UN observers, one from Canada, are killed. Kofi Annan goes on attack.
Snap judgments made in the fog of war are usually a bad idea. But Kofi Annan wasn’t about to wait for the dust to settle this week before laying blame at the feet of Israel for the deaths of four United Nations observers, including one Canadian, in a bombing in the southern Lebanon town of Al Khiyam. In a decidedly undiplomatic statement, the UN Secretary-General denounced the “apparently deliberate targeting” of the observers’ post by Israel and described the bombing as a “coordinated artillery and aerial attack.” To buttress his accusation, Annan said a UN commander in the region had been in repeated contact with Israeli officers before the attack, stressing the need to protect the UN position. Annan’s insinuation was clear: the only explanation was an intentional assault on the outpost.
The incident was, without question, a black mark on Israel’s already controversial offensive, coming mere days after the deaths of 17 Lebanese civilians in one bombing, and eight members of a Lebanese Canadian family in another. But Annan’s reaction left some observers familiar with the area scratching their heads. Even if the location of UN posts were known
to Israeli commanders, that doesn’t rule out the possibility that Hezbollah fighters used one as a shield from which to unleash fire. They’ve done so in the past, says Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie (ret’d.), who witnessed the technique while on peacekeeping assignments in the area. “It’s the same as if you set up your weapons systems beside a mosque or a church or a hospital.” The Israeli military, for its part, denied deliberately targeting UN positions. “Since the beginning of this conflict, we have made a consistent effort to ensure the safety of all members of [the UN peacekeeping force],” a spokesman said.
Annan’s remarks count among several suggesting the recent conflict in Lebanon has pushed the veteran diplomat near a breaking point. He was among the first last week to accuse the Israelis of “excessive force” in its initial bombings. He went on to denounce Hezbollah for “holding an entire nation [Lebanon] hostage” in their campaign against Israel. Perhaps frustration is to blame. Among other things, the current hostilities have demonstrated the futility of the UN mission in southern Lebanon, which is known by its acronym, UNIFIL. In an interview with Macleans this week, one veteran adviser to the force ticked off the numerous restrictions which have rendered it impotent since its inception in 1978: it has no powers of detention; it can’t move humanitarian aid; even if it takes away a militant’s weapon, it must return it to a commander the next day. Not exactly a recipe for lasting peace.
These facts, combined with the UN’s failure to implement a 2004 resolution which would have seen Hezbollah disarmed, have left Annan with little moral authority with which to halt the conflict. The international body has neither the capacity nor the will to lead an international peacekeeping force in the event of a ceasefire, say critics, which leaves Annan talking to deaf ears as hostilities rage. “I suspect,” says MacKenzie, “that Kofi’s feeling a bit left out.” M
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