Israel Decries U.N. Troops After Peacekeepers Salute Dead Hezbollah Terrorists

Israel is calling for removal of two United Nations soldiers from Lebanon after photographs surfaced of the soldiers saluting the coffins of Hezbollah terrorists during a prisoner exchange Wednesday.

Associated Press photographer Mohammed Zaatari captured an image of the troops paying homage to fallen Hezbollah fighters as trucks bearing their coffins drove through the city of Tyre in southern Lebanon.

The blue-helmet U.N. troops, who operate under the auspices of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), are meant disarm Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and be an impartial buffer along the country’s border with Israel.

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman, said he was “shocked and horrified” by the photograph and that it was time for the saluting soldiers to go.

“I think they should be recalled and be sent back to whichever country they came from,” said Gillerman. “I think they’ve definitely compromised their impartiality and have in a very big way, in a very serious way, compromised the integrity of the United Nations.”

But a UNIFIL spokeswoman said the salute was nothing out of the ordinary.

“It is customary in most armies for military personnel in uniform to salute whenever a coffin passes in a procession,” UNIFIL spokeswoman Yasmina Bouziane said. “They were merely following this customary military tradition and saluted coffins draped in Lebanese national flags at their own initiative.”

The identity of the troops wasn't certain, but Getty Images reports they were from Italy.

The incident occurred as Israel released five living Hezbollah prisoners and the bodies of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian militants killed in recent conflicts. In exchange, Hezbollah returned the remains of two Israeli soldiers kidnapped during a cross-border raid in 2006.

The truck bearing the coffins also featured a large image of Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah mastermind who was killed in February in Damascus.

Israeli officials said UNIFIL troops were saluting the symbol of the violence they are meant to oppose and defuse.

“I think this is a very tragic and sad day for the United Nations when its soldiers who were sent there because of Hezbollah terrorist activities salute the terrorists and the killers,” Gillerman said.

“They are there as peacekeepers with a very clear mandate to disarm Hezbollah — they’re not there to honor terrorists,” he said.

The United Nations rejected the suggestion that its troops favored Hezbollah and told that UNIFIL troops were doing their job and remained an unbiased force.

“They are impartial with regards to the forces on the ground,” Farhan Haq, a U.N. spokesman, said. “(UNIFIL) is an impartial source — it doesn’t show a bias for either side.”

Such assurances have done little to assuage Israel's representatives, who said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon should be "appalled" by the action and called for disciplinary action.

“I think [Secretary Ban] should remove them from wearing those helmets and from serving the United Nations,” Gillerman said.