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Israel Pulling Its Ships From Lebanon

Israel is ending its naval blockade of Lebanon, and hopes to withdraw its last soldiers there within two weeks.

The Israelis will be replaced by French, Italian, and Greek warships under a United Nations mandate, reports CBS News correspondent Robert Berger. Israel says their mission is to prevent the shipment of weapons from Syria and Iran to Hezbollah.

The lifting of the air and sea blockade of Lebanon is seen as a boost to the three-week-old cease-fire. It would wind up Israel's recent campaign against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, and allow desperately needed reconstruction projects there to proceed freely. Up to 15,000 Lebanese soldiers backed by an equal number of international forces are deploying in southern Lebanon to replace the Israelis under an Aug. 14 truce.

Israel plans to pull all its troops out of Lebanon in time for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins in two weeks, reports Berger. Israel is pleased about the deployment of an international force, which will include French, Italian, Spanish and Turkish troops, among others. More than 3,000 foreign troops are already in Lebanon and when the number reaches 5,000 Israel will pull out. UN officials say that should happen in about 10 days.

In other developments:

  • Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has signaled that Israel might cede disputed territory to Lebanon if the Lebanese carry out all provisions of their recent cease-fire with Israel, including the disarming of Hezbollah guerrillas, media reported on Friday.
  • Israel on Friday rejected Russia's proposal of a Mideast peace conference, saying Israel's immediate focus should be on its conflict with the Palestinians. "I think putting all of the issues ... into one bowl would only make things more complicated," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said at a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
  • Lavrov said Russia was looking into Israeli charges that Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas used Russian arms supplied by Syria in their recent war with Israel. Russian laws governing arms sales stipulate that no weapons can be transferred to a third party, Lavrov said.
  • British Prime Minister Tony Blair will meet this weekend with top Israeli leaders and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but no members of Hamas, the ruling Palestinian party. Even that is too much for hundreds of Palestinians, who have signed a petition saying Blair is unwelcome because of his support for Israel. Blair cannot "wash his hands, which are stained with Lebanese blood, in Palestinian waters," the petition says.

    Israel sealed off Lebanon by air and sea at the start of its war against Hezbollah to keep Syria and Iran from resupplying it with arms. Israel, yielding to intense international pressure, ended its air blockade of Lebanon on Thursday, but said it would maintain the naval blockade until international peacekeeping vessels arrived to monitor the seas.

    The U.N. informed the Lebanese government that a joint French, Italian and Greek naval force began patrolling the Lebanese coastline at 12:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m. EDT) Friday, a government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

    Israel has been gradually pulling out its soldiers — whose number peaked at 30,000 at the war's end — as international replacements arrive.

  • About 3,250 U.N. troops are now in place. On Thursday, the Spanish parliament voted to contribute 1,100 soldiers to the peacekeeping mission, and the first troops were to set off on Friday.

    In a meeting with Lavrov on Thursday, Olmert said if the U.N. decides the disputed Chebaa Valley is Lebanese, and if Lebanon implements U.N. resolutions ending the war, "we'll agree to discuss it," the Haaretz daily said.

    When Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon in 2000, ending an 18-year occupation, the U.N.-drawn international line did not put Chebaa Farms in Lebanese territory, but in the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967, and later annexed.

    The Lebanese have disputed this ruling, and Israel and Hezbollah have clashed in the territory since the withdrawal. Under the Aug. 14 cease-fire, the U.N. agreed to review the line within 30 days.

    Lebanon put on a boisterous show Thursday to celebrate the end of Israel's air blockade. In a symbolic act signaling the resumption of normal air traffic, a commercial flight by Lebanon's national carrier Middle East Airlines circled over downtown Beirut three times at 6:04 p.m., four minutes after the embargo ended. And fireworks erupted in the capital's heart.

    "Lebanon is breathing again," proclaimed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora in a televised statement, inviting the tens of thousands of Lebanese who fled the fighting and Arab tourists who left in droves "to come back to the Lebanon you love."

    The land route to neighboring Syria has already been reopened, with the Lebanese government posting thousands of troops along the rugged frontier to prevent smuggling.

    Russia's Lavrov, who is on a tour of the Mideast, has raised the idea of a regional conference. He and other diplomats are touring the region in the aftermath of the Lebanon war.

    Livni said Israel should be concentrating now on "the most problematic subject" — the Palestinian conflict — and called for immediate, unconditional talks with the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah Party.

    But she insisted Israel wouldn't release Palestinian prisoners — a condition Abbas has set in the past for talks — until Palestinian militants freed an Israeli soldier seized more than two months ago.

    The soldier's capture by gunmen linked to the Palestinians' ruling Hamas Party set off an Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip in which more than 200 Palestinians — most of them gunmen — have been killed.

    Livni's call for talks with Abbas echoed sentiments Olmert expressed earlier this week.

    There have been no official contacts between Israel and the Palestinians since Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction, won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January.

    But the prospect of negotiations have taken on new life since Israel's recent war against Hezbollah put a chill on Olmert's plan to unilaterally withdraw from large chunks of the West Bank.

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