JERUSALEM -- Fearful that the Lebanese government is trying to undermine its self-proclaimed security zone in southern Lebanon, Israel expanded yesterday 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 the coordinator of Israeli operations in southern Lebanon.
Lebanese fishermen have complained that Israeli gunboats fire on them and force them to sail no more than a half-mile from shore. They have said 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," Mr. Hariri said in a televised speech. He called Israel's recent military actions in Lebanon "political, military and economic terrorism."
But Mr. Lubrani dismissed Mr. Hariri's charges as "hogwash." He said that Israel's blockade, which began with Tyre and Sidon but was extended north yesterday, 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 southern Lebanon.
"For some months now, the government has been harassing [South Lebanese] in every possible way," Mr. Lubrani said in a telephone interview. 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, Mr. Lubrani said, and, as a result, the South Lebanese "cannot make a living."
Israel set up the 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 Lebanese Army (SLA), 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 exchanged artillery fire almost daily.
Israeli analysts say that Hezbollah is mounting the attacks to try to demoralize the SLA.