Israel has lifted its crippling naval blockade of Lebanon, a day after removing the air blockade. The move is seen as a boost to the three-week-old ceasefire between Israel and the Islamic militant group Hezbollah based in South Lebanon.
The Israeli navy lifted the blockade of Lebanese ports that was imposed at the beginning of the war eight weeks ago. Israel transferred authority to U.N. naval forces, which include Italian, French and Greek warships. Israel says their mission is to block the supply of weapons from Syria and Iran to Hezbollah.
"From day one of the ceasefire, Israel said that we'd be willing to lift the restrictions on air and sea travel in and out of Lebanon, the minute we had confidence that the arms embargo against Hezbollah would be enforced," said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev.
The lifting of the blockade will help Lebanon return to normal commercial life and begin rebuilding. Lebanese officials say the siege cost the devastated country $45 million a day.
But in Israel, both the army and families of two kidnapped Israeli soldiers held in Lebanon objected to lifting the blockade. They believe Israel has lost the leverage to win their release.
But Regev says the soldiers, whose capture sparked the war, have not been forgotten. He says it is spelled out clearly in the U.N. ceasefire resolution.
"That resolution calls for the unconditional and immediate release of the two servicemen," he noted. "And that we say that those two servicemen are still being held hostage, that is a violation of the agreement, and if they violate the agreement that has consequences."
Nevertheless, the lifting of the blockade signals Israel's willingness to leave Lebanon and hand security over to U.N. peacekeepers. More than 3,000 international troops are already in Lebanon, and when the number reaches 5,000, Israel says it will withdraw. U.N. officials say that should happen soon. So Israel plans to pull all its troops out of Lebanon by Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in two weeks.