Israel says won’t lift Lebanon blockade unless peacekeepers deploy at all border crossings

news3_27.jpgOCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel said Saturday that it has asked “friendly Muslim countries” to contribute troops to a UN force that is to help patrol southern Lebanon to prevent a new outbreak of violence between Israel and Hizbollah fighters.

The international community has pushed for the inclusion of Muslim troops to lend important credibility to the mostly European force, but Israel has opposed the participation of Muslim countries that do not recognise the Jewish state, arguing that including them would make it difficult to share intelligence with the force.

Indonesia, Bangladesh and Malaysia — none of which have diplomatic ties with Israel — have offered to contribute troops to the planned 15,000-member force in Lebanon.

Though Israel does not have a veto over the composition of the force, its opposition to the participation of a country could influence which troops are included.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Saturday that Israel had primarily spoken to Turkey about contributing troops to the Lebanon force. Turkey, which would be acceptable to all parties, has not decided whether to join the mission.

“If Turkey decides to send a contingent, we would welcome that,” he said, adding that Israel had also contacted other countries. Jordan and Egypt are among the Muslim countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel.

The difficulties facing the nascent force were already apparent, with a top Hizbollah official saying in a defiant interview published Saturday that the group would keep its weapons, despite international pressure to disarm.

Sheikh Naim Kassem, the group’s deputy leader, also told Lebanon’s leading An-Nahar daily that Hizbollah’s “resistance” to Israel would continue, saying “justifications for ending it do not exist”. Kassem’s remarks underscored the fragility of the UN-brokered ceasefire.

The deployment of the force along Lebanon’s border with Israel is stipulated by a UN ceasefire deal that ended a month of Israel-Hizbollah fighting. The international force is to reinforce the Lebanese army, which is moving 15,000 soldiers of its own into the south. The troops are Lebanon’s first assertion of central authority along the Israeli border in decades.

EU nations pledged 6,900 troops Friday, dispelling concerns that the peacekeeping force might not materialise because of reluctance to send troops without clear instructions or authorisation to use their weapons. But the force was still far short of the 15,000 troops envisioned under a UN ceasefire resolution.

But 13 days after Israel and Hizbollah agreed to a ceasefire, questions remained about how to enforce the vague truce and prevent violence from exploding again. It was unclear how the United Nations would meet Israel’s demand to prevent Hizbollah from rearming.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan stressed Friday it was not the peacekeepers’ task to strip the fighters of their weapons, saying that was an issue for Lebanon’s government and “cannot be done by force.” Regev reiterated Israel would not lift its air and sea embargo of Lebanon until peacekeepers and the Lebanese army take positions along the Syrian border to block arms shipments to Hizbollah from its two main supporters, Iran and Syria.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora on Saturday and said she was exerting “serious and prompt” efforts to get the blockade lifted as soon as possible, according to a statement from Siniora’s office.

Rice also stressed the importance of Lebanese authorities controlling border crossings, the statement said. Siniora said the Lebanese government was going ahead with its plan to control all border crossings, the statement said.

The statement came after Lebanese Information Minister Ghazi Aridi on Saturday criticised the US for Israel’s decision to maintain the blockade.

“We regret to say that the US administration stands by Israel on this, and we absolutely condemn and reject this position,” he told reporters in Beirut. He urged the international community to help get the blockade lifted “because we in Lebanon cannot endure more humiliation.” Annan said peacekeepers would deploy on the Syrian border only at Lebanon’s request, which Beirut has yet to make.

Lebanon’s interior minister has said only Lebanese troops would patrol the Lebanon-Syrian border, perhaps with some technical assistance from the international force.

Syria views the deployment of international troops along the border as a hostile act.

While the UN ceasefire resolution does not explicitly call on the international force to police the Syrian frontier, it said peacekeepers could help Lebanon, at its government’s request, to secure its borders and prevent illegal weapons from entering the country.

Regev, however, argued that sending troops to the Syrian border is key to enforcing an international arms embargo against Hizbollah imposed under the ceasefire resolution.

“The ceasefire calls for an international arms embargo against Hizbollah,” Regev said. “So Israel will be willing to allow for unfettered access in and out of Lebanon the minute those international and Lebanese forces are enforcing the arms embargo.” The issue is unlikely to prevent the Israeli government, which is under domestic pressure to pull out of Lebanon quickly, from withdrawing its soldiers. However, Israel could use air strikes on border crossings, roads and bridges to prevent arms smuggling if Lebanese troops and the UN force did not stop shipments themselves.

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