Israel + 1 more

OPT: Israel sets high bar for Gaza peacekeeper idea

By Adam Entous

JERUSALEM, May 18 (Reuters) - Israel said on Friday it might agree to international peacekeepers being deployed in Gaza as long as they were ready to crack down on Palestinian militants -- a view one foreign diplomat said amounted to a polite "No".

Israel has long resisted Palestinian calls for peacekeepers in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, saying their deployment would interfere with Israeli security measures.

But Israel has signalled flexibility since last year's Lebanon war, which ended with a boosted UNIFIL peacekeeper force in former Hezbollah guerrillas strongholds. Israel quit Gaza in 2005 but cross-border violence has persisted, compounded by a surge of internal fighting between rival Palestinian factions.

Meeting senior Western diplomats on Friday, Israel Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said any Gaza force would have to be willing to search for "terrorists" and arms, and play other "executive" roles in order to be acceptable, a Foreign Ministry official said. A diplomat who attended said he doubted European countries would be willing to sign onto such a mandate. Peacekeepers in conflict zones generally limit their missions to reporting truce violations or expediting humanitarian efforts.

The diplomat said Livni's comments amounted to Israel saying "'No' in a polite way."

Livni made the comments after being asked by the EU's ambassador to Israel, Ramiro Cibrian-Uzal, whether Israel still objected to the idea of foreign peacekeepers for Gaza.

A senior European diplomat said Livni told the group that "if the mandate of the force is similar to the current UNIFIL, then Israel is not interested. But if the force had a more executive mandate, then we'd be in a different position".

Italy's foreign minister, Massimo D'Alema, said on Wednesday that his government would consider sending peacekeepers to Gaza if the Palestinian government requested help to end factional fighting between Hamas and Fatah.

Italy is a leading contributor to UNIFIL. D'Alema said last year that if the Lebanon force proved effective, a similar force could be used in Gaza.

An Israeli Foreign Ministry official, who took part in the meeting, said Livni told the diplomats that UNIFIL's challenges in Lebanon underscored the difficulties of such missions.

Though Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has publicly praised UNIFIL, some officials complain that the peacekeeping has not been aggressive enough and that the mandate should be expanded and strengthened to prevent Hezbollah from bringing in more rockets and taking up their old positions.

"For our point of view, Lebanon is a test case," the Foreign Ministry official said.

The official said Livni's message to the diplomats on Friday was: "Is the international community really ready to send a force willing to go house to house finding terrorists? That's the sort of force you need in Gaza. Are you really willing to do the job that needs to be done?"

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams)


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