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Israel Lifts Blockade of Lebanon Airports

Israel lifted its blockade of Lebanon's airports late Thursday, but in a last-minute decision, decided to wait at least 48 hours before lifting its naval blockade on Lebanese ports. The decision to ease the air and sea blockade on Lebanon is generating opposition in Israel.

Nearly two months after it imposed an air and sea blockade on Lebanon, Israel allowed commercial flight operations to resume at Beirut's international airport late Thursday. However, Israeli officials say their plans to ease a naval blockade on Lebanon have been put on hold for at least two days to allow time for an international naval force to take up positions along Lebanon's coast.

Lebanese officials say the blockade has cost their country $50 million a day, as the country's main airport and all its major ports remained closed, three weeks after a U.N.-mediated ceasefire went into effect, ending the 34-day conflict in Lebanon.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced Wednesday he was lifting the blockade, after receiving assurances from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that international forces were in position to monitor Lebanon's airports and seaports. Israel says it will maintain a land blockade on Lebanon to prevent weapons-smuggling to Hezbollah.

The decision to lift the air and sea blockade is not popular in Israel. Israeli newspapers report that Israeli military commanders opposed easing the blockade, until Hezbollah militants released two Israeli soldiers they captured during a deadly July 12 raid that sparked the current crisis. The families of the soldiers have also voiced opposition to the move.

Miri Eisen, a spokeswoman for the prime minister's office, says Israel expects Lebanon to fulfill its obligations under U.N. resolution 1701 that ended the conflict to bring about the release of the two soldiers.

"Israel sees this, as does the U.N. secretary general, and we assume Lebanon, as a fixed menu and not a buffet. We are going to implement all of the articles within [1701], including the unconditional return of the soldiers," said Eisen. "It is part of 1701 that the United Nations and the Lebanese government, as part of the implementation, are fully committed, and we have demanded the unconditional return."

The easing of the blockade came after nearly a week of shuttle diplomacy by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in the region.

Under the agreement to ease the blockade, German navy ships will eventually patrol the Lebanese coast, with the mission of preventing weapons shipments to Hezbollah. So far, about 3,000 U.N. peacekeepers have taken up positions in southern Lebanon. U.N. officials say they hope to have as many as 5,000 troops in Lebanon by the end of next week, as part of an eventual 15,000 strong contingent.