Israel Lifts Blockade of Lebanon, and Watches

Israel is lifting its air and sea blockade of Lebanon. The move is the first major test for the U.N. peacekeeping force charged with preventing arms shipments from reaching Hezbollah. The area of highest concern is Lebanon's long border with Syria.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

And in this part of the program we look at international efforts to deal with three of the world's trouble spots. In A Moment, reports on Afghanistan and Iran.

We begin in Lebanon. The Israeli government is lifting its two-month long air and sea blockade today. That decision follows assurances from the United Nations that European nations will secure ports in Lebanon and stop illegal arms bound for Hezbollah. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been touring the Mideast region in an effort to shore up the current cease-fire.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Beirut.

Lifting this blockade has been a top priority for the Lebanese government, but in the three weeks since the cease-fire, Israel balked because of security concerns. How exactly were those resolved?

PETER KENYON: Well, I think it's fair to say they've only been partially resolved. But essentially, the Lebanese government finally sent a formal invitation to the Germans, who were waiting to send their technical experts to help secure the ports of Lebanon. Some airport patrols, some will be off the shore, trying to secure the sea areas.

There are also Italian, French, British and other troops helping out until the Germans arrive. That will allow Israel to pull its forces out of those areas, securing the ports today. Israel still has ground forces in south Lebanon. We don't know exactly when they'll be pulled out. So essentially, the immediate response will be more flights, ships getting in, and a big relief to Lebanon.

MONTAGNE: Israel continues to be concerned that Hezbollah is using this cease-fire to replenish some of the thousands of rockets that it fired into northern Israel during the war. Even if the international and Lebanese forces secure the seaports and the airports, that still leaves this very long land border with Syria.

KENYON: Well, that's right. And Israeli spokespeople say that is the wild card. They're most concerned about that. Israel has asked, as you know, U.N. to put troops on the Syrian border. Lebanon initially rejected that out of hand, and has maintained that position. Syria, in fact, threatened to close the border if that happened. And the U.N. doesn't seem inclined to press the point, at least not now.

I was traveling along the Syrian border in the eastern and northern part of Lebanon yesterday. I can tell you it is classic smugglers terrain: long mountain ranges with many passes in various notches in the mountains that could easily hide smugglers, and have for many, many years. Decades ago it was hashish, among other things, and Israel fears now it will be weapons for Hezbollah.

I must say I did see Lebanese armed forces not only along the roads in that part of the country but also camped near some of those mountain passes. Now whether they'll be effective in stopping the arms smuggling, that's a big question right now. And if they're not, whether Israel will resume airstrikes to try and stop the rearming.

MONTAGNE: And for Lebanon itself, will lifting the blockade really speed up the rebuilding and recovery process?

KENYON: It definitely will. This decision is being seen as a great relief here. The needs are immense, certainly in selected areas of the country, especially the south and parts of the north. The reconstruction work has been greatly hampered by this blockade, as has work on the huge environmental damage caused by a 15,000-ton oil spill that Israeli missiles caused during the war.

Economists are still adding up the huge hit this blockade has inflicted on the Lebanese economy, but clearly it's been a devastating blow for Lebanon and anything now that can get in quicker with the lifting of the blockade will be a great relief.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Peter Kenyon speaking from Beirut. Thank you.

KENYON: You're welcome, Renee.

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