BERLIN, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- Germany's contribution to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon has come under heavy fire after an incident with Israeli jet planes and insecurities over the mission's rules of engagement.
German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung will have lots to talk about with his Israeli counterpart when the German visits Jerusalem and Lebanon this week.
The most delicate issue has seen two conflicting stories come from Berlin and Jerusalem.
According to the German version, last week six Israeli Air Force F-16 jet planes raced over the German reconnaissance ship Alster in international waters, roughly 50 nautical miles off the Lebanese coast. One jet fired twice in the air and flares to divert ground-air missiles were released. The Israeli side says no shots were fired, but the Germans say they have detailed video material of the incident. In a separate incident, an Israeli plane flew dangerously close to a German helicopter with the head admiral of the German mission on board.
"The incidents might have happened due to not very well-established lines of communications between the forces," Benjamin Schreer, Bundeswehr expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Monday told United Press International.
But the Alster incident, however, is somewhat explosive: The ship does not officially belong to Germany's UNIFIL team. It is a spy vessel equipped with state-of-the-art wiretapping systems that can overhear telephone and cell phone calls in the area where it is deployed.
It can also precisely locate Israeli jet planes heading for their over-flight missions in Lebanon, which remains an issue of aggravation in Beirut.
It is likely that Germany did not inform Israel about the deployment of the Alster, which may have caused the incident.
Asked whether Berlin told Jerusalem about the Alster's mission, a German Defense Ministry spokesman said: "Those are international waters," and, pressed further, said he had no comment to make.
Before the mission began, German politicians feared the prospect that German and Israeli soldiers might face off in hostile incidents; it was also feared that the mission's rules of engagement would prevent Germany from effectively preventing weapons-smuggling, the key task of the naval mission.
A recent newspaper article quoted from a military report that German ships could only enter the waters close to the shore after being requested to do so by Beirut, a move that has caused the German opposition to accuse the German government of luring them into agreeing to the mission under false pretenses.
Beirut in September had irritated Berlin by pinning preconditions to a German contribution. German ships can come no closer than seven nautical miles to the shores, while the Lebanese navy would secure the coastline.
Leading military experts warned Berlin that if such conditions made it into the rules of engagement, it would be hard to effectively stop arms-smuggling, as the Germans would have had to stop their motors when pursuing a dubious vessel if it went too close to the coast. The small Lebanese navy is unequipped to stop arms-smuggling, and some even called for the German contribution to be called off -- all that ahead of a decision whether to join UNIFIL in Germany's parliament.
The German government, well knowing the implications of a parliamentary 'no' to UNIFIL, worked with the United Nations to convince Lebanon to abandon its conditions, which it eventually did.
Merkel on Sept. 13 informed lawmakers in a news conference that Germany's soldiers had a "robust mandate" and that there would be "no Lebanese veto rights" to any German military decisions.
Jung, the defense minister, also present at the news conference, was even more precise: "We can pursue, stop and board any ship we want from 50 nautical miles off the coast to the shorelines," he said.
The details of the mandate, which received a 'yes' in German parliament, were readjusted roughly a month later, a move that has led to angry outbursts from the opposition.
"That's the opposite from what the government has promised the German parliament," said Free Democrat lawmaker and defense expert Birgit Homburger. "The mission becomes a farce -- an effective control of weapons smuggling is not possible anymore."
Schreer was also unhappy about the mission's readjustments.
"If that becomes the norm then it's a problem for future mandates and parliamentary decisions," he told UPI.
German government spokesman Thomas Steg said opposition anger was "absurd," as "cooperation with a sovereign government does not mean restriction," rather such cooperation is a "matter of course, as the UNIFL troops are not occupying forces."
The mission's mandate was still a robust one, he said.
"The practical experience has showed that these rules bear no restrictions and that the ships can do what is necessary." he said. "The rules allow for the national sovereignty of Lebanon and at the same time do not restrict the mission."
Germany has two frigates, four speedboats and two logistics ships off the Lebanese coast, with a maximum of 2,400 soldiers taking part in the mission.