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Germany Ready for Mideast Mission Despite Historical Burden

DW staff / AFP (sp)August 21, 2006

After weeks of debate, Germany seems ready to take part in a UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. But it is desperate to avoid a situation in which its troops would have to fire on Israeli soldiers.

Germans are used to their army deployed abroad, but the Mideast is a different matterImage: AP

The prospect of Germany's first military foray in the Middle East since World War II is viewed with trepidation by political leaders and is deeply unpopular among the German public which fears a bloody quagmire.

But Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany had no choice but to participate in the mission to secure a shaky UN-brokered ceasefire between Hezbollah and Israel after a month of fighting.

Die designierte Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel waehrend einer Fraktionssitzung in Berlin am Montag, 21. November 2005.
Merkel says Germany has no choice but to participate in the missionImage: AP

If Germany bowed out, "the government would see its influence wane dramatically in terms of shaping its foreign policy," she said.

No ground troops or police

But Merkel has firmly ruled out the deployment of combat troops in an effort to contain the risk of a direct confrontation with Israel, where memories of German aggression are still fresh among Holocaust survivors.

On Sunday, Merkel also ruled out sending German police to the region.

There has been speculation that German police would help to secure Lebanon's borders with Syria and Israel but Merkel said Germany's role would be to advise Lebanese security forces on how to carry out the job.

"As far as securing the airports and the borders is concerned, Germany's interest is to advise and to train the Lebanese security forces. The borders will be protected by Lebanese soldiers or police."

She reiterated that Germany planned to send a small navy unit to help secure Lebanon's coastal waters.

"We are prepared to send a compact marine unit to secure the seaways off the Lebanese coast," she said. "Of course the conditions for the engagement still need to be clarified," she added. Merkel underlined that Germany's involvement hinged on getting parliamentary approval for the deployment.

Bundesmarine nach Libanon Einsatzgruppenversorger Frankfurt
Germany is prepared to send medical mobile units to southern LebanonImage: AP

Berlin however has already said it is prepared to send mobile medical units and transport planes to southern Lebanon. This falls under humanitarian aid and does not require parliamentary approval.

Tricky foreign policy challenge

The top-selling newspaper Bild recently called the issue of whether to deploy German troops in the Middle East "the trickiest question German foreign policy has ever faced."

Although Jewish leaders had recently expressed serious

reservations about a German mission in the Middle East, the leader of Germany's main Jewish group said she saw German participation as a defense of Israel's sovereignty.

"Germany and Israel are allied countries," Charlotte Knobloch said. "If Israel needs help in its current situation, we should not refuse."

Germany already has about 7,700 soldiers overseas serving in international peacekeeping forces, mainly in the Balkans, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But a poll released Friday found that a solid majority -- 58 percent -- opposed any German participation in the UN force in Lebanon. About one in four -- 26 percent -- said they would support a German role if there were a firm guarantee that German soldiers would not confront Israeli troops in battle, according to the poll for ZDF public television conducted last week.

The end of an "artificial taboo?"

"The risks are so incalculable that I do not think that the time is ripe for any peacekeeping force, with German involvement or not," the director of the German-Orient Institute in Hamburg, Udo Steinbach, told AFP.

Israel Libanon Waffenruhe Flagge Soldaten kehren zurück nach Israel
Israeli soldiers return to Israel after a ceasefire was called last weekImage: AP

Steinbach said diplomatic efforts to secure a lasting truce between Israel and Hezbollah had a long way to go before a UN force would have a peace to keep, saying the situation in the border region was still "highly explosive."

However, if the force's mandate were revised and its chances of success boosted by bringing nations such as Syria on board, he said it would be only natural for Germany to play a role.

"Participation in this force would mean (Germany) acting like a normal country in the Middle East, with all the risks that entails," he said.

Henning Riecke, an analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said involvement in a UN force would mark the end of an "artificial taboo" because the postwar German army had already embarked on deployments abroad in the 1990s.

"The Bundeswehr is already present around the world and that is largely accepted by the German people," he told AFP.

"In two or three years we will have forgotten the debate about German participation and will be talking about the difficulty the force is having in accomplishing its goals."