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Beirut bombing halts air traffic

Kai Ryssdal Jul 13, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: We begin somewhere else today. The Middle East, of course. Where Israeli jets have bombed the airport in Beirut. And gunboats have shut down the city’s harbor. Israel’s reacting to cross-border raids earlier this week by the militant group Hezbollah. And the shelling today of Israel’s biggest port. We reached Wall Street Journal reporter Karby Leggett in Cairo. I asked him whether Israel has mounted a full economic blockade.

KARBY LEGGETT: They are attempting that. The Syrian border is still open and it will be difficult for Israel to shut that off completely. But the sea and the main, international airport are effectively closed.

RYSSDAL: The Lebanese economy has had a good couple of years since the civil war ended and since the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon was ended five or six years ago. What do you think this might do?

LEGGETT: Well, it’s bad news for the economy, obviously. I mean, already there’s been many roads and bridges destroyed. The international airport’s three runways have been bombed. Tourism is a pillar of the Lebanese economy and it really is booming. Restaurants are full, bars are full, hotels are fully booked. It’s a crucial moment for Lebanon. They’re carrying about $40 billion in debt, which is equal to roughly 200 percent of their economic output. And, if they lose the revenue from the tourism sector, it is possible that they could be looking at a debt default, which could have implications for the government.

RYSSDAL: Let me get back to the blockade for a minute. Israel is blocking the port of Beirut. It’s not letting sea traffic in. Perhaps there are weapons in there. We don’t know. But certainly what else is in there is fuel and food for the civilian population.

LEGGETT: Yeah, indeed, it’s going to have an enormous impact. especially if it’s a prolonged blockade. I think what Israel’s point in this operation is, is that Hezbollah last year stood in elections and decided to join the Lebanese government. And Israel’s position is that the actions of Hezbollah are essentially actions of the government. And so, it is trying to put pressure on Lebanon to take action against Hezbollah. But the impact of the military operations on the civilian population is substantial.

RYSSDAL: They are lining up for food and for gas — the same things they did during the Lebanese civil war 15 years ago.

LEGGETT: Well, the Israeli chief of staff said yesterday that they were prepared to wind the clock back about 20 years, and that remains a distinct possibility.

RYSSDAL: Karby Leggett is the Jerusalem bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. We reached him today in Cairo. Mr. Leggett, thanks a lot for your time.

LEGGETT: Thank you.

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