Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

"Annan: Israel responsible for most truce violations," Haaretz, August 30, 2006.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Tuesday that Israel was responsible for most of the violations of the UN-brokered cease-fire that ended the 34-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah two weeks ago.

Annan said he would ask Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in talks on Wednesday to lift Israel's air and sea blockade of Lebanon, imposed at the start of the war nearly seven weeks ago.

Speaking after a meeting with Defense Minister Amir Peretz in Jerusalem, Annan appealed for all sides to work together to ensure the peace holds and "not risk another explosion in six years or 20 years."

Peretz said Tuesday following talks with Annan that he hopes Israel will soon be able to lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon, imposed at the start of its 34-day conflict with Hezbollah that ended with a United Nations-brokered truce on August 14.

"Israel will pull out once there is a reasonable level of forces there," he said.

The defense minister did not clarify what it would take for Israel to lift the embargo, but Israel has demanded that Lebanese and international forces take control of the Lebanon-Syrian border to prevent Hezbollah guerrillas from smuggling in arms.

The UN chief said he spoke with Peretz about lifting the blockade "as soon as possible in order to allow Lebanon to go on with normal commercial activities and also rebuild its economy."

Annan also met with the families of three kidnapped Israel Defense Forces soldiers Tuesday night, hours after calling for their release and for the lfiting of the blockade on Lebanon.

Reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were snatched by Hezbollah in a cross-border raid on July 12, which sparked the 34-day conflict ended on August 14 by a UN brokered cease-fire. Corporal Gilad Shalit was abducted by Palestinian militants in late June, after they tunneled under the Gaza-Israel border and raided his IDF base.

Goldwasser's wife, Karnit, told Israel TV after the meeting with Annan that he gave them no new information about the fate of their loved ones.

"But the good news was that we got a personal pledge from the secretary-general of the UN that he accepts the mission to get the three kidnapped soldiers home and that's a really big thing," she said.

The relatives said they had heard lip service from many international officials about efforts to get their relatives freed.

"We asked him to be the one to start turning words into deeds and bring about their return home, all three," Karnit Goldwasser said. "He spoke to Lebanese cabinet ministers from Hezbollah and asked them to help him."

The families of the three men also appealed for word on the soldier's conditions.

"They must first of all give us a sign of life. [Annan] must act toward that. It's a moral demand that's basic in any negotiations," Regev's brother Benny said before the meeting.

They also wanted Annan to back down from his demands that Israel lift its blockade of Lebanon, for fear that an end to the siege would allow Hezbollah to move its captives out of Lebanon.

Israel's ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, said Tuesday the meeting between Annan and the families carried important symbolism.

"I hope that he will leave here with a real feeling of obligation, of a moral mission to do everything he can - and he is going to several capitals in which there is influence on this matter - to bring about Udi [Ehud], Eldad and Gilad's speedy return home," Gillerman told Israel TV.

Meanwhile, veteran civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson, speaking in Beirut, said he was told that the three soldiers were alive during his meetings with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Khaled Mashaal, political leader of Hamas, in Damascus.

"The Hamas leadership says that the soldier they are holding is alive and well," Jackson told reporters in Beirut, where he was meeting political and religious leaders.

"The president [Assad] believes that the two held somewhere by Hezbollah are alive," he added.

Syria and Iran are the main backers of Hezbollah. "Obviously under any kind of international law, we should have been given a sign of life immediately. But these are terrorists," government spokeswoman Miri Eisen said. "Though we'd like to believe them, we continue to demand the unconditional release of all three."

Annan arrived in Israel on Tuesday afternoon, after a visit to Lebanon during which he called on Hezbollah to free the two IDF soldiers it is holding and for Israel to end the sea and air blockade imposed on Lebanon at the start of the conflict.

"We need to resolve the issue of the abducted soldiers very quickly," Annan said. "We need to deal with the lifting of the embargo - sea, land and air - which for the Lebanese is a humiliation and an infringement on their sovereignty."

"I think the time has come for the siege to be lifted. The Lebanese have shown they're serious about the implementation of [UN resolution] 1701 in all the deployments and efforts they have made," he added.

Israel has insisted it will maintain the restrictions until an arms embargo against Hezbollah is enforced.

The UN chief has said there is a high risk of renewed hostilities unless the resolution is fully implemented.

Families pin hopes on Annan

Ahead of their meeting with Annan, the families of Regev and Goldwasser said Tuesday they hoped the UN chief would help secure their safe and quick release.

"We ask [Annan] to act toward releasing our soldiers," Regev's brother, Benny, said before the meeting with Annan.

"The UN decided that Lebanon and the Lebanese government and Hezbollah must release the soldiers without any conditions. This was the resolution. We expect him to act toward achieving it."

The family members also appealed for word on the soldiers' conditions.

"They must first of all give us a sign of life. [Annan] must act toward that. It's a moral demand that's basic in any negotiations," Benny Regev said.

"I know that Kofi Annan is an important man... he has a lot of power and influence and he can speak to the government in Lebanon," said Karnit Goldwasser.

Goldwasser's mother, Miki, said she would be open to talks and a prisoner exchange with Hezbollah.

South Lebanon visit

Earlier Tuesday, Annan flew to south Lebanon where up to 15,000 UN peacekeepers are expected to be sent to bolster the 16-day-old truce between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.

Italy's first contingent of 800-1,000 troops set sail on what Rome said would be a "long and risky" mission. The aircraft carrier Garibaldi met four other Navy ships off the Mediterranean port of Brindisi for an official send-off for the force.

France promised to send a 900-strong battalion before the middle of September, with a second battalion to follow.

Annan also visited the base of the currently 2,000-strong UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in Naqoura.

The UN chief was briefed Tuesday by French Major General Alain Pellegrini, the UNIFIL commander, and other top officials, then reviewed an honor guard of UN troops in blue berets standing at attention on the green lawn inside the UN's white-walled compound.

He laid a wreath at a monument for nearly 300 peacekeepers killed in Lebanon since UNIFIL deployed here in 1978. Muslim and Christian clergymen said prayers, and Annan stood in silence in front of a display of portraits of those killed, including four UNIFIL members killed in an Israel Air Force strike on their base in Khiam on July 25.

Annan is expected to travel to Syria and Iran, Hezbollah's chief allies, later in the week.

The United Nations hopes to create a buffer zone in south Lebanon free of Israeli or Hizbollah forces and policed by up to 15,000 UN troops and a similar number of Lebanese soldiers.

It is hoping that Muslim nations will contribute troops to balance the 7,000 or so pledged by European countries.

Potential Muslim contributors include Indonesia, Malaysia
and Bangladesh, although Israel has objected to their taking part because they have no diplomatic ties with Israel.

"The UN should take steps to convince Israel to be rational in seeing the contribution of Indonesian peacekeeping troops," said Indonesia's chief security minister Widodo Adi Sutjipto, whose country has offered 1,000 troops.
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