Cablegate: Unscol Williams On Unifil Incident, Ghajar


DE RUEHLB #0096/01 0291602
P 291602Z JAN 10

C O N F I D E N T I A L BEIRUT 000096


EO 12958 DECL: 01/29/2020

REF: A. BEIRUT 53 B. 09 BEIRUT 974 C. 09 BEIRUT 1334
Classified By: Ambassador Michele J. Sison for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).
1. (C) Summary: UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon (UNSCOL) Michael Williams shared with the Ambassador on January 27 a disturbing report of a January 23 act of aggression against a UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) foot patrol in the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil involving an angry crowd and denial of the UNIFIL patrol’s freedom of movement. Williams called the incident “clearly worrying” because of its quick escalation and its occurrence during a routine patrol. Following his January 24-26 consultations in Israel, Williams also questioned the GOI’s commitment to withdrawal from the occupied Lebanese village of Ghajar. While Williams concluded that the GOI did not expect an immediate conflict with Hizballah, he reported it still harbored deep concern about potentially destabilizing factors in south Lebanon. Even so, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) praised its relationship with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) via the Tripartite mechanism. On UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1559, Williams argued against the insistence of some Lebanese that the resolution be “canceled,” noting “the big elephant in the room is Hizballah End Summary.
2. (C) The “temporary obstruction” of UNIFIL’s movement January 23 in the southern town of Bint Jbeil was a violation of UNSCR 1701, UNSCOL Michael Williams told the Ambassador on January 27, since any denial of UNIFIL’s movement was considered a violation. At approximately 1100 on January 23, members of an eight-man French UNIFIL foot patrol noticed that they were being photographed by individuals following them in a civilian vehicle. Soon after a UNIFIL soldier wrote down the car’s license plate number, a crowd of approximately 50 people -- some armed with baseball bats, metal bars, and one individual with a knife -- formed around the UNIFIL soldiers. The soldier’s notebook was seized by a member of the crowd and set ablaze with kerosene. After the crowd tried to isolate one of the UNIFIL soldiers in a threatening manner, the patrol fired warning shots. While the members of the LAF were present, it is not clear what role they played. Reportedly, one of the LAF soldiers told his UNIFIL counterpart that UNIFIL needed to “respect the (local residents’) rights as civilians.”
3. (C) Williams characterized the incident as “clearly worrying.” It was “very unusual,” he emphasized, for local residents to exhibit such behavior during the course of routine patrols, especially because the UNIFIL unit was not headed to search someone’s home. When asked for his assessment of the LAF’s and UNIFIL’s renewed commitment to work together more closely after several incidents in the second half of 2009, Williams replied it was not yet clear what specific steps had been taken to improve the relationship.

4. (C) UNIFIL’s January 25 meeting with the GOI Ghajar team was positive, UNIFIL polchief Milos Strugar told polchief separately on January 26. The Israeli team had visited the village, spoken with residents and local leaders, and inspected infrastructure since their last meeting, so they had a more comprehensive picture of the issues involved, he underscored. On January 25, the Israelis made a presentation on humanitarian issues to be addressed, Strugar said, but they did not return to discuss the key security and legal jurisdictional concerns they had raised previously (ref A). Strugar, who had been downcast after the Israelis presented a maximalist position on January 7, was more upbeat, although he assessed that the talks would progress slowly despite what he described as “an effort” on the Israeli side.
5. (C) The next meeting between UNIFIL and the GOI on Ghajar would be held in approximately two weeks due to the disruption caused by the handover of UNIFIL,s command from Italian General Claudio Graziano to Spanish General Alberto Asarta Cuevas, Strugar noted. In his final Tripartite meeting on January 25, which Cuevas attended, Graziano laid out the history of the Ghajar issue and described the current status of negotiations, Strugar said. His comments, in memorandum form, would be the basis for Asarta going forward, Strugar explained. Williams believed Asarta shared Graziano’s understanding of the importance of resolving Ghajar, although Graziano had invested a great deal of his personal capital on the issue.
6. (C) In his meeting in Jerusalem, Strugar reported, Graziano conveyed his concerns regarding the Israeli presentation made on January 7 and urged the Israelis to return to the UNIFIL plan as a basis for progress. Strugar described the Israelis as “open” and said that MFA DG Yossi Gal emphasized that the previous Israeli presentation was “just a starting point.” The Israelis will return to the UNIFIL plan as a basis, Strugar predicted, although he believed that the legal and jurisdictional questions at stake -- not the security ones -- would be difficult to resolve. Before the next meeting, UNIFIL would brief the Lebanese on the negotiations, as well, Strugar confirmed. UNSCOL Williams told the Ambassador that it was his impression that no progress had been made on the legal or security questions raised with respect to Ghajar, terming the remaining concerns “dealbreakers.”
7. (C) After Williams’ January 24-26 consultations in Israel, he believed that Israel was “looking for something” from Lebanon before withdrawing from Ghajar. Williams relayed that the Israelis did not specify what that “something” could be, but in any case, he was not convinced that the GOL had the political cover -- or inclination -- to negotiate seriously over Ghajar. He noted that the Israeli Ministry of Defense seemed more “flexible” on the issue, while he questioned whether the MFA (the lead agency) was really committed. MOD General Yossi Heymann, whom Williams called “impressive,” believed that the issue of Ghajar was suffering from “over legislation” and that sometimes it was better to “have some gray.” When Israel pulled out of Ghajar in 2000, there were no detailed arrangements and it “kind of” worked, Heymann pointed out. Williams said he assured his Israeli interlocutors that after an Israeli withdrawal from Ghajar, he would “do (his) damnedest” to push the Lebanese to take reciprocal positive steps in accordance with their UNSCR 1701 obligations.

8. (C) Williams reported that while in Israel, he had met with not only Gal and Heymann, but also with representatives of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office, as well as MOD Chief of Staff General Gabi Ashkenazi for the first time. Williams reported the GOI did not expect a conflict with Hizballah in the near future along the Blue Line. He heard repeated worries, however, about the potential for Hizballah to acquire anti-aircraft missiles or act on its standing threat to retaliate for the death of Imad Mughniyeh. Ashkenazi assessed that the early January attack on the convoy of the Israeli ambassador in Jordan could have had some limited Hizballah involvement, but it was uncharacteristically unsophisticated for the group, Williams said. Israeli interlocutors also expressed concerns about extremist Palestinian groups in Lebanon, particularly in the Ain el-Hilweh refugee camp near Saida.
9. (C) For his part, Williams expressed concern to the Ambassador that if another rocket attack were to occur -- whether by Palestinian militants or Hizballah -- Israel would respond forcefully. In such an event, UNIFIL would likely be unable to contain any escalation, he worried, adding, “Everything we’ve worked for could go away in as little 12 hours.”

10. (C) The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) praised the LAF’s participation in the Tripartite talks, especially the leadership of Brigadier General Abdulruhman Shehaitly, Williams said. General Heymann had mentioned to Williams, in particular, the late August incident when an (possibly mentally ill) Israeli citizen walked across the Blue Line and was picked up and returned to Israel by the LAF after questioning (ref B). In that instance, Heymann asserted to Williams, the credit for the man’s return to Israeli authorities goes to the LAF and former UNIFIL Commander General Graziano.

11. (C) When asked about the December efforts by some to target UNSCR 1559, Williams explained that Security Council resolutions never die or “get canceled,” as some Lebanese politicians had advocated. Williams noted that many Lebanese were naive about why UNSCR 1559 still existed, even though the resolution had not yet been fully implemented. While key parts of UNSCR 1559, such as Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, had been implemented, Williams said, “the big elephant in the room is Hizballah.” Williams noted that Lebanese FM Ali Chami had not raised the issue of UNSCR 1559 recently, despite Chami’s involvement in lighting December’s media firestorm on the issue (ref C). During his latest consultations in Israel, Williams recalled, no one had raised the issue of UNSCR 1559 either.
12. (C) Williams confirmed that the next UNSCR 1701 report was due at the end of February, with consultations to follow in March, but the next UNSCR 1559 report was not due until April. Williams characterized this timeline as “a better sequence.” He noted that previously, when the UNSCR 1559 report had come first, it added tensions to the UNSCR 1701 report and consultations.
13. (C) COMMENT: The January 23 incident in Bint Jbeil is disturbing because of its rapid escalation and the unanswered questions about the role the LAF played. We will underscore the need for strong UNIFIL-LAF cooperation with new UNIFIL Commander Asarta in a scheduled February 4 meeting and with our LAF interlocutors at the first opportunity. End Comment. SISON

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