Could UN Have Prevented Kidnapping of Israeli Soldiers?

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

( - Nine months after three Israeli soldiers were abducted by Hizballah militants along Israel's northern border, the United Nations admitted it has a videotape taken by one of its soldiers shortly after the kidnapping, showing the vehicles used in the incident.

Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer has demanded that the videotape be handed over to Israel, accusing the U.N. of evasive behavior. Some Israelis have gone further, charging the U.N. could have prevented the abduction.

Defense officials are hoping the video may "shed additional light on the circumstances of the abduction," the Defense Ministry said.

Staff-sergeants Binyamin Avraham and Omar Sawayid and Sgt. Adi Avitan were kidnapped in a meticulously planned cross-border ambush last October by the Iranian-backed Hizballah. A fourth Israeli, a reserve colonel, was abducted just days later while on a business trip abroad.

From DNA tests on bloodstains found at the scene, Israeli officials know all three soldiers were wounded in the attack. But Hizballah has refused to reveal any details about their condition or allow a Red Cross representative to visit them.

For several months, Israel has been insisting that the U.N. was in possession of footage of the vehicles used in the attack, but officials at all levels of the U.N. had denied that it existed.

The video was taken privately by an Indian soldier stationed near the border 18 hours after the incident and sent initially to the U.N. Interim Forces In Lebanon. headquarters, said UNIFIL spokesman Timur Goksel.

The video shows a black Range Rover and a white car, bearing fake U.N. markings. They had apparently been used to trick the soldiers into approaching the border fence. Explosives, a U.N. insignia, uniforms and license plates were found in the vehicles.

Goksel argued that virtually all the details revealed in the video had already been disclosed directly after the incident. It was his view the video would provide Israel with no new clues about the condition or whereabouts of the soldiers.

"I don't see what it could offer ... on the status of the soldiers," he said by telephone on Friday.

Goksel denied that last year he had confirmed a report in a Beirut newspaper that said the U.N. soldiers had observed the ambush and kidnapping. A U.N. outpost stood about half a mile from the place where the attack occurred.

The UN soldiers could not see what was going on because the terrorists had thrown up a smoke screen, Goksel said, adding that they had taken cover almost immediately when the Hizballah shelling started.

The earlier report, citing U.N. eyewitnesses, gave a blow-by-blow description of the operation. At the time, Goksel confirmed to in a phone interview that the peacekeepers had observed it from a distance of "more than a kilometer away."

Israeli officials suspect that the Indian U.N. member actually witnessed the incident.

Former Foreign Ministry legal advisor Dr. Meir Razel, said that the Indian contingent controlled an outpost watching over a small road to a border gate. It would have been impossible for the U.N. troops not to see what was taking place, he said, adding that the incident could have been prevented.

The U.N. is obligated not only to reveal all the details it has about the incident, but also to prevent any further attacks, Razel said.

Hizballah, which waged an 18-year guerrilla and terrorist war against Israeli and allied South Lebanese Army forces in southern Lebanon, has continued to attack Israel over a small, still-disputed border area since Israel withdrew its troops to the international border last year.

The organization said it abducted the soldiers to use as bargaining chips for the release of Lebanese prisoners still in Israeli jails. The most notable prisoner is one of the group's leaders Sheik Obeid, who was abducted by Israeli commandos in 1989 with the intention of trading him for Israeli soldiers still missing in action in Lebanon..

The Israeli-Lebanese border was particularly tense this week after an Israeli soldier was seriously wounded in the head when terrorists fired anti-tank missiles and mortar shells at two army outposts.

Israeli air force planes struck a Syrian radar position in Lebanon in retaliation. Israel holds Syria, the main powerbroker in Lebanon, responsible for the actions of Hizballah.

Speaking from Beirut on Friday, U.S. Middle East envoy William Burns urged Israel and Lebanon to do everything in their power to avoid an escalation along the U.N.-demarcated border.