As UN force grows, Israel lifts air and sea blockade

Israel prepared to lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon yesterday in a step toward fulfilling the UN resolution that brought a tenuous cease-fire to a month of war.

Israeli officials said the growing number of peacekeeping troops – currently about 5,000 – constitute the critical mass necessary to enforce a weapons embargo meant to hinder Hizbullah from rearming.

Lifting the blockade – placed soon after Hizbullah staged a cross-border raid on July 12 capturing two Israeli soldiers and killing eight – marks a major step in Lebanon's effort to rebuild infrastructure and homes damaged in the 34-day war.

It also represents an important crossroads on the map of implementing United Nations Resolution 1701, which brought the deadly war to a halt last month.

For many Lebanese, the most pressing problems created by the blockade were the lack of medicines and the difficulty in traveling to and from Lebanon. The cost of the blockade was roughly $150 million per month, according to Lebanon's finance ministry.

"It was mainly a hindrance more than anything," says Michael Karam, editor of Executive, a monthly English-language business magazine. "Industrialists were unable to import raw materials. Retailers were unable to replenish stock. It has also weakened investor confidence."

In Beirut, the blockade has had a minor impact on daily life since the end of the war. After the Aug. 14 cease-fire, the blockade eased to allow some ships carrying fuel to dock in the port of Beirut. Electricity rationing declined and there was enough gas to ensure that Beirut was once again clogged with traffic.

Israel's decision to lift the blockade was hailed by Beirut as the result of Lebanon's "intransigent position" in rejecting Israeli demands, according to Information Minister Ghazi Aridi. Emile Lahoud, the Lebanese president, said, "Lebanon's firm position and its refusal to bow to pressure or blackmail forced Israeli officials to take the decision on lifting the blockade."

Indeed, some Israelis view the lifting of the embargo with disappointment because it didn't bring the return of the two soldiers whose capture was the catalyst for the war. Moreover, there are deep doubts in Israel over whether UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping mission, will be more effective now than in the past.

"Obviously, this is a wise thing to do, but there's a lot of justified skepticism over whether the UN forces will be able to carry out," says Shlomo Avineri, professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "The UN has a very bad reputation here, and also in Rwanda and Yugoslavia.

"The problem with the UN is implementation. You have to stare down those ready to use force against you," he says. "The rules of engagement are more robust for UNIFIL now than they initially were. But what will they do at night if they find themselves with an unknown vessel trying to pass through? Will they shoot at it? That's what naval ships need to be ready do, which means you might get shot at in return."

German, French, Italian, and Dutch naval forces will patrol the coastline, with larger numbers to arrive in two weeks. Germany will be in charge of the coastal area until next year, when Italy takes over, while France is leading the operation overall.

"As long as there was no international force taking responsibility of enforcing the embargo, we had to be there," says Miri Eisin, communications adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "Now we're stopping the blockade, and we're looking to the international community to continue the embargo, meaning that they will check the incoming ships and planes," she says.

She adds, "The Lebanese government has been committed, and that's good for Lebanon."

However, Ms. Eisin says, lifting the blockade should not be viewed as an isolated step, but rather part of the a whole series of promises that are supposed to be fulfilled as part of UN 1701.

"We want to see the implementation of 1701 in all of its articles," she says. "It's a fixed menu; it's not a buffet. Israel has to depart every last inch of Lebanon and we accepted that. We expect the unconditional release of the soldiers as soon as possible, and for us, that's the most important issue. But that doesn't mean we're stopping everything else."

Professor Avineri says that Israelis have also been reluctant to support the easing of the blockade because they wanted assurances that the UN mandate would include the policing of the Syrian-Lebanese border for arms transfers. It does not.

"One of our biggest concerns is arms shipments into Lebanon, and this means that the Syrian-Lebanese border has to be monitored," Avineri says. Syria has rejected such suggestions.

UNIFIL's mandate allows the force to deploy, if requested by the Lebanese government, along the porous mountain border between Lebanon and Syria, believed to be the main conduit for weapons smuggled to Hizbullah.

But the Lebanese government has ruled out UN troops policing the sensitive border with Syria and instead has dispatched extra Lebanese troops to the frontier. However, Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister, has asked UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to help establish a maritime component of the UN force to ply Lebanon's coastal waters to prevent seaborne smuggling.

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