Israel Rebuffs U.N. on Blockade

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 31, 2006

JERUSALEM, Aug. 30 -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Wednesday he would not lift Israel's six-week-old blockade of Lebanon despite appeals from visiting U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan that he do so to help the country's government and economy recover from a devastating war.

In a news conference here following a meeting between the two men, Olmert said Israel would restrict passage to Lebanon by land, sea and air until a multinational peacekeeping force arrived in southern Lebanon and the remaining terms of a U.N.-brokered cease-fire were fulfilled.

The prime minister, suffering politically at home for his handling of the war, is concerned the Shiite militia Hezbollah could replenish its arsenal if the blockade is lifted too early. But Annan, who on Tuesday called the blockade "a humiliation" for Lebanon, suggested lifting it would help consolidate a cease-fire that has been tested by both sides since taking hold just over two weeks ago.

"It is important not only because of the economic effect it is having on the country, but it is also important to strengthen the democratic government of Lebanon, with which Israel has repeatedly said it had no problems," Annan said. Annan's visit to the region was designed to give momentum to efforts to implement the cease-fire resolution that ended 33 days of war. An estimated 1,200 Lebanese were killed in the fighting, most of them civilians, while 117 Israeli soldiers and 41 civilians died in combat and from Hezbollah rocket fire.

But the multinational force at the heart of the agreement has been slow in deploying across a region of southern Lebanon that stretches from the Litani River to the Israeli border, a strip roughly 18 miles wide. Annan sought here, as well as in Lebanon during his visit there the previous day, to focus international attention on the war's aftermath at a precarious moment for the truce.

During his stop here, Annan informed Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz that Israel has violated the terms of the cease-fire far more often than Hezbollah, according to a U.N. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The secretary general drew on reports compiled by U.N. monitors that cite Israel for roughly 64 violations, which include overflights, resupplying forces and attacks on Hezbollah positions. Hezbollah has broken the truce four times, according to the reports. Nonetheless, Annan said, his meetings with Israeli and Lebanese officials indicated that both sides appeared committed to maintaining the truce.

After morning meetings in Jerusalem, Annan traveled to the West Bank city of Ramallah to meet with Palestinian leaders as violence in the Gaza Strip mounted. Israeli forces are continuing a military operation inside Gaza that began after Palestinian gunmen, including members of the governing Hamas movement's military wing, captured an Israeli soldier in a June 25 cross-border raid.

Palestinian health officials said eight Palestinians, most of them armed, were killed in a morning missile strike and gun battles later in the Shijaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City. At least 14 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza over the past two days, most of them members of armed factions.

The Israeli military also announced the discovery of a 165-yard tunnel from Gaza into Israel near the Karni crossing, the main passage for goods to and from Gaza. Military officials said the tunnel was to be used in an attack on the crossing, which Israel has kept closed for much of the year, citing security concerns. Annan, following his meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, called on Israel to keep the Gaza crossings open.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company