No lifting of Israeli blockade, yet

By JOSHUA BRILLIANT, UPI Israel Correspondent  |  Aug. 31, 2006 at 9:04 AM
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TEL AVIV, Israel, Aug. 31 (UPI) -- United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan failed to persuade Israel to lift an air and sea month-long blockade over Lebanon, which is hampering Lebanon's economic revival.

Israel sees it as a way to pressure the Lebanese government and the international community to agree to deploy UNIFIL along Lebanon's border with Syria -- in addition to southern Lebanon, in order to prevent Syria and Iran from rearming Hezbollah.

The blockade was one of the first steps Israel took when hostilities erupted. It bombed Beirut airport's runways and sent its missile boats to patrol off Lebanon's coast. It eased that pressure at U.S. and other countries' urging to allow humanitarian aid. Now the International Red Cross and the U.N. file requests for passage with a military office in Tel Aviv, the Israelis -- and sometimes Defense Minister Amir Peretz -- consider the requests, and once approval is given ships have to reach an "inspection point" at sea. In some cases Israeli security searches the vessels before allowing them to continue, a military source said.

This was one of the issues Annan raised Tuesday night and Wednesday when he met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Zippi Livni and Defense Minister Amir Peretz in Jerusalem. It was on the second leg of his trip to the area, to implement Security Council Resolution 1701 that stopped the war.

"This is a resolution that Israel has accepted, the Lebanese government including Hezbollah have accepted it and we all have a responsibility to work to make sure it is fully implemented," Annan told reporters.

In fact Israeli leaders were so satisfied with that resolution that Olmert has been highlighting its elements to prove his government did not blunder as many Israelis think it did in the last war. He keeps noting that Hezbollah will no longer be near the border, will not display its arms, and that 15,000 Lebanese soldiers supported by a 15,000-strong multinational force will be on hand. Two months ago no one would have believed this would happen, he said.

Olmert's media adviser, Miri Eisin, said that Wednesday's meeting with Annan was over "the details of how to implement" the resolution.

Annan flew to Israel in one of the U.N.'s white helicopters after meeting Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and being asked to persuade Olmert to lift the blockade.

At a press conference in Beirut Tuesday, he talked of "the need to lift that blockade as soon as possible in order to allow Lebanon to go on with normal commercial activities and also rebuild its economy."

On Wednesday, at a joint press conference with Olmert, Annan said that lifting the blockade "is also important to strengthen the democratic government of Lebanon with which Israel has repeatedly said it had no problems."

The Israelis, who for six years -- since their unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 -- did not really stop Hezbollah from building an impressive military setup, realized they had erred. Hezbollah had an arsenal of some 12,000 to 15,000 rockets it received from Syria and Iran. Israeli air and artillery strikes did not stop Hezbollah from launching as many as 250 rockets a day, up to the last day of fighting. All in all it fired some 4,000 rockets.

Israel fears Iran and Syria will try to rebuild Hezbollah and wants to make sure that does not happen. Resolution 1701 indeed talks of an arms embargo in which," All states shall take the necessary measures to prevent ... the sale or supply ... of arms ... weapons and ammunition" to any entity in Lebanon other than the government and UNIFIL.

Israel wants to make sure that the embargo is enforced and so Olmert maintains the multi-national force should be deployed not only in the south, but also along the Syrian-Lebanese border and at Lebanon's airports and seaports.

"As long as the embargo is not implemented and the Lebanese army and the multinational forces are not deployed, we shall see to it that no Syrian weapons reach Lebanon ... neither by sea nor overland," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tamar Samash. Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres' media adviser, Yoram Dori, told United Press International the only alternative at the moment is "to deploy multi-national forces between Lebanon and Syria and prevent arms transfers."

That is not what Annan had in mind. Asked in Beirut whether UNIFIL would deploy on the Lebanese-Syrian border he said: "We have no such plans at the moment... It is not in their mandate."

A diplomatic source who spoke on condition of anonymity noted the United Nations cannot decide on its own to send troops to Lebanese areas. That would infringe upon Lebanon's sovereignty.

Resolution 1701 "calls upon" the Lebanese government "to secure its borders and other entry points." It "requests" UNIFIL to "assist" the Lebanese government "at its request."

Moreover, the resolution talks of deploying UNIFIL "throughout the south," not throughout the country.

Annan tried to assuage Israeli concerns. The Lebanese government "is taking very concrete steps, very concrete action with the support of international partners to have the right equipment; have training for its personnel, expertise and secure the borders," he said.

The Israelis do not have much confidence in UNIFIL or the Lebanese government, but Annan insisted: "The international community should work with (the Lebanese) to deal with it, but in the meantime I do believe that the blockade should be lifted," he stated in Jerusalem.

In both Lebanon and Israel he stressed that Resolution 1701 is "a fixed menu. It's not a buffet where you choose and pick. You have to implement it in its entirety," he argued.

That means also "the unconditional release of the abducted (Israeli) soldiers" Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, whose kidnapping, by Hezbollah on July 12, triggered the war.

Annan expected UNIFIL to double its complement to some 5,000 soldiers with the arrival of the Italian contingent on Friday, "So that the Israelis can withdraw."

Israeli troops now occupy a three to six mile-deep strip in southern Lebanon, and Olmert said they would withdraw once "a major amount" of international forces were at hand. Eisin would not say how big that force should be for the Israelis to withdraw.

The Security Council's resolution talked of a force of 15,000 soldiers, and Annan said European countries are in the process of contributing some 9,000 troops. He was working to supplement them with troops from Muslim countries, he said.

That is something Israel, too, wants, so that UNIFIL is not perceived as a Christian force, a senior government source said. In this part of the world many Muslims want to check the West's influence, so a Muslim component in UNIFIL would increase its legitimacy. But Israel does not want troops from Muslim countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia that do not have diplomatic relations with it, officials said.

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