbollah fighters were observed camping on the slopes of the Shebaa Farms sector occupied by Israel. These fighters disappeared after the abduction.

Finally, by shifting the blame for the abduction of the three Israelis onto the Indians, UNIFIL and the UN, the Israeli army can try to reduce the humiliation Hizbollah inflicted when it snatched the soldiers. It must be remembered that the Lebanese resistance had already deeply shamed the Israeli military, the most powerful in the region, by forcing it to rapidly retreat from its Lebanese occupation zone at the end of May 2000.

Israel suspected but could not confirm until June 2001 that the 25-minute video existed. After the tape was delivered to the UN headquarters by the outgoing force commander, Israel received confirmation it needed to make a fuss.

The tape was shot 15 hours after the abduction during the examination of two vehicles believed to have been used by Hizbollah for transporting the captured Israeli soldiers from the frontier into southern Lebanon. The Indians had discovered the vehicles abandoned on the roadside 10 kilometres from the abduction site. One was a white Nissan four-wheel drive in which the peacekeepers found two UN uniforms, false UN licence plates and blood stains, samples of which were given to Israel to help in the identification of the captives. The other vehicle was a dark Range Rover. As the Indians were towing away the vehicles, they were stopped at a Hizbollah checkpoint where resistance fighters were photographed taking charge of the cars. The UN says the resistance fighters at the checkpoint were not the abductors of the Israelis. In the UN view, there is nothing on the tape which sheds light on the abduction or the condition of the abductees. A few days after this incident, UNIFIL made available to Israel all the information it had on the abduction, including material gathered from the tape. But nothing was said about the existence of the video.

While Israel has demanded the UN turn over the “Indian tape” forthwith, the world organisation’s spokesman Fred Eckhard has set terms for sharing the contents of the tape. He said the tape will not be handed over to Israel. Instead, Israel will be allowed to view the tape once it has been edited to obscure the faces of the Hizbollah fighters filmed by the Indian soldier. “Showing [the faces of the resistance fighters] would be considered by one party [Hizbollah] as providing intelligence to another party [Israel] and would certainly put in danger the security of our people in Lebanon,” Undersecretary General for Peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guehenno stated.

Goksel told this correspondent that, as far as he knows, the UN has “not changed its mind” on this issue. On Tuesday, the US, as always, became the only member of the Security Council to support Israel over the tape. The others took the attitude that the secretariat knows best how to preserve UN neutrality and look after the security of personnel.

Both Lebanon and Hizbollah vehemently oppose giving Israel any access to the tape. Indeed, Hizbollah Secretary General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah warned that the movement “considers [any sharing of the tape with Israel] to be tantamount to spying”, implying that compromising UNIFIL’s neutrality could jeopardise the safety of peacekeepers.

While stepping up pressure on the UN over the tape, Israel has renewed allegations that Indian peacekeepers, manning an observation post 350 metres from the abduction site, should have intervened to prevent the snatch. UNIFIL argues that Indian troops did not see what was happening because Hizbollah laid down a smoke screen obscuring the line of vision of both peace keepers and Israeli troops in fixed positions nearby. Hizbollah also fired mortars and rockets at these Israeli posts which responded with artillery fire, forcing the Indians to take cover for half an hour.

Since that ploy did not work, Israel has escalated its campaign against the Indians, alleging that one or more may have been bribed to collaborate with Hizbollah. Goksel angrily rejects this allegation. “There was certainly no contact at any time between UNIFIL and the kidnappers, and any allegations of collusion or cooperation are completely baseless. These accusations are nothing but outright slander and lies.”

This is not the first, or last, time Israel is relying on “slander and lies” to advance its interests.

Mr. Michael Jansen contributed this article to the Jordan Times.

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