BEIRUT, Lebanon – Qatar became the first Arab country Monday to commit troops to monitor a tense cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, pledging 200 to 300 soldiers to a U.N. peacekeeping force, as Pakistan's prime minister toured devastated south Beirut and considered a similar offer.
The troop offer came on the same day that the country's national air carrier, Qatar Airways, landed a commercial flight at Beirut airport, carrying 142 passengers, despite Israel's blockade of Lebanon — the first of what the carrier said would be daily commercial flights.
An Israeli army spokesman said the Qatar Airways flight was coordinated with Israel, and was the fourth Qatari flight to land with Israeli permission in Beirut since Friday — an apparent reference to aid flights since this was the first known regularly scheduled commercial flight from Qatar.
In all, 20 airplanes landed at Beirut airport Monday, the army said, all of them with Israeli permission. Those include commercial flights from Amman that Israel had already previously allowed, plus aid flights.
Qatari Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani said his country's troop contribution was an attempt by the tiny Persian Gulf nation "to tell the world of the Arab presence, even modestly, in this force and to tell Israel that we believe in this decision and so we want to contribute in implementing it."
The pledge came after Sheik Hamad held talks with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Doha.
Sheik Hamad did not say when the troops would deploy, but insisted that the peacekeeping force must have "specific and clear duties."
Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz — leader of another key Muslim country — was considering a similar pledge as he toured the Dahieh district of south Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold that was pounded to rubble by Israeli missiles during the 34-day war that ended Aug. 14.
"If it helps the settlement of peace, Pakistan may consider contributing troops to Lebanon, but such a decision has not been made yet," the Anatolia news agency in Turkey quoted Aziz as saying.
Aziz stopped in Turkey before reaching Lebanon as the Turkish parliament was expected to vote on sending troops to the peacekeeping mission soon.
A debate over the U.N. force's mandate and the potential dangers to peacekeeping soldiers has left possible contributing countries hesitant to leap in. The planned 15,000-strong U.N. force is meant to secure a buffer zone between Israel and the Hezbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon.
The U.N. cease-fire resolution calls for Hezbollah to eventually be disarmed, without specifically directing peacekeepers to take on that task.
It could also lead to peacekeepers patrolling Lebanon's border with Syria, a Hezbollah backer that is suspected of providing weapons to the guerrilla.
Syria's Information Minister Mohsen Bilal said his country had no objections to Turkey joining the peacekeeping force, but strongly opposed any international patrol along the Syrian border. Bilal said such a move would splinter the force's efficacy and take away from its mandate.
"Deploying such troops is unacceptable and irrational," he said Monday during a visit in Britain. "A wall of separation between the two countries is absurd. The U.N. mission in the region is to protect Lebanon from Israeli aggression."
The U.S., Europe and Israel have been eager to have Muslim forces among the peacekeepers, but Muslim states fear they could be perceived as opposing Hezbollah, which gained considerable clout in the region for its fierce resistance to the Israeli army.
Under the cease-fire plan, 15,000 Lebanese soldiers are also to be deployed to assert control over the Hezbollah stronghold south of the Litani River and to prevent arms from reaching the guerrillas.
French Gen. Alain Pellegrini, who commands the U.N. force, met with senior Israeli and Lebanese officers at a border crossing Monday to coordinate Israel's pullout from southern Lebanon. "I think we are on the right track in securing the full withdrawal of the Israeli army from Lebanon and finally ensuring that the Lebanese army will take control of the whole border area in the south," Pellegrini said in a statement.
The statement did not specify when the full replacement of one army by the other would take place.
A total of 878 Italian soldiers had reached Lebanon by Monday, Italian authorities said, with the remainder of the 1,000-strong Italian contingent arriving in the next few days.
The Italians — the first big wave of international peacekeepers — bring the total number of U.N. forces in Lebanon to 3,250, including the 2,000 troops who had been there before the fighting and 250 French troops who arrived last week.
The main arm of the French peacekeeping force is expected to arrive next week.
Finland has also committed to send a 250-strong contingent to clear mines and help set up bases for the U.N. force, but the troops will arrive in more than a month.
Israel's devastating offensive on Lebanon was triggered when Hezbollah guerrillas seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid July 12.
Israel has since grown increasingly concerned that government officials and army officers traveling abroad could face war crimes charges related to the country's actions in Lebanon, Israeli officials said Monday.
A Foreign Ministry official said a special legal team was preparing to provide protection for officers and officials involved in the conflict in Lebanon. More than 850 Lebanese, mostly civilians, where killed in the war and Israeli bombings destroyed some 130 000 houses.
The human rights group Amnesty International has accused Israel of war crimes, including indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on civilian targets.
The Israeli official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
Israel has said all of its actions were legal, and accused Hezbollah of hiding among civilians in Lebanon and targeting Israeli civilians in rocket attacks. The fighting left 159 Israelis dead, including 39 civilians hit by Hezbollah rockets in Israel's northern cities.
Since the war ended, Pellegrini said the U.N. force has witnessed multiple breaches of the cease-fire, most of them by the Israeli forces.
Israeli security officials have said they expect their army to be out of Lebanese territory within the next two weeks, after they expect sufficient U.N. forces have arrived in south Lebanon to enforce the truce.
Israel has not, however, specified when it intends to lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon. Israel says it has to maintain the blockade to prevent Iran and Syria from rearming Hezbollah, but the blockade is also hindering aid and rebuilding efforts in Lebanon.