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(photo credit: AP)
The air and sea blockade of Lebanon, lifted by Israel at 6 p.m. yesterday, was supposed to be in place until all international forces had arrived and Israel had at least received information regarding its kidnapped soldiers in Lebanon. Only about one-fifth of the planned international forces is in place, there is no mechanism to secure the Lebanese-Syrian border and Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev not only remain captive, but the government has received no confirmation regarding their condition.
Why, then, was the blockade lifted?
Defense Minister Amir Peretz said it was lifted because the US asked Israel to lift it. But why would the US ask Israel to ignore the gaping holes in the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701? And why would Israel meekly capitulate on a position so solidly grounded in its national interest and the supposed will and objectives of the international community?
Israel has just fought a war to destroy Hizbullah. It failed in that objective, but it potentially achieved something that could justify the war's great costs: an international commitment and determination to, if not fully disarm, at least prevent the rearming of Hizbullah.
The participation of German, Italian, French, Turkish and other forces in taking Israel's place in preventing arms smuggling by sea and via Beirut's airport, or in supporting the deployment of Lebanese forces in southern Lebanon, is a significant accomplishment. But just as it is fruitless to lock three out of four doors of a car, all this effort will be for naught if the Lebanese-Syrian border remains open for smuggling business.
Resolution 1701 sought to close this route - by which Hizbullah had built an enormous arsenal, courtesy of Syria and Iran - on two levels: first by imposing an international embargo against weaponry going to anyone but the Lebanese army, and second by enforcing that embargo at the Lebanese-Syrian border. To this end, Resolution 1701 explicitly authorized UNIFIL to help Lebanon secure this border, if Lebanon so requested.
It is hard to conceive of a more important provision of Resolution 1701 than the monitoring of the nine road crossings between Syria and Lebanon. Though the border as a whole is long, mountainous, largely unpatrolled and even unmarked, it would be very difficult to smuggle large missiles across it except through the road crossings.
As Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev told The New York Times on Wednesday, "The land border with Syria is the wild card and the real test of the arms embargo. We're hopeful we'll see Lebanese forces augmented by international forces there on the border enforcing the arms embargo. It would be very nice to believe Syria would change its policies, but we'd like a verification process."
But what hope is there that this will happen when Secretary-General Kofi Annan himself, speaking in Beirut on his recent visit, contradicted Resolution 1701 and denied that helping Lebanon secure that border was part of UNIFIL's mandate?
According to an unnamed Israeli official, Israel has an "understanding" that such a UNIFIL deployment will happen. This sounds ominously like the understanding Israel had that the Lebanese army would deploy in the south when Israel withdrew unilaterally in 2000. Given the record, Israel has no basis to trust the UN or Lebanon, absent concrete leverage to ensure that supposed commitments will not become a dead letter, like UN Resolution 1559 requiring the disarming of Hizbullah.
By lifting the air and sea blockade, Israel ceded its primary leverage. Though Israel claims the right to enforce a smuggling embargo from the air, this is unrealistic, given the impossibility of distinguishing between legitimate commerce and a "civilian" truck carrying missiles. The IDF believes that it is impossible to enforce an embargo from afar, which was a primary reason for its opposition to lifting the embargo.
The US and Israel should have turned the responsibility for lifting Israel's blockade back on to Lebanon and the UN, by insisting that a mechanism be put in place to at least prevent the smuggling of weaponry through official border crossings. Yet even now, after that opportunity has been squandered, the responsibility remains on Israel and the international community to achieve this purpose. Now that its primary leverage on enforcing the embargo and returning the kidnapped soldiers has been given up, it is hard to see how the government can prevent the rearming of Hizbullah. But it is vital.