The Magazine

What did you do in the war, UNIFIL?

You broadcast Israeli troop movements.

Sep 4, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 47 • By LORI LOWENTHAL MARCUS
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DURING THE RECENT month-long war between Hezbollah and Israel, U.N. "peacekeeping" forces made a startling contribution: They openly published daily real-time intelligence, of obvious usefulness to Hezbollah, on the location, equipment, and force structure of Israeli troops in Lebanon.

UNIFIL--the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, a nearly 2,000-man blue-helmet contingent that has been present on the Lebanon-Israel border since 1978--is officially neutral. Yet, throughout the recent war, it posted on its website for all to see precise information about the movements of Israeli Defense Forces soldiers and the nature of their weaponry and materiel, even specifying the placement of IDF safety structures within hours of their construction. New information was sometimes only 30 minutes old when it was posted, and never more than 24 hours old.

Meanwhile, UNIFIL posted not a single item of specific intelligence regarding Hezbollah forces. Statements on the order of Hezbollah "fired rockets in large numbers from various locations" and Hezbollah's rockets "were fired in significantly larger numbers from various locations" are as precise as its coverage of the other side ever got.

This war was fought on cable television and the Internet, and a lot of official information was available in real time. But the specific military intelligence UNIFIL posted could not be had from any non-U.N. source. The Israeli press--always eager to push the envelope--did not publish the details of troop movements and logistics. Neither the European press nor the rest of the world media, though hardly bastions of concern for the safety of Israeli troops, provided the IDF intelligence details that UNIFIL did. A search of Israeli government websites failed to turn up the details published to the world each day by the U.N.

Inquiries made of various Israeli military and government representatives and analysts yielded near unanimous agreement that at least some of UNIFIL's postings, in the words of one retired senior military analyst, "could have exposed Israeli soldiers to grave danger." These analysts, including a current high ranking military official, noted that the same intelligence would not have been provided by the U.N. about Israel's enemies.

Sure enough, a review of every single UNIFIL web posting during the war shows that, while UNIFIL was daily revealing the towns where Israeli soldiers were located, the positions from which they were firing, and when and how they had entered Lebanese territory, it never described Hezbollah movements or locations with any specificity whatsoever.

Compare the vague "various locations" language with this UNIFIL posting from July 25:

Yesterday and during last night, the IDF moved significant reinforcements, including a number of tanks, armored personnel carriers, bulldozers and infantry, to the area of Marun Al Ras inside Lebanese territory. The IDF advanced from that area north toward Bint Jubayl, and south towards Yarun.

Or with the posting on July 24, in which UNIFIL revealed that the IDF stationed between Marun Al Ras and Bint Jubayl were "significantly reinforced during the night and this morning with a number of tanks and armored personnel carriers."

This partiality is inconsistent not only with UNIFIL's mission but also with its own stated policies. In a telling incident just a few years back, UNIFIL vigorously insisted on its "neutral ity"--at Israel's expense.

On October 7, 2000, three IDF soldiers were kidnapped by Hezbollah just yards from a UNIFIL shelter and dragged across the border into Lebanon, where they disappeared. The U.N. was thought to have videotaped the incident or its immediate aftermath. Rather than help Israel rescue its kidnapped soldiers by providing this evidence, however, the U.N. obstructed the Israeli investigation.

For months the Israeli government pleaded with the U.N. to turn over any videotape that might shed light on the location and condition of its missing men. And for nine months the U.N. stonewalled, insisting first that no such tape existed, then that just one tape existed, and eventually conceding that there were two more tapes. During those nine months, clips from the videotapes were shown on Syrian and Lebanese television.

Explaining their eventual about-face, U.N. officials said the decision had been made by the on-site commanders that it was not their responsibility to provide the material to Israel; indeed, that to do so would violate the peacekeeping mandate, which required "full impartiality and objectivity." The U.N. report on the incident was adamant that its force had "to ensure that military and other sensitive information remains in their domain and is not passed to parties to a conflict."