Thursday, 10 May 2018

Ceisteanna (9)

Aengus Ó Snodaigh


9. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence to outline his views on whether the threat level against Irish troops serving on the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon has increased since a person (details supplied) attended a major Israeli military and state public propaganda event on 18 April 2018, an event that coincided with the anniversary of the 1996 Qana massacre (details supplied) and at a time when Israeli soldiers are regularly targeting and firing at Palestinian civilians and wounding or killing them. [20215/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Ceist ar Defence)

I asked the Minister of State at a joint committee meeting recently whether he believed it was appropriate for Major General Michael Beary, who is the head of mission of the UN in Lebanon, to attend an Israeli celebration at Mount Herzl and whether that attendance had put the lives of Irish troops at risk.

The current head of mission and force commander of UNIFIL is Major General Michael Beary of Ireland. Major General Beary was appointed to the post in July 2016. The appointment, which was for an initial period of one year, was extended at the request of the United Nations for a further one-year term up to 15 July 2018.

Major General Beary's appointment to the important post is a tribute to the fine reputation of Irish peacekeepers going back almost six decades and to the skills and attributes that he brings to the job. His track record as a leader in the Defence Forces and now as a leader of a multinational force of over 10,000 speaks for itself.

Major General Beary is on secondment from the Defence Forces to the United Nations and operates under the strategic direction and authorisation from the United Nations Security Council. As head of mission and force commander of UNIFIL Major General Beary is required to attend events in Lebanon and Israel in the performance of his duties as the United Nations impartial representative. In attending the event in question on 18 April 2018, Major General Beary was carrying out his role as mandated by the United Nations.

There has been no change in the threat assessment and no indication that the threat level against Irish troops serving on the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon has increased.

At the United Nations Security Council meeting on UNIFIL last March, the UN Secretary General commended Major General Beary on his leadership of the UNIFIL mission. Strong support for the work being done by Major General Beary was also expressed to me during my recent visit to Lebanon and at my many meetings with Lebanese ministers and officials.

Major General Beary is a distinguished Defence Forces officer with significant previous operational command experience of UN-mandated peacekeeping operations. This experience includes previous service with UNIFIL as an operational commander and an EU training mission in Somalia.

I received a full briefing from Major General Beary in the course of my recent visit to Lebanon on all aspects of the UNIFIL operation. I have full confidence in the capacity of Major General Beary to discharge the office of UNIFIL force commander and head of mission. He has brought with him the knowledge and experience gained by the Defence Forces from nearly 40 years of deployment with UNIFIL in southern Lebanon and in the wider region.

The Defence Forces continually monitor the security situation in Lebanon and I am satisfied that all appropriate security measures are in place to ensure the safety of the Defence Forces personnel serving with UNIFIL.

Events last night must have overtaken the answer the Minister of State just read out. The threat level in the region escalated hugely last night. I am not sure if the Minister of State is fully aware of the events in question. Rockets flying overhead endanger not only civilians living in the area but also any troops serving on a UNIFIL mission. I refer to the Israelis targeting Syrian outposts.

I will address why I asked the original question. Major General Beary has had a distinguished career, as the Minister of State has said. The general did not decide off his own bat to attend a military display also attended by Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu and members of the Israeli Defence Force. It was, however, his own decision to tweet at the time that it was a great display. We must bear in mind that this was the 70th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. It fell on the same day as a commemoration of the Qana massacre - an event it might have been more appropriate for Major General Beary to attend - when Israeli troops targeted a UN compound, killed 106 civilians under the protection of the UN mission and injured four Fijian troops. Given Major General Beary's attendance at the display and last night's events, can a new threat assessment be made of the situation in the occupied Golan Heights?

I echo those points in respect of the questions that need to be asked. Our relationship with Israel has reached a much greater sensitivity in light of last night's activities. I refer to the illegal bombings by Israel of Iranian troops in the illegally occupied Golan Heights in Syria. We have to be incredibly sensitive. This region is becoming seriously dangerous, particularly in light of Donald Trump's withdrawal of the US from the Iranian nuclear agreement. Will the Minister of State be making a statement to the House to reassess the security level of and the threat to Irish troops in the region in light of those activities? Will he also be condemning the Israeli authorities and making it known to the Israeli ambassador that this type of activity is unacceptable?

The mission referred to last night in the Golan Heights is the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, not UNIFIL. I want to state clearly, however, that I spoke to the Chief of Staff twice this morning regarding the live firing last night at 00:30 hours over the Golan Heights. All members of the 57th Infantry Group were in their bunkers for some hours last night. The head of the Irish personnel informed Defence Forces headquarters of the incidents last night. No rounds landed in the vicinity of the Irish troops. They are based in Camp Ziouani. All Irish personnel were accounted for and are safe and well, as they were during the entire situation. They are carrying on with normal duties this morning with an air of caution. That is the norm.

To return to Major General Beary, he is on secondment from the Defence Forces to the United Nations. He operates under the strategic direction and authority of the United Nations Security Council.

I have still not received an answer to the question of whether the Minister of State thinks it is appropriate that the head of UNIFIL - who happens to be a major general in the Irish Defence Forces - attended a military celebration of the founding of the State of Israel on the same date as the anniversary of an Israeli attack on a UN compound in the region where Irish troops are located. Has that escalated the level of danger for Irish and UNIFIL troops? Has it contributed to an escalation of tensions in the area?

I reiterate that I am not responsible for Major General Beary. He operates under the UN and he does not have to answer to me. He is on secondment to the UN as head of mission with UNIFIL. He does not - and I do not expect him to - answer to me. When I have visited Lebanon in the two years since my appointment, I have received full briefings from Major General Beary. I have the greatest of admiration for him. He has carried out his job and he is very well respected. I received briefs from both sides when I was in Israel and Lebanon. Both sides very much respect Major General Beary and the work that he has done in the two years since his appointment. He has brought the tripartite meetings - involving the Israelis, the Lebanese and himself - back together. Those meetings happen on a weekly or fortnightly basis. That is a huge achievement on the part of the man who is head of mission for UNIFIL. I commend him and wish him the best of luck as he continues the mission.

Question No. 11 replied to with Written Answers.