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Skirmish in south Lebanon reignites tension

Clashes between villagers and international peacekeepers attempting to investigate the site of an explosion of a suspected weapons cache come as Israel seeks to toughen the U.N. troops' mandate.

July 21, 2009|Meris Lutz

BEIRUT — Tensions resurfaced in Lebanon's volatile south over the weekend when residents of the village of Khirbet Selm threw stones at international troops who were attempting to investigate a mysterious explosion there several days earlier.

Lebanese media said residents of Khirbet Selm smashed the windows of two U.N. vehicles Saturday as French peacekeepers sought to inspect a house near the site of the Tuesday explosion that many suspect was a weapons storage facility operated by the Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah.

Israel, meanwhile, exerted new pressure on the United Nations to bolster the mandate of its international troops in order to give them greater autonomy from the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Condemning the explosion of the alleged Hezbollah weapons cache about seven miles from their nation's border, Israeli officials called for a beefed-up U.N. mandate in southern Lebanon. Current rules only allow the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, to search southern villages in coordination with the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Many fear an incident like this could shatter the uneasy peace that has prevailed since the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel ended.

The U.N. peacekeeping force is in charge of making sure Hezbollah doesn't rearm, but last week's explosion raised doubts about the force's ability to monitor and control the group.

Residents of Khirbet Selm reportedly blocked the main road with burning tires after some villagers engaged in a fistfight with the peacekeepers and threw stones at them to protest the patrol's attempt to search for weapons caches that violate U.N. Security Council resolutions barring a rearming of Lebanese militias.

Some observers have speculated that the residents were sent by Hezbollah in order to thwart any investigation.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry released a statement last week demanding that UNIFIL take "efficient and determined steps" to expand its activity in "urban areas," presumably referring to house searches in areas of the south, and the Sunday edition of the Jerusalem Post quoted a senior Israeli defense official calling for an increase of the force's search powers.

UNIFIL, operating under a peacekeeping mandate in southern Lebanon since 1978, is frequently accused by both Israelis and Lebanese of failing to do enough to prevent violations by the other side. Its mandate is expected to be renewed at the end of August, and any proposed amendments would require not only the approval of all Security Council members, but also Lebanon's consent. Analysts have described Israel's demand as an attempt to increase political pressure on international forces.

"There is nothing [Israel] can do about it, and absolutely nothing new in what they are saying," said former UNIFIL senior advisor Timur Goksel, a Turkish national who lives in Lebanon. "[Israel] bombed Lebanon for 33 days and couldn't get rid of [Hezbollah's] weapons, and now they want UNIFIL to do it?"

Gabriela Shalev, Israel's U.N. ambassador, also made a formal complaint against UNIFIL soldiers from India who she said allowed a group of 15 civilians to cross the Lebanese border into Israel.

"Violations of this kind threaten the fragile stability along Israel's northern border," she said.

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Lutz is a special correspondent. Batsheva Sobelman of The Times' Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.

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