By HERB KEINON, YAAKOV KATZ
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced Wednesday that Israel's eight-week air and sea blockade of Lebanon would end at 6 p.m. Thursday. The decision comes following heavy international pressure to lift the closure, and was in direct opposition to an IDF recommendation to keep it in place.
The Prime Minister's Office issued a statement saying that the decision followed assurances from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that international forces were ready to take up positions at Lebanon's seaports and airports.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz said the decision to lift the closure was made following a request by the United States. He said Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora had asked the international force to take responsibility for the air and sea border crossings.
"There will be rules in place to inspect goods, and the French and Germans will enforce them," Peretz said.
Senior officials in the Prime Minister's Office said Israel maintained all along that it would lift the blockade once international forces were present at the crossing points to prevent arms smuggling.
According to the Prime Minister's Office, German experts were expected to arrive at Beirut's international airport on Wednesday to supervise the off-loading of cargo planes to ensure that they didn't include weaponry.
The Lebanese government and the United Nations have agreed that German naval forces would deploy off the Lebanese coast. Germany has volunteered to deploy warships to the Mediterranean Sea to patrol the Lebanese coast and ensure that weapons are not smuggled through the ports.
A German military source told The Jerusalem Post that Berlin viewed its role very seriously and believed that the navy patrols would be effective and meet Israeli standards. Israel Navy sources said they were optimistic that the German Navy would succeed in preventing the rearmament of Hizbullah by sea.
According to the Prime Minister's Office, Annan said that until the German force arrived in approximately two weeks, Italian, French, British and Greek forces would supervise the ports.
A senior source in the Prime Minister's Office said that while the air and sea blockade would be lifted, Israel would enforce the arms embargo along the Syrian-Lebanese border if needed.
"We reserve the right to stop any attempt to smuggle in weapons and supplies across the border from Syria to Hizbullah," the official said.
Less than a week after the UN-brokered cease-fire went into effect on August 14, soldiers from Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) raided Baalbek deep in Lebanon and thwarted the transfer of weapons from Syria to Hizbullah, according to the IDF. One officer was killed in the raid and two others were wounded.
Asked if this was the only time Israel had tried to enforce the embargo, the official said it was the only time Israel "took overt action."
A member of General Staff said the IDF was not aware of any other Syrian attempts to transfer weapons to Hizbullah since the cease-fire.
According to officials in the Prime Minister's Office, various "creative solutions" were being discussed on ways to enforce the embargo along the unfenced, 330-kilometer Syrian-Lebanese border.
The official said the mountainous terrain made it difficult to smuggle heavy weaponry across the border, except at the nine crossing points. While Israel wants to see an international presence at these crossing points, the Syrians are adamantly opposed, and the Lebanese have not shown any inclination to ask the international community to help them monitor the crossings, a necessary condition as stipulated in UN Security Council Resolution 1701.
This issue, the official said, had not been resolved.
Just hours before Olmert's decision to lift the siege, the member of General Staff said the military had recommended to the diplomatic echelon to keep the siege in place.
"Our recommendation is to keep up the blockade and to continue flying over Lebanon without restrictions," he said.
Under the air siege, the officer revealed, the IAF was able to continue flying drones over Lebanon. They collected intelligence and kept a close eye on the Lebanese border with Syria to see if weapons were being transferred to Hizbullah, or if it was attempting to smuggle the kidnapped IDF reservists - Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev - out of Lebanon.
The assumption within the defense establishment, he said, was that the kidnapped soldiers were alive and were being held in Lebanon. The IDF, he said, was holding five "valuable" Hizbullah captives who could be used as a bargaining chips in a prisoner swap with Hizbullah.
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