Fearful that the Lebanese government is trying to undermine its self-proclaimed security zone in south Lebanon, Israel on Sunday expanded a 2-week-old blockade of ports south of Beirut, Israel's chief negotiator with Lebanon confirmed.
"It is happening," said Uri Lubrani, who is also coordinator of Israeli operations in south Lebanon.
Lebanese fishermen have complained that Israeli gunboats fire on them and force them to operate no more than half a mile from shore. The fishermen have said that it is impossible for them to earn a living so close to the shore.
Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri denounced the blockade Saturday night and accused the Israelis of practicing terrorism against Lebanon.
"Israel wants just one thing, to subjugate Lebanon to its will in the (Middle East) settlement and that Lebanon should leave the sphere of liaison and coordination with Syria," Hariri said in a televised speech. He called Israel's recent military actions in Lebanon "political, military and economic terrorism."
But Lubrani dismissed Hariri's charges as "hogwash." He said that Israel's blockade, which began with Tyre and Sidon and was extended north Sunday, has nothing to do with its stalled peace talks with Lebanon and Syria.
Rather, he said, Israel decided to act after the Lebanese government began "humiliating" residents of south Lebanon.
"For some months now, the government has been harassing (residents of south Lebanon) in every possible way," Lubrani said in a telephone interview with The Times. Soldiers humiliate them when they travel north and cross Lebanese army checkpoints, he said. The Lebanese government is putting the people of south Lebanon on trial "because of the fact that they live in the security zone and cooperate with us." Agricultural products are not allowed to be shipped north, Lubrani said, and, as a result, the South Lebanese "cannot make a living."
The Associated Press reported from Beirut on Sunday night that Israeli gunships had eased their blockade of Sidon, allowing fishermen to fish overnight Saturday.
But Israeli officials were insisting that the blockade would continue.
"This is part of our effort to send a message to the Lebanese that if they want to maintain their everyday life, including fishing, let the southern part of Lebanon also live in peace," Economics Minister Shimon Shetreet said Sunday afternoon.
Israel set up its security zone in 1985 to prevent Palestinian and Lebanese guerrillas from attacking northern Israeli communities. Today, that zone--which is as wide as 28 miles at some points and as narrow as three miles at others--is patrolled by an Israeli-backed militia, the South Lebanon Army, and about 1,500 Israeli troops.
For several months, Israel and the Islamic militant movement Hezbollah have been slugging it out in the south with unusual intensity. Hezbollah has carried out a series of attacks on Israeli and SLA outposts, and the two sides have had almost daily exchanges of artillery fire.
Israeli analysts say that Hezbollah is mounting the attacks to try to demoralize the SLA. Hezbollah frequently distributes leaflets exhorting SLA members to desert and offering a chance for them to be "rehabilitated."
Worried SLA commanders have given interviews to Israel Television and Radio saying that their troops are tempted by the Hezbollah offers because they fear that Israel will sacrifice the militia to make peace.
Last week, Israel's Cabinet, led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, flew to the security zone to visit the troops. The unusual move was meant as a gesture both to reassure the SLA and to show Lebanon and Syria that Israel is determined to maintain its presence in south Lebanon as long as guerrillas are active there, Israeli commentators said.
The latest exchange of accusations between Israel and Lebanon comes a week before Secretary of State Warren Christopher is expected to begin another swing through the region, hoping to break a deadlock in Israel's 3-year-old peace negotiations with Syria.