TEL AVIV (Sep. 5)
Israeli soldiers were safely dug in on their new defense line along the Awali River in south Lebanon this week after successfully completing a hazardous withdrawal Saturday night and Sunday from the Shouf mountains and the vicinity of Beirut without a hitch and without casualties or accidents.
But fierce new fighting developed in the wake of the Israeli departure between Christian Phalangists and Druze and Syrian-backed leftist forces for control of the evacuated area. Two U.S. marines of the multinational force were slightly injured in the shelling of the Beirut airport area Monday. They brought to four the number of marine casualties sustained in the renewed fighting which coincided with the Israeli pullback.
REJECT LAST MINUTE APPEAL BY THE U.S.
Defense Minister Moshe Arens, praising the “perfect order” in which the Israeli withdrawal was carried out, disclosed at a press conference Sunday night that Israel had received — and rejected — a last minute appeal by the U.S. to delay its departure from central Lebanon.
This was confirmed by Administration spokesmen in Washington. Israel had agreed to two earlier requests by the U.S. to postpone the pullback, one as recently as Sunday, August 28, the day Premier Menachem Begin announced his intention to resign.
But the latest request, relayed to Jerusalem Saturday through the Lebanese government came too late for consideration, Arens said. The Israeli soldiers “were already packed up and ready to move, ” he explained.
The Lebanese army has not yet attempted to move into the Shouf mountains area abandoned by Israel where Druze and Phalangists are battling. The Lebanese forces are confining themselves to attempts to secure control of the coastal road linking Beirut with the new advance Israeli position at a bridge over the Awali River, a few kilometers north of Sidon.
IDF’S TWO OBJECTIVES
Arens said at his press conference that the Israel Defense Force now has two objectives — to try to ensure that no hostile elements enter the evacuated area, and to avoid harm to local residents. He said the IDF pullback during Saturday night through difficult terrain was carried out “in perfect order. It was a well planned operation and well implemented, in the best tradition of the IDF. Well done to the Chief of Staff and his officers.”
OBLIQUE WARNING TO SYRIA
The Defense Minister gave an oblique warning to Syria not to attempt to take over the territory abandoned by Israeli forces. He said Damascus was well aware that this would be unacceptable to Israel and he was confident that the Syrians would refrain from any provocation.
An army spokesman reported Saturday night that while Israeli armor and troops were withdrawing, tanks were spotted moving out of Syrian-controlled territory on the Beirut-Damascus highway in the direction of Beirut. Two Israel Air Force jets protecting the rear echelons of the Israeli column flew three “strafing sorties” against the tanks as a “warning”, he said.
The tanks were not identified and the results of the sorties were not disclosed. Chief of Staff Gen. Moshe Levy, who appeared at the press conference with Arens, said the tanks were not manned by Syrian soldiers and that no Syrian intervention was evident during the Israeli withdrawal.
REGRET OVER LACK OF ACCORD
Arens expressed regret that no agreement was reached between the Lebanese government and army and the Druze to end the fighting. Such an agreement was the objective of U.S. special envoy Robert McFarlane and it was to give him more time that Washington had urged Israel to delay its pullback.
“We hope that agreement will still be reached,” Arens said, “but the shooting we heard behind us does not indicate that this is near.” He said the requests that Israel delay its departure from central Lebanon were actually a compliment, indicating that everybody seemed to feel that only the Israeli presence prevented bloodshed.
Arens disclosed that some Israeli tanks and troops were evacuated from Lebanon by sea and taken directly to Israel. He said the IDF would remain in its new positions until Israel was certain that the Lebanese army could control all of its territory and prevent the movement of elements hostile to Israel.
(Appearing on a pre-taped interview on the ABC-TV “This Week With David Brinkley” program Sunday, Arens stressed that Israel could not stay in Lebanon indefinitely and that ultimate responsibility for peace, law and order rested with the Lebanese government and its army. He said the Israeli pullback was a “test” for the Lebanese forces.)
AWALI RIVER MARKS THE SECURITY ZONE
It was not know how many of the 20-25,000 Israeli troops in Lebanon were involved in the pullback. But the soldiers seemed relieved to be safely behind the Awali River. Some are back in Israel. The Awali River line, 28 miles north of the Israeli border, marks the security zone in south Lebanon.
The stated objective of the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in June, 1982 was to secure the zone after having driven Palestine Liberation Organization forces out of rocket and artillery range of towns and villages in northern Israel.
Even after the redeployment, the IDF remains in control of about 1,000 square miles of Lebanese territory with a population of 95,000 Palestinians, 65,000 Lebanese Christians, 30,000 Druze, 60,000 Sunni Moslems, and 270,000 Shiite Moslems, most of them resentful of the Israeli presence.