Israel Lifts Lebanese Sea Blockade

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 9, 2006

BEIRUT, Sept. 8 -- Israel lifted its eight-week-old maritime blockade of Lebanon on Friday, the United Nations announced, and within hours a gleaming white ship pulled into Beirut harbor carrying a load of appliances.

The reopening of sea lanes to Lebanon, which the United Nations said took place in the early afternoon, came one day after Israel lifted its blockade of air traffic, completing the end to suffocating restrictions imposed when war broke out between Israel and the Hezbollah militia on July 12.

"The blockade has seriously undermined the Lebanese economy, and it is high time for it to end so as to allow the people to get back to their businesses," said Gen. Alain Pellegrini, the commander of U.N. forces in Lebanon.

The head of the Beirut International Chamber of Navigation, Elie Zakhour, told reporters that six cargo ships were bound for the Lebanese capital carrying cars and containers of other goods. The lineup reflected Beirut's role as a regional hub for imports and exports, a major component of the Lebanese economy that withered under restrictions even after fighting ended on Aug. 14.

Israel said it imposed the blockade to prevent arms shipments to Hezbollah, the militant Shiite Muslim movement that battled Israeli forces for 33 days in the rugged hills along the Lebanon-Israel border. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert relaxed the restrictions only on assurances from the United Nations that European ships and soldiers would join Lebanese forces in making sure Hezbollah could not receive supplies from abroad.

For now, Israeli patrol boats are turning over surveillance duties to Italian ships in the Mediterranean off Lebanon, Israeli and U.N. officials said. French and Greek navy ships have also promised to help patrol the area for an interim period. In the long term, the German navy has shouldered responsibility for working with the Lebanese military to guarantee that no arms reach Hezbollah.

Olmert announced Wednesday that he would lift the air and sea blockade Thursday evening. Unrestricted commercial airline flights to Beirut resumed as expected, but the sea blockade was maintained while Israeli officials sought additional assurances from the United Nations. More coordination took place Friday morning, and the commander of an Italian task force assumed responsibility for the patrols Friday afternoon, a U.N. spokesman said.

"It is our understanding that the international force is operational, and the Israelis turned it over to the Italians as of 1300 hours," or 1 p.m. local time, said Alexander Ivanko, a spokesman for Pellegrini.

Israeli officials said the airline flights were allowed to resume because German officials were on duty at Beirut's Rafiq al-Hariri International Airport monitoring airfreight traffic. But the Lebanese minister for public works and transportation, Mohammed Safadi, said that the Germans were providing only technical assistance and that customs matters were the responsibility of Lebanese authorities. Similarly, he said, the Italian ships would be assigned to help Lebanese authorities monitor sea shipments.

A senior Lebanese official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Hezbollah insisted that any European sea patrols or customs help be under the aegis of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL. As a result, the Italian ships have been baptized "the maritime UNIFIL." In any case, he said, Hezbollah officials are not worried about resupplying since their weapons come mainly from Iran via Syria, and smuggling is an old tradition along the long, porous Lebanon-Syria border.

With that in mind, Israel had demanded that German soldiers join Lebanese army and Internal Security Forces personnel along the border. But Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, reflecting Hezbollah's concerns, refused, saying the Germans would provide only equipment and training to the Lebanese.

Meanwhile, Israeli officials were quoted in news reports as saying that Israeli soldiers who were still inside Lebanon would probably withdraw within about two weeks. The Italian foreign minister, Massimo D'Alema, said the number of foreign UNIFIL troops in the region would reach 5,000 by next week, which has been a benchmark for completing the Israeli withdrawal.

Spain's parliament approved the dispatch of 1,000 Spanish troops to further reinforce the U.N. peacekeeping contingent, according to news agency reports from Madrid. The force, which had stood at 2,000, has climbed above 3,000 with the arrival last week of about 900 Italian troops, out of a pledged 3,000, and several hundred French troops, out of a pledged 2,000. Under the U.N. Security Council resolution that ended the fighting, the force is scheduled to reach 15,000, along with a deployment of 15,000 Lebanese army troops.

Correspondent Scott Wilson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company