Israel Fears Iran May Ship Hezbollah Arms via Beirut Port

Gov't sources: UNIFIL supervision at Beirut port insufficient to enforce embargo on arms shipments to Lebanon.

Israel is concerned that Iran might start moving weapons to Hezbollah by means of ships that anchor in the Beirut port, government sources in Jerusalem said.

The sources said oversight of marine vessels by UNIFIL (the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) was not efficient enough to enforce an embargo on weapons shipments into Lebanon and to pinpoint such shipments.

A government source in Jerusalem said Saturday that a year ago Israel transmitted to Germany, which at that time commanded UNIFIL's marine forces, that it suspected Iran would transfer weapons to Hezbollah by sea. The source said Israel voiced its concerns over the marine forces' insufficient control over the coast, and that Germany promised to increase its supervision.

"The problem is that UNIFIL's checks are not strict enough and are simply not serious," the source said. He said that UNIFIL soldiers do not physically examine the cargo in suspicious vessels, making do with comparing the vessel's name and registration number to the registration of the ships in the Beirut port.

"We are afraid that many ships registered in the port as carrying certain cargo are in fact carrying cargo of a totally different kind," the source said.

A response from UNIFIL could not be obtained over the weekend.

Iran concedes that it provides moral support and money to Hezbollah, but denies supplying it with weapons, which would be in violation of a UN resolution.

The Israel Defense Forces said last month that Iran is sending Hezbollah weapons by means of planes and trucks, passing through Turkish territory without the knowledge of the government in Ankara, and from there to Syria and Lebanon.

In the two years since the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah has been working to rehabilitate itself and increase its strength. The organization has considerably increased the number of rockets in its possession, and it now has tens of thousands of them.

According to the Israeli government source, Hezbollah has placed two thirds of these rockets south of the Litani River in the area under UNIFIL control, where the organization is not allowed to operate.

Over the past month, Israel has been lobbying in the UN to promote the release of a presidential statement by the Security Council regarding the ongoing smuggling of weapons to Hezbollah despite the arms embargo. However, the lack of consensus among the countries on the Security Council, along with American and French concerns over a worsening of the political crisis in Lebanon, have impeded progress on the statement.

About a month ago, responsibility for UNIFIL's marine forces was transferred from Germany to Italy. The marine force has been operating since October 2006, when European gun boats began patroling Lebanon's territorial waters, allowing Israel to lift the sea blockade it had enforced upon the outbreak of the war.

When the force, which consists of 11 ships and works closely alongside the Lebanese navy, locates a suspicious vessel, it sends it to be checked by the Lebanese authorities, usually at the Beirut port. The force has so far preliminarily checked 13,000 vessels, but has sent only 70 suspicious ones for comprehensive examination by the Lebanese authorities.