Olmert refuses to lift blockade

UN warns of Lebanese ‘security vacuum’ as Israel kills 3 Islamic Jihad fighters, charges Dweik with ‘belonging to terrorist organisation’

Agencies

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday said Israel has no plans to lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon until an international peacekeeping force takes up positions along the Syrian border and at Beirut’s airport.

Israeli officials said Olmert wasn’t issuing an ultimatum.

But the tough stance appeared to be an attempt to put pressure on the international community to send a powerful force willing to disarm the Hizbollah group.

Olmert laid down his position in a meeting with UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, who is in the region to discuss implementation of a UN-brokered ceasefire that ended 34 days of fighting between Israel and Hizbollah. Diplomats are still trying to hammer out final details, including the peacekeeping force’s precise responsibilities.

“Olmert said deploying the force at border crossings to Syria and at the airport will allow the lifting of Israel’s sea and air closure and contribute to the implementation” of the ceasefire, Olmert’s office said.

Larsen said the security situation in Lebanon would remain “vulnerable” for the next two or three months, but said Lebanon is working to secure its borders. He said he hopes the embargo will be lifted soon.

The August 14 agreement calls for a 15,000-member international force to monitor Lebanon’s southern border with Israel and help the Lebanese army assert authority throughout the country.

While the resolution does not explicitly call on the force to police the Syrian border, it offers to help Lebanon to secure its borders and prevent arms from illicitly entering the country.

Israel says Syria is the main supplier of weapons to Hizbollah, and officials said Israel was seeking assurances that arms not reach the group again. The ceasefire resolution calls for a halt in arms transfers to the fighters, and a 2004 resolution requires the group to disarm.

“The disarmament of Hizbollah is our main objective. As long as it is not disarmed, we will defend ourselves against their being rearmed,” said Miri Eisin, a senior Israeli government official. “To do so, we’re going to stop all of the routes that allow the supplies to arrive to Hizbollah — sea, air and land.” Israel imposed the blockade shortly after the outbreak of fighting on July 12. Since the ceasefire took hold, air traffic has largely been limited to aid flights and official delegations, while shipping is limited to relief efforts and those with prior authorization.

Lebanese Labor Minister Tarrad Hamadeh, a member of Hizbollah, said Tuesday that Lebanon may ask Arab ships and airlines to break the Israeli blockade, a move that could set up conditions for a broader conflict. Lebanese officials from rival factions have also criticised the blockage.

“If Israel wants to attack, let them attack Arab ships and planes and let them shoulder the responsibility before the international community,” Hamadeh said. Arab agreement was seen as unlikely, however.

During his talks with Olmert, Roed-Larsen linked the embargo to the enforcement of an arms embargo to stop weapons from reaching Hizbollah, which fired thousands of rockets into northern Israel during the fighting.

“The Lebanese army now is in the process of deploying its forces not only in the south of Lebanon, but also along Lebanon’s borders,” he said.

He said the Lebanese government already has secured the airport and urged Israel to lift the embargo there. “We will follow developments very carefully at other crossing points and we will then recommend as soon as possible for the blockade to be lifted.” In an interview with the Associated Press, Roed-Larsen said the security situation in Lebanon would remain “vulnerable” in the coming months as the Lebanese army deploys in the south along the Israeli border and the beefed-up UN force arrives to assist it.

“Until the Lebanese force is completely deployed and has asserted its full authority and until there is a robust peacekeeping force there and the necessary cooperation is established, there will be up to a point a security vacuum,” he said.

He also said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is working relentlessly to find countries willing to send peacekeepers to Lebanon, but acknowledged the process was slow.

Roed-Larsen was joined by Vijay Nambiar, an adviser to Annan, who said efforts are continuing to secure the release of two Israelis captured by Hizbollah. Nambiar hinted that Israel might be warming to the idea of a prisoner swap — something it ruled out at the outset of the fighting.

He said the idea had been raised with Israeli counterparts and it “may find some traction now.” The July 12 cross-border capture of the soldiers sparked the 34-day war.

The tenuous truce calls for Lebanon to send 15,000 soldiers to extend government control of southern Lebanon for the first time in four decades. The Lebanese Force, which is mainly in place, is to be joined by an equal number of UN peacekeepers, including 2,000 already on the ground.

But potential troop contributors have balked at committing soldiers because of what they see as an unclear UN mandate that would put peacekeepers in a dangerous place without a clear directive on using force or a clear understanding of their mission.

The chief concern was what role the international force would play in UN demands that Hizbollah be disarmed. The Lebanese have said they would not actively disarm the group, though it won’t tolerate public displays of weapons.

At the United Nations, the US called for quick deployment of the UN force and said a new resolution might be needed later to focus on disarming Hizbollah and enforcing an arms embargo. US Ambassador John Bolton said the issue of disarming Hizbollah will likely have to be addressed “in due course” in a new resolution.

“It’s premature to talk about the timing of a second resolution at this point,” said Bolton’s spokesman, Richard Grenell. “Our priority right now is to get a robust international force on the ground.” A French newspaper reported that it obtained a 21-page UN document laying out provisional rules that said peacekeepers likely would have the right to open fire to defend themselves and to protect civilians, but would not actively search for Hizbollah weapons.

France, which commands the existing 2,000-troop force, has disappointed the UN and other countries by merely doubling its own contingent of 200 troops. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has said that his country was willing to command the force, adding that he wants it to have a clearer mandate.

Compounding the wrangling over the peacekeeping force, mostly Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia insisted on their right to send troops, dismissing Israeli objections over their failure to recognize the Jewish state.

Meanwhile, Israel’s defense ministry suspended a review of the military’s performance during the war, waiting a government decision on whether to order a broader inquiry, officials said.

Olmert is under growing public pressure to approve an independent investigation, with the power to dismiss top government and military officials.

In Gaza, meanwhile, three Palestinian fighters were killed by Israeli troops in the southern strip on Tuesday, while tanks and troops made fresh raids into the territory as part of a two-month-old offensive.

The three men — all members of the Islamic Jihad faction — were killed by tank fire near the village of Qarara, a Palestinian medic said.

Troops identified “hitting” three Palestinians who were “carrying large bags and acting in a suspicious manner” as they approached the security fence that separates Israel from Gaza near Kissufim, an army spokesman said.

Further north, five Palestinians were wounded and another five detained after Israeli tanks and troops moved across the border into a territory the military had abandoned last September after a 38-year presence.

At least 184 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier have died in Gaza since Israel launched its offensive on June 28, but the violence has been largely overshadowed by the deadlier conflict in Lebanon.

The Summer Rain operation was triggered when Gaza fighters, including members of the armed wing of the governing Hamas movement, killed two soldiers and seized a conscript corporal in a cross-border raid on June 25.

Five people were detained in the latest incursion, including at least two affiliated to Hamas, before troops withdrew from the area.

“IDF (Israel Defence Force) soldiers surrounded a house in which five wanted terrorists were located. After exchanges of fire, one Hamas man was hit and all the wanted Palestinians were taken for investigation,” a spokesman said.

Three of the five wounded belonged to Hamas’ Izzeddine Qassam Brigades military wing, Palestinian sources said.

An Israeli soldier was also lightly injured by shrapnel from an anti-tank missile and treated at the scene, the army said.

Wedged into tanks and armoured vehicles, soldiers moved up to 600 metres into Palestinian territory between the Karni and Nahal Oz crossings that separate Israel from Gaza, security sources and witnesses said.

Troops were bulldozing land and shooting could be heard, the sources said, in an operation that came after two overnight Israeli air strikes.

Forces also crossed into southern Gaza overnight where Tuesday afternoon they were still looking for tunnels dug by fighters, an army spokesman said.

Israel has also pressed a West Bank crackdown on Hamas, detaining more than 60 elected officials, including a third of the Cabinet and more than two dozen MPs.

An Israeli military court charged Parliament Speaker Aziz Dweik Tuesday with “belonging to a terrorist organisation” 17 days after his arrest.

In a telephone call to Palestinian MPs, Jordanian Parliament Speaker Abdul Hadi Majali expressed solidarity with lawmakers who have been arrested and urged “all peace-loving forces” in the world to immediately seek their release.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, head of the snubbed Hamas-led government, renewed calls for the release of two Western journalists working for US television network Fox News who were kidnapped eight days ago.

“I asked the interior minister (Said Siam) to act as quickly as possible in order to retrieve the two men and arrest their abductors,” he said.

There has been no news of the whereabouts of US reporter Steve Centanni and freelance cameraman Olaf Wiig from New Zealand, snatched in Gaza City in the latest in a string of kidnappings in the lawless territory over the past year.

Living conditions for the 1.4 million people in Gaza have sharply deteriorated since Israel bombed its only power station in June and the West suspended direct aid to the Hamas-led government in March. 

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