Israel began lifting its blockade of Lebanon Thursday despite objections from the army and the families of two captured Israeli soldiers.
Signaling the resumption of normal air traffic, a commercial flight by the national carrier Middle East Airlines circled over downtown Beirut three time at 6:04 p.m. local time (11 a.m. EDT), four minutes after the embargo was over, in a ceremonial show. As it taxied down the runway, someone in cockpit waved a large red-and-white Lebanese flag, with its distinctive green cedar tree emblem, out a window.
The naval blockade will continue, an Israeli official said, until international forces arrive.
Not everyone in Israel is happy about the decision to end the blockade, reports CBS News correspondent Robert Berger. The families of two Israeli soldiers kidnapped in Lebanon are angry over Israel's decision to lift the blockade. They say Prime Minister Ehud Olmert broke a promise that the blockade would not be lifted until Israel received information about the captive soldiers.
Bowing to pressure from the United Nations and others, Israel said international forces would take over the task of preventing arms shipments from reaching Hezbollah guerrillas.
Israel imposed the air, land and sea blockade shortly after the 34-day war against the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah erupted on July 12, when reserve soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were seized on the border.
A cease-fire took effect three weeks ago, but Israel kept up the blockade to prevent Hezbollah from rearming or moving the captured soldiers outside Lebanon.
The families say the offensive in Lebanon failed to win the release of the soldiers, and now, Israel has given up its last means of leverage with the Lebanese government and Hezbollah.
In other developments:
A statement from Olmert's office the day before said Israel would lift the Lebanon blockade as of 6 p.m. (11 a.m. EDT) Thursday. The statement said U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Olmert that international forces in Lebanon were ready to monitor the airports and seaports.
The army, however, has strong reservations about lifting the blockade without linking it to the release of the captured soldiers, military officials said Thursday on condition of anonymity because of the contradiction between their position and the government's.
France will temporarily monitor sea lanes off Lebanon to ensure that weapons don't reach Hezbollah fighters, the foreign minister said, claiming partial credit for Israel's decision to end its maritime blockade. "The decision has been taken that we will participate in monitoring surveillance along the coast to ensure there is no delivery (of weapons) — or an embargo," Philippe Douste-Blazy told reporters.
Workers at Lebanon's only airport prepared Thursday to receive a full flow of commercial flights after the blockade ended. The Middle East Airlines flight from Paris had been routed through Jordan — the only allowed path by Israel in recent weeks — but instead was delayed so it could fly straight to the Lebanese capital. The first Air France flight was expected to leave Friday morning from Paris to Beirut.
The U.N. peacekeeping force for Lebanon should be strong enough by mid-September for Israeli troops to withdraw, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Thursday during a visit to Madrid, as Spain's parliament prepared to approve sending its forces to Lebanon.
By mid-month, the force should have 5,000 international peacekeepers, Annan said. These, along with 16,000 Lebanese troops being sent to the south of the country, will constitute a "credible force," Annan said at a joint news conference with Spain's prime minister. "We will reach that number by mid-September to allow Israel to withdraw."
Benny Regev, the brother of the kidnapped soldier Eldad Regev, said that during a meeting with Olmert Thursday, the families of the kidnapped soldiers expressed their severe opposition to the lifting of the blockade.
"We are very disappointed that our soldiers are returning home while Udi (Goldwasser) and Eldad are still out there," Regev told Israel's Ynet news site.
In practical terms, the lifting of the blockade will allow Lebanon to begin rebuilding and resume normal trade and life more quickly. The blockade's removal is also likely to help decrease tensions in the region.
Lebanese officials say the blockade cost the devastated country $45 million dollars a day, reports Berger.