Hezbollah Threatens to Break Israeli Air, Sea Blockade in Lebanon

Published August 22, 2006

| Associated Press

A Hezbollah Cabinet minister on Tuesday said the government may attempt to break the Israeli naval and air blockade of Lebanon by calling on ships and aircraft to travel to Lebanese ports without prior Israeli approval.

In Jerusalem, meanwhile, Israel's Defense Ministry suspended a review of the military's performance during the war against Hezbollah until the government decides whether to order a broader inquiry, officials said.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is under growing public pressure to approve an independent investigation with the power to dismiss top officials. Some reserve soldiers and bereaved parents have already demanded that Olmert and other wartime leaders step down.

The Lebanese government has condemned the Israeli blockade, saying it violates the U.N. cease-fire resolution, and the Lebanese foreign minister Tuesday called on the international community to force Israel to end it. The Cabinet met Monday and called the siege one of Israel's "terrorist practices."

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"Entry to Lebanon by sea and from air is a matter of sovereignty," Labor Minister Tarrad Hamadeh said on Hezbollah television. Hamadeh, one of two Hezbollah Cabinet ministers, said the Lebanese "must have be free to enter their country at will. We cannot accept the siege and blackmail."

Israel imposed a sea, land and air blockade of Lebanon shortly after its offensive against Hezbollah began on July 12. Israeli warplanes have attacked seaports and intercepted ships during the war, allowing the arrival of only those that apply for and are granted permission.

Jets have also struck major highways and Lebanon's land routes to Syria, as well as runways at Beirut's international airport.

Since the cease-fire took hold Aug. 14, the only land routes in and out of the country — to Syria — have reopened after temporary repairs. Commercial flights to Beirut have been allowed only to and from Amman, Jordan, an Arab state with a peace treaty with Israel.

The Israelis have said they would continue to enforce the blockade as a way of preventing Hezbollah from rearming.

Lebanon's government has promised to take measures to improve security screening at Beirut's airport and has deployed troops on the border with Syria. Hamadeh said that when Lebanon completes those measures, the Cabinet could decide "on its own to open its areas and rid itself of the siege."

In Jerusalem, Olmert's efforts to deflect responsibility for Israel's much-maligned handling of the war haven't dispelled mounting calls for the establishment of an independent inquiry with the power to dismiss government officials.

A senior Labor Party legislator and member of the ruling coalition said Tuesday that such an investigation was inevitable. "I think that in this war, there were many blunders, from the decision-making process at the highest levels of government, to the fighting itself, and all these things need to be investigated," legislator Danny Yatom said.

The war, launched just hours after Hezbollah guerrillas killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two in a cross-border raid, initially enjoyed broad public support, but lost favor after Olmert accepted a U.N.-brokered truce without crushing Hezbollah or winning the captives' release.

The deaths of 34 soldiers in last-minute battles just before the truce took hold only deepened the outrage, as have reports that the military was so ill-prepared that it didn't even have enough food, water or bullets for its fighters.

Olmert, in office just two months when the war broke out, has pinned some of the blame on his predecessors, saying they had ignored the Lebanese guerrilla group's arms buildup. On Monday, he said he wouldn't be party to "self-flagellation" and that Israel doesn't have the luxury to conduct such a drawn-out investigation.

Instead, he's asked Israel's attorney general to draw up a list of alternative reviews that could be conducted. That list was to be ready within a day or two, the Justice Ministry said.

One such alternative would be the much-criticized review that Defense Minister Amir Peretz ordered shortly after last week's cease-fire took hold. Security officials said that review — which was not to include Peretz's own performance — was suspended after just a day's work until Olmert and his Cabinet decide which way to go.

Growing public calls for an independent investigation might force Olmert's hand.

A majority of parliament's powerful Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee supports such an inquiry because of the many failings during the war, said Yatom, a member of the moderate Labor Party, which is part of the ruling coalition.

Fighters themselves have also demanded a reckoning. Some reservists were camped outside parliament Tuesday, calling for the government to quit.

"I left my wife and my 10-year-old son and risked my life to get the kidnapped soldiers back, to push back Hezbollah and to stop katyushas (rockets)," said one of the protesters, 32-year-old reserve infantry soldier Reuven Sharon. "Nothing of that happened. Now I want the government to take responsibility for it. They need to say, 'We're sorry, we didn't succeed, we're going home."'

Meanwhile, the cease-fire that ended the war has proven to be as fragile as its detractors forecast, with European nations balking at sending large numbers of peacekeepers, and Israel objecting to the inclusion of troops from nations that don't recognize it.

Italy, which had signaled willingness to take on a major role in the peacekeeping mission, threatened Tuesday to withhold troops if Israel doesn't respect the cease-fire.

Israel has clashed with Hezbollah several times since the truce was declared, claiming it was acting in self-defense. Israeli aircraft have also flown over Lebanon.

Three predominantly Muslim nations — Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh — have volunteered to send peacekeepers, and on Tuesday, Indonesia insisted on its right to participate in the mission, despite Israel's objections.

The U.N. cease-fire resolution does not explicitly give Israel authority to block countries from joining the peacekeeping mission, but it does say the force should coordinate with the governments of Lebanon and Israel.

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