Julie Stahl | Jerusalem Bureau Chief | Thursday, August 31, 2006
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan spent this week here in the region urging Israel - first from Lebanon, then from Jerusalem and on Thursday from Amman, Jordan - to lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon.
Israel imposed the air and sea blockade seven weeks ago at the beginning of the war with Hizballah, to prevent weapons from being transferred to the organization, which is funded and supplied by Syria and Iran.
Now Israel is reluctant to give up that control unless international forces are in place that will control the ports and stop the flow of weapons.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Annan on Wednesday that Israel would not be removing the blockade yet and the government was ready to explain its reluctance on Thursday.
Israel is "deeply concerned" about the continuing efforts of Syria and Iran to re-supply weapons to Hizballah, said Israeli government spokesman Miri Eisen. Since the ceasefire took affect on Aug. 14, they have been trying to bring in weapons overland since the air and sea routes are closed, she said.
Hundreds of Russian, Syrian and Iranian-made anti-tank missiles were fired at Israeli forces in southern Lebanon during the recent war. Dozens more were captured by Israel unused, Eisen said. It is this kind of weaponry that Hizballah is trying to re-stock, she said.
According to U.N. resolution 1701, there is an embargo against supplying weapons to any non-governmental group, i.e. Hizballah, (with the exception of the international force).
Israel wants to see the international force, now taking shape in Lebanon, deployed along the 375-kilometer (225 mile) Lebanese-Syrian border as well as manning the air and seaports to prevent weapons from reaching Hizballah.
Prior to the war, Hizballah controlled all cargo at the Beirut airport, one source said. Iran, which shares no border with Lebanon, was free to ship weapons to Hizballah by air and sea. Israel wants to prevent that from happening again.
The Lebanese government has said it does not want international forces to man the border with Syria and insists that it can do the job. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has also voiced his opposition to such a plan.
Israel thinks that the Lebanese government knows about the smuggling attempts but is unwilling or unable to stop it on its own, said Eisen.
Along that border there are nine major legal crossing points, through which trucks carrying missiles and rockets could pass, and there is no border fence, Eisen said. Israel believes a robust international force could help to secure these crossings, she said.
Cut the flow of money
"Iran and Syria will do their best to continue to arm Hizballah," said Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, director of the American Center for Democracy. "But if they won't have access to money, their ability to hold on to their 'volunteers' will diminish."
If they can't pay the volunteers and sustain their social, medical and welfare organizations, it will also cut down on their ability to recruit, Ehrenfeld said from the U.S. It will also limit their ability [to] pay for propaganda through the media, radio, TV and Internet, to travel, buy false documents and pay for safe houses, she added.
But what might seem like a logical solution for crippling the organization is meeting with resistance.
"The international community, i.e. the U.N. and the E.U. are doing all they can to preserve Hizballah," said Ehrenfeld. (While the U.S. considers Hizballah to be a terrorist organization, the European Union does not.)
But Ehrenfeld argued that although Hizballah has members in the Lebanese parliament, it is not a political party. "Hizballah is the operational arm of Iran and a fifth column inside Lebanon."
The international community should concentrate not only on the effort to disarm Hizballah but to freeze the group's bank accounts, which are also in Lebanon, Ehrenfeld said.
During the last six years, experts say, Hizballah used its social outreach to gain popularity among the local population. Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to help rebuild Lebanon. It is believed he would do so with the financial help of Iran.
Nasrallah said in a television interview earlier this week the millions of dollars in cash that his group is handing out for reconstruction in Lebanon and to help those who are suffering was "clean" money that had no political strings attached that "could jeopardize the national interests" of Lebanon.
But Ehrenfeld said Hizballah is not an independent organization and much of its money comes from criminal activities around the world.
In addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars that Hizballah receives from Iran, the organization also has a booming business in illegal drug trade, counterfeit goods, bank robberies and fraud.
Hizballah runs a flourishing drug trade in the tri-border region in Latin America (Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina) and in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, where Syria is heavily involved in the growing of hashish and production of heroine, said Ehrenfeld, who is the author of "Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed and How to Stop It."
In addition, Hizballah is involved in crime, counterfeiting CDs, DVDs and clothing as well as in bank robberies and fraud. Its illegal activities were estimated to net Hizballah some $6 billion annually, about three years ago, Ehrenfeld said.
Hizballah also raises money through charities and Internet websites, although many were closed after Aug. 12, she added.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Treasury designated one of those charities - The Islamic Resistance Support Organization - as a key fundraising organization for Hizballah.
"While some terrorist-supporting charities try to obscure their support for violence, IRSO makes no attempt to hide its true colors," said Stuart Levey, Treasury's Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence (TFI).
"IRSO's fundraising materials present donors with the option of sending funds to equip Hizballah fighters or to purchase rockets that Hizballah uses to target civilian populations," Levey said.Linking the group to Hizballah locks the IRSO out of the U.S. financial system by freezing its assets in the U.S. and prohibiting Americans from dealing with the group.
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