Preparations Underway for Israeli Troop Withdrawal from Lebanon

Israel appeared to be caught in a dilemma as preparations got underway for the first stage of its partial withdrawal of forces from south Lebanon, commencing tomorrow at sundown. The second phase will begin Friday. Israel is still far from convinced that the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), to which it will hand over areas in the eastern and central sectors of the front, is capable of preventing the return of Palestinian terrorists to the region.

Israel is also anxious to avoid a new confrontation with the United States over its operations in south Lebanon. Sources here noted that when Israeli forces invaded south Lebanon on March 15, in the aftermath of the March 11 terrorist assault, the U.S. demonstrated understanding for Israel’s need to establish a security belt near its borders.

But when the Israeli operation expanded a few days later to the banks of the Litani River, well beyond the area originally designated as a security belt, the U.S. Administration changed its attitude and initiated Security Council Resolution 425 which established UNIFIL and called for Israel’s immediate withdrawal. The resolution was adopted March 19.

Israel is less concerned with its relations with UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim who criticized the withdrawal plan as “inadequate.” Officials believe that Waldheim may have acted under Arab pressure and suffered from lack of communications with the UN supreme commander in the Middle East, Gen. Ensio Siilasvuo. Circles here stressed today that Israel’s withdrawal plan was agreed to by Siilasvuo but Waldheim may have been unaware of that.

VALUE OF UNIFIL QUESTIONED

The ultimate objective of Resolution 425 is to restore south Lebanon to the control of the Lebanese government and army. But until now the government in Beirut has been unable to exercise authority in the region. The dispatch of a few hundred gendarmerie is regarded as symbolic without any practical military value. The value of UNIFIL, which is still well below its mandated strength of 4000 men, is also questioned by Israel.

Israeli military sources noted that Norwegian UNIFIL units were forced by the terrorists to evacuate Kaukba village several days ago, though they have since reoccupied it. Nevertheless, if the terrorists manage to return to south Lebanon to resume incursions against Israel and the bombardment of Israeli border villages, the entire Lebanon operation will have been a waste.

For that reason, Israel has set no timetable for withdrawals beyond those to be carried out this week. Its troops will continue to occupy the western sector of the front and all areas adjacent to the border. This raises the likelihood however of new strains developing with Washington.

AREAS OF WITHDRAWALS CITED

Commencing tomorrow, Israel will hand over villages in the eastern and northeastern sectors to UNIFIL, including the Khardaleh Bridge area and the small localities of Habariyeh, Farade and Suba. Israel will remain for the time being in the Christian villages of Marj Ayoun, Kle’a and El-Khiam.

On Friday, withdrawal will begin from the eastern edge of the central sector, a rectangular shaped salient of some 50 square kilometers. It includes Taibeh village, a former terrorist stronghold within easy artillery range of Manera and Misgav Am, Israeli villages in Upper Galilee.

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