Birds of Prey

The Record of Impunity for Israeli Military Aircraft

Since March 1978, for thirty-five years, the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon, UNIFIL, has been monitoring the conflict between Israel and Lebanon— the tension, the daring, the mayhem, the killing.  The enthusiastic efforts UNIFIL made in the early years soon waned.  Perhaps it was the politics, perhaps it was the frustration of an ineffectual mandate, or perhaps it was losing 279 troops to-date.    Whatever the cause, public statements from UNIFIL seem to have settled into a laissez-faire yawn.

For instance, when the Head of Mission, Major-General Serra, recently held a regular tripartite meeting with senior officers from the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Israel Defence Forces, he stated (23 January 2013) that he “was pleased to see the positive engagement of both the parties on all the issues.”   It had been a “generally quiet period in the area of operations,” he said, “with both parties maintaining a strong commitment to the cessation of hostilities.”

Yet exactly one week later, Israeli military executed a bombing mission at the Lebanese-Syrian border.  Warplanes bombarded a scientific research centre in Jamraya, injuring five employees and killing two.  It seems Major-General Serra’s portrayal of Israel having a “strong commitment to the cessation of hostilities,” perhaps offered to be politically correct at the time, was rather off the mark.

The New York Times immediately reported that Israel had carried out a pre-emptive strike targeting an alleged arms convoy headed for Lebanese Hezbollah.  The next day, Ambassador Ja’afari, Syrian Permanent Representative to the UN, made a formal statement to the UN General Assembly and Security Council (A/67/721—S/2013/70).  He confirmed the deadly hit on the research centre—which had been unsuccessfully targeted over a period of months by armed insurgents.  But he flatly denied reports of the arms convoy.

Regardless of what was actually bombed, the incentive to attack was clarified by Israeli Defence Minister Barak at the Munich Security Conference four days later.  Barak stated that the bombing was “another proof that when we say something we mean it” and that “We say that we don’t think that it should be allowed to bring advanced weapon systems into Lebanon, the Hezbollah, from Syria, when Assad falls.”  In fact, he repeatedly asserted that the defeat of President Assad would be a “major blow” to both Iran and Hezbollah, that they would both “pay the price.”  Like all statements emanating from the Israeli government, Barak’s stance was imbued with a sense of entitlement to judge his neighbours, to whom he was overtly hostile.

Former US intelligence official Matthew Levitt, currently an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, offered a forthright assessment: “Israel is able to fly reconnaissance flights over Lebanon with impunity right now,” he said.  The potential of Hezbollah’s having anti-aircraft weapons, he explained, was a “real concern” as it “could cut into its [Israel’s] ability to conduct aerial intelligence.”

Impunity is the key term here, because such conduct is illegal.  Israel’s routine overflights—characterised by UNIFIL in 2009 as not only a “humiliation to the Lebanese government and UNIFIL,” but also an “act of war,” —have been acknowledged by all parties to have been a problem since August 2000.  Nonetheless, Israel has consistently invoked its quest for security, which is held to supersede not only the security of all others, but also the dictates of international law.  On 14 November 2012, for instance, the UN Security Council reported:

The Israel Defense Forces continued to make almost daily intrusions into Lebanese airspace.  During the reporting period, in addition to the significant number of unmanned aerial vehicles overflying Lebanese territory, UNIFIL observed several air exercises, including formations of multiple fighter jets.  These overflights are violations of resolution 1701 (2006), as well as of Lebanese sovereignty. UNIFIL has continued to protest all air violations, calling on the Israeli authorities to cease them immediately.  The Government of Lebanon also protested the violations, while the Government of Israel continued to maintain that the overflights are a necessary security measure.  (S/2012/837 reporting period from 29 June to 30 October 2012)

The habitual overflights violate not just Resolution 1701, but dozens of Resolutions dating back to 1968 warning Israel to respect the sovereignty of Lebanon.   The issue was most famously spelled out with UN Resolution 425 (1978), recalled in all subsequent Resolutions, which

Calls for strict respect for the territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence of Lebanon within its internationally recognized boundaries; Calls upon Israel immediately to cease its military action against Lebanese territorial integrity and withdraw forthwith its forces from all Lebanese territory. (S/RES/425 (1978), 19 March 1978)

In addition to the numerous bombing missions over the years, though, the Israeli birds of prey have been relentless in their mock raids and reconnaissance.  The government of Lebanon has dutifully complained to the United Nations.  For example in the last year (originals listed here):

January 2013 A/67/718–S/2013/68 (47 air violations in December 2012)
December 2012 (A/67/685–S/2012/945) (46 air violations in November 2012)
December 2012 (A/67/620–S/2012/911) (57 air violations in October 2012)
November 2012 (A/67/536–S/2012/809) (50 air violations in September 2012)
September 2012 (A/67/397–S/2012/723) (95 air violations in August 2012)
September 2012 (A/66/898–S/2012/691) (82 air violations in July 2012)
August 2012 (A/66/876–S/2012/6010 (82 air violations in June 2012)
July 2012 (A/66/863–S/2012/557) (100 air violations in May 2012)
May 2012 (A/66/817–S/2012/375) (113 air violations in April 2012)
May 2012 (A/66/780–S/2012/262) (77 air violations in March 2012)
April 2012 (A/66/771S/2012/174) (71 air violations in February 2012)
March 2012 (A/66/744—S/2012/156) (64 air violations in January 2012)
March 2012 (A/66/725–S/2012/123) (notes 9,611 land/sea/air violations since Resolution 1701)

Every single month Israeli military aircraft have made repeated circles up to, and including, Beirut.  Yet UNIFIL’s assessment last month was nearly verbatim from six previous tripartite meetings: November 2012, October 2012, August 2012, July 2012, May 2012, March 2012.  Somehow, hundreds of violations were swept under the rug as “discussed.”  Somehow, continual violations translated to “full support and commitment” to implement Resolution 1701.  Not a mention of the drones or the “formations of multiple fighter jets” by which Israel blatantly transgressed Lebanese territorial sovereignty.

It has been argued that Israel should not be bound by Resolution 1701 because Hezbollah, as the primary resistance force in Lebanon, has remained armed.  Firstly, UN Resolutions do not subscribe to the all-or-none approach; they specify obligations to each party separately.  Secondly, prior to the formation of Hezbollah Resistance there were already 28 UN Security Council Resolutions condemning Israel’s aggressions against Lebanon. ((262 (1968); 270 (1969); 279, 280, 285 (1970); 313, 316, 317 (1972); 332, 337 (1973); 347 (1974); 425, 427, 434, 436 (1978); 444, 450, 459 (1979); 467, 474, 483 (1980); 488, 490, 498 (1981); 501, 508, 509, 512 (1982).)) Thirdly, Resolution 1701 states that prohibitions on weaponry “shall not apply to arms, related material, training or assistance authorized by the Government of Lebanon or by UNIFIL.”  And the noted “consent of the Government of Lebanon” is indeed expressed in the 2011 Ministerial Statement of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s Cabinet:

The government is committed to work on ending Israeli occupation to remaining Lebanese occupied territories; in addition to ending Israeli aggressive practices and spying operations that violates Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.  The government adheres to the right of Lebanon through its people, army and Resistance to liberate and retrieve the Shebaa Farms, Kfar Shouba Hills and the Lebanese part of the Ghajar Village, as well as to defend Lebanon in confronting any aggression through all legitimate and accessible means and to hold on to its right to use its water and oil resources and to consolidate its maritime borders.

No one, not even Israel, denies that these egregious violations take place on a regular basis.  But there is always an excuse: Israel and its enablers insist that the violations are merely a necessary security measure.   Israeli Defence Minister Barak was quick to blame the Jamraya airstrike on the stubborn Syrian/Lebanese resistance; “we don’t think that it should be allowed,” he said.

Predictably, both the US and the UK quietly supported the airstrike.  The American response was a shrug of the shoulders and a warning—not to Israel, of course—but to Syria and Hezbollah.  The British responded likewise, avoiding any hint of impropriety from Israel, while frowning squarely at Syria and Hezbollah.

As for the overflights, the UK loosely urges “both countries to fulfil all their obligations under UNSCR 1701 and to avoid any provocative actions.”  But when asked whether they were “making representations to the Government of Israel about reports of Israeli aircraft staging mock air raids over southern Lebanon,” the British stance was clarified:

While our officials in Israel are aware of these reports, our lobbying of the Israeli Government focuses on the most urgent issues including those that pose the greatest threat to the Middle East peace process or to the lives of ordinary citizens in the region.  This specific issue has not been raised with the Israeli authorities.  An absence of hostilities between Israel and Lebanon remains a priority for the UK and our international partners.  We are monitoring developments closely. (11 June 2012)

Behind the scenes, though, is the darker side of politics.  As a cable from the US Embassy in Beirut reveals, for example, in November 2006 then-UN Special Adviser on the Situation in the Middle East Michael Williams “expressed pleasant surprise by the willingness of the Israelis to talk about the issue” of overflights.  He and fellow UN officials “were most encouraged by their talks with Israeli military intelligence, where they reportedly heard that overflights could cease if the USG [United States Government] would provide needed intelligence through other channels.”  Williams expressed hope that the US and Israel would be able to “develop arrangements through which Israeli overflights of Lebanese territory would cease.”

During his February 2007 visit to Israel, Williams discussed Resolution 1701 with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and staff.  As a cable from the US Embassy in Tel Aviv reveals, the UN has not always backed UNIFIL.  According to both the Ministry and UN staff:

Williams surprised his hosts by expressing ‘understanding’ for the reasons behind Israel’s continued overflights of southern Lebanon.  UN staff said he thanked the GOI [Government of Israel] for decreasing the number of flights and ending provocative operations that UNIFIL interpreted as mock bombing runs against international units and facilities.  At the same time, he stressed to the GOI that all overflights are violations of UNSCR 1701 and cautioned that he would have to say so in public if asked.

A year and a half later, Williams was appointed the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon.

Similarly, in October 2006, as a cable from the American Embassy in Paris reveals, the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs was “consulting closely with French intelligence services on ways to share more intelligence with Israel to obviate the need for overflights.”  The French encouraged the Israelis to be more discreet.  They “privately assured Israel” that UNIFIL’s Force Commander Major General Alain Pellegrini—as he had spoken of a possible expansion of UNIFIL’s rules of engagement to prevent overflights— “would soon be reassigned.”   He left the post in February 2007.

The Lebanese National News Agency has reported at least 31 breeches of airspace so far in February.  Yet the international community has turned a blind eye toward Israel’s contempt for international law.  UNIFIL, with its average annual budget of over $500 million (A/C.5/66/SR.31), files the same protests it has filed for decades and seems uninterested in challenging Israel directly—at least not publicly.  Israel has continued undaunted in its military occupation of regional skies.  Such rogue conduct has developed through years and years of pushing the boundaries, through a pattern of aggression and impunity.

Brenda Heard is the founder and director of Friends of Lebanon, London. She is the author Hezbollah: An Outsider’s Inside View (2015). She can be reached at: Read other articles by Brenda.