Israel decided today to lift the sea and air blockade that has been in place on Lebanon since fighting erupted in mid-July between Hezbollah and the IDF. The decision to lift the blockade was made in response to international pressure, on the one hand, and with assurances from the United States, the United Nations and some of the countries whose troops will be part of the multinational force in southern Lebanon, on the other. The decision was angrily greeted by the families of the two soldiers who were kidnapped to Lebanon July 12. Shlomo Goldwasser, the father of Ehud, said that the decision contradicted a former pledge by Foreign Minister Livni not to lift the blockade at least until a sign of life of the two kidnapped reservists was received. Goldwasser said : “Last week, the foreign minister said the blockade would be lifted when a sign of life is received, or when our sons are released and brought home, and as far as I know, no sign of life has been received from them. Now there are rumors that the blockade is about to be lifted, and we are very surprised to hear that.”
There has been no comment from the Israeli government to the statement from the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s spokesman that the Hezbollah would provide no evidence that the two hostages held by Hezbollah are alive.
Former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz also expressed reservations about the decision. He said the blockade should be lifted only after a sign of life had been received from the kidnapped soldiers.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan welcomed Israel’s decision. He told reporters in Madrid that he hopes the removal of the blockade will make it easier for the Lebanese government to repair the destruction caused by the war.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni said Israel waited for the arrival of the multi-national forces before agreeing to remove the blockade. In a lecture in Haifa she said that Israel’s situation is better than it was before the war. She said one of the aims of the war was to improve Israel’s political situation. “We embarked on the war in the knowledge that the IDF alone could not bring back the kidnapped soldiers and destroy Hezbollah’, she told Israel radio.
The Prime Minister’s Bureau last night announced that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had promised that responsibility would be transferred to UNIFIL.
Last night German experts arrived at Beirut airport. Israel and Germany also agreed that the additional forces would be deployed off the Lebanese coast.
A source in Olmert’s bureau explained that until the German naval force arrives in two weeks, Italian, French, British and Greek forces will keep watch on the Lebanese coast.
A few hours before the Israeli announcement, Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh said that his country would break the blockade by force if Israel did not remove it within 48 hours.
“If the situation is not solved, the Lebanese government will take the necessary measures and we will break the blockade with all our force,” Salloukh said.
The blockade of Lebanon is the most significant means of pressure which Israel had been applying in recent weeks. It also served to expedite the formation of the UNIFIL force. Defense Minister Amir Peretz said yesterday: “Conditions for removal of the closure have been created, both at the request of the prime minister of Lebanon, and also by agreement with the international community.” In spite of Peretz’s statement, sources in the security establishment reacted angrily to the removal of the blockade. “Once again Israel is showing weakness, and once again we are dropping our demands to receive at least information about the kidnapped soldiers, and prevent delivery of weapons from Syria and Iran to Hezbollah,” a defense source said. On the other hand, another defense source admitted: “In effect Israel had no choice but to lift the blockade. We had no intention of shooting down a passenger plane.”
Meanwhile, Egypt has provided Israel with proof that Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas in Gaza, is alive and well, Egyptian sources told the Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat. They said that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s fear of appearing lenient is delaying the implementation of the agreement.
The newspaper reported that an Israeli envoy is scheduled to arrive in Egypt in the coming days, and bring messages to Jerusalem from the Egyptian leadership to help the Israeli government display greater flexibility and speed up the negotiations.
In addition, the Egyptian sources said, “interventions outside the Palestinian territories” are hampering the negotiations on the Palestinian side. The Egyptians are apparently referring to the Hamas overseas leadership, headed by Khaled Mashal. This appears to be the reason that the Egyptians have asked Hamas to “act wisely” to expedite the negotiations and not take any action that would harm Shalit.
The Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat reported further on Wednesday that the kidnapped soldier could be released over the coming days, and would be handed over to the IDF at a Gaza roadblock. The sources told the newspaper that Turkish-Egyptian pressure over the past few days has brought positive results. As part of the agreement reached, 800-900Palestinian convicts will be released, mostly elderly or ill Prisoners and women.
Analyst: Hezbollah Needs Two Years To Recover
Hezbollah was badly damaged in the war against Israel and requires at least two years to recover, a leading Israeli military analyst said.
[Res.] Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror, a former senior military intelligence officer, said Hezbollah lost up to half of its combat force in the 33-day war with Israel. Amidror, highly regarded in the intelligence community, said he does not expect Hezbollah to initiate a major conflict with Israel for at least another year.
“It will take Hezbollah at least two years to rebuild its capability, especially to train them,” Amidror told an audience of mostly foreign diplomats at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on Wednesday.
Amidror said Hezbollah sustained heavy losses in the war in Lebanon. He said between 500 and 700 fighters were killed, or between one-third and one-half of the total militia force. The general said the Israeli military has already identified the names and addresses of 444 Hezbollah casualties.
Hezbollah has lost all of its medium- and long-range rocket capability, Amidror said. He said Iranian-origin Fajr rockets, with a range of up to 180 kilometers, were destroyed in Israeli air strikes on the first night of the war, which began on July 12.
Hezbollah’s arsenal of the Iranian-origin Zelzal, a rocket with a range of between 120 and 220 kilometers, was destroyed within the first week. Israel also intercepted two of three Hezbollah armed unmanned aerial vehicles destined for the Tel Aviv area. The third Iranian-origin UAV, identified as Ababil, crashed into the Mediterranean Sea.
“Within five minutes, 95 percent of all long-range rockets used by Hezbollah were destroyed,” Amidror said. “This is why they didn’t succeed in launching the Fajr toward Israel.”
During the war, Israel’s military reported more than a dozen Fajr-3 and -4 rocket attacks. Military sources said Fajr and Zelzal-1 rockets struck such cities as Beit Shean and Hadera, between 70 and 100 kilometers from the Israeli-Lebanese border.
“This was the biggest military collapse in Israel’s history,” Israeli Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a former defense minister, said on Wednesday. “We lost the war. We took the most incorrect path.”
In contrast, Amidror said the army completed virtually all of its ground force missions in Lebanon on time. He said Hezbollah’s use of rockets and anti-tank missiles was largely ineffective.
“The Israel Army said all of the ground forces fulfilled their missions on schedule,” Amidror said. “The problem was that in some cases, the decisions were blurred.”
©The Bulletin 2006