Israel lifts Lebanon air blockade - but not naval embargo

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The Independent Online

Israel began lifting a two-month-old blockade of Lebanon against the wishes of the Israeli army. It was imposed the day after Hizbollah Islamic fighters abducted two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid into Israel on 12 July.

A Middle East Airlines plane circled ceremonially three times over central Beirut before landing at the airport yesterday, officially ending the air blockade. But Israel said that the naval embargo would continue until an international naval force is in place.

The blockade failed to achieve any of its aims. The Israeli army objected to ending it because it saw the measure as one of the few means of obtaining the release of its soldiers. Stopping ships and planes reaching Lebanon was never likely to cause any inconvenience to Hizbollah since the organisation does not move its men and arms by air and sea.

The embargo was more in the nature of a collective punishment of Lebanon. "The direct impact of the blockade on trade activity alone is estimated at around $45m (£24m) a day," the Lebanese Finance Minister, Jihad Azour, said. Even before the Israeli announcement, there were signs that it was crumbling, with several airlines flying to Beirut and others, such as British Airways, about to resume flights after assurances from the British Government about safety.

Israel had previously said it would maintain the trade embargo until there were measures in place to prevent Hizbollah obtaining more arms from Iran and Syria. But this demand appeared wholly unrealistic in the light of Israel's own failure to locate or destroy Hizbollah forces or rockets.

The fiercest battle in Israel is among the political and military leaders to avoid taking responsibility for the failure in Lebanon. It is difficult to see how Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defence Minister Amir Peretz and chief of staff Dan Halutz can save their careers. General Halutz's claim to have won a victory on points has been derided by the Israeli media. Mr Olmert, speaking before the Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee, struck back saying Israel had lost little and making the chilling remark: "Half of Lebanon is destroyed. Is that a loss?"

The Israeli general staff is keen to retain some leverage in Lebanon by reconnaissance over flights and keeping troops in southern Lebanon. It also holds five Hizbollah prisoners. Hizbollah says it will not disarm until there is a strong Lebanese state and this demand is being quietly sidelined.

Relatives of the two captured soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Elded Regev, were to meet with Mr Olmert yesterday to express concerns that ending the blockade will make it harder to get prisoners returned.

The Israeli aerial blockade was already looking shaky with Middle East Airlines, the Lebanese carrier, and Royal Jordanian flying from Amman to Beirut, and other airlines planning the same. The Lebanese government is sending 8,600 soldiers to patrol the border with Syria but Hizbollah as a small guerrilla force requires only limited military supplies.

The opening of Lebanese ports to imports will enable reconstruction of the economy to start. James Morris, the executive director of the World Food Programme, said: "It's important symbolically and it's important because people have estimated that maybe as many as 60,000 containers of goods are somewhere stored out on the sea now that want to come into Lebanon."

Germany is to lead a multinational naval contingent which, at Lebanese request, will patrol the coast of Lebanon. Maj-Gen Alain Pellegrini, the commander of the UN peacekeeping force, said the truce in Lebanon was shaky. His spokesman said: "It is fragile so far as there is an Israeli presence in Lebanon because every incident, misunderstanding or provocation can escalate very quickly." But neither Israel nor Hizbollah appears to have the appetite for a second round at the moment.