Sunday, August 20, 2006

Israel defiant on Lebanon raid, prepares for 'next round'

Israel defiant on Lebanon raid, prepares for 'next round'
by Yana Dlugy

Israel warned that it would keep up raids against Hezbollah to prevent the Shiite militia from getting weapons from abroad and said it would prepare for the "next round" of war.

Israel also said that it would not allow the Lebanese army to fully deploy along the volatile Israeli-Lebanese border until the arrival of an international force in the area.

"We need to thwart any attempt to pass weapons from Syria to Hezbollah," Trade and Industry Minister Eli Yishai said before the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem Sunday.

"Any such activity needs a counter measure," he said, referring to a Saturday commando raid by Israeli troops in eastern Lebanon, which Israel said was aimed at preventing alleged arms smuggling to Hezbollah from Syria.

Lebanon and the United Nations slammed the raid as a violation of the UN-brokered ceasefire which took effect last Monday to end 34 days of warfare, but Israeli officials remained defiant.

"We have not violated UN resolution 1701," said Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog, a member of the security cabinet.

"The resolution has very clear directives on limiting the transfer of weapons from Syria and Iran into Lebanon. The directives speak of a full embargo. As long as it is not enforced, we have the full right to act against it."

Defense Minister Amir Peretz said the Jewish state would examine mistakes that it made during the Lebanon war in preparation for the "next round" of war.

"We will examine the issues that have been pointed out as failures," he told the cabinet meeting. "We will put everything on the table. Our duty is to prepare for the next round," he said without elaborating.

The Israeli raid near the Hezbollah stronghold of Baalbek was the first major operation since the UN ceasefire took hold on the ground. An Israeli officer was killed in the raid.

"It is the Lebanese who are to be blamed for allowing the weapons transfer... The one responsible is (Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad) Siniora. We should give him an ultimatum -- either he stops the weapons transfer or we target his infrastructure," Yishai said.

Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit, a hardliner who like Herzog and Yishai is a member of Israel's security cabinet, echoed the statements.

"The Lebanese are yet to carry out the resolution and are saying that Hezbollah will not be disarmed and that it can hide weapons. What are we supposed to do? Sit idly and wait for Hezbollah to rearm?"

UN Resolution 1701 calls, among other demands, for Hezbollah to disarm, something that the Shiite militant group has so far refused to do, maintaining its right to fight as long as Israeli troops are in Lebanon.

Israeli intelligence estimates that Hezbollah had up to 13,000 rockets before the start of the Lebanon war, with more than 4,000 fired by the Shiite militia into Israel during the offensive.

Israel accuses Syria and Iran of providing Hezbollah with weapons, a charge denied by both countries which say they offer moral support only.

Israel has said that many of the weapons, including the anti-tank missiles that proved devastating to the Jewish state's military during the offensive, had come from Russia, a charge that the Kremlin has denied.

A report in Israel's second-largest Maariv daily on Sunday said that during a recent visit to Moscow, Israeli officials showed Russians documents that allegedly prove that Russian arms exports destined for the Syrian army were ending up in Hezbollah's hands.

An Israeli foreign ministry official meanwhile urged France to reconsider its decision to limit its participation in a UN force in Lebanon to 200 soldiers, which sparked "astonishment and confusion" in the Jewish state.

"We hope that France has not said its last word," the official said on condition of anonymity. "If not, its decision cannot but contribute to bring us a step back, with the rearming of Hezbollah, which will wait for an opportune moment to restart its hostilities."

France had joined the United States in crafting the UN resolution and as Lebanon's former colonial power was expected to take the lead in putting together a robust international force of up to 15,000 to boost the current UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

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