TEL AVIV (Feb. 10)
In exactly eight more days — on February 18 — the Israel Defense Force will have completed the first stage of its withdrawal from south Lebanon. It will be deployed on a line along the Litani River, just north of Tyre and a kilometer or so from the Mediterranean coast, stretching northeast to Jezzine and then turning south toward the southernmost boundary of the Bekaa valley.
The timetable for the second and third stages of the withdrawal, aimed at eventually removing the IDF completely from Lebanese soil, is not so precise. The situation is “fluid”, military sources say and they are “playing it by ear.”
The third stage, for example, will bring the IDF to a strip about 10 kilometers north of the international boundary. This, military sources say, will be in “three, four or five months’ time.” While in principle the IDF is to be pulled back to the old frontier, the 10-kilometer “security strip” will remain under IDF control, whether by the permanent presence of Israeli troops or by proxies such as the Israel-armed and financed South Lebanon Army (SLA) is uncertain at this time.
The IDF does not appear to put much trust in the SLA and will maintain the option of operating within the frontier strip in whatever manner it deems necessary — ground troops, air or sea forces — to proect the towns and settlements of Upper Galilee.
The strip itself will serve as a “cordon sanitaire” to prevent terrorist incursions into Israel. Israel’s “symbolic presence” will be retained there “indefitely”, the sources say.
SOME QUESTIONS CROP UP
Certain questions crop up. What will be the fate of the Christian population in south Lebanon, a large minority in a sea of Shiite Moslems? The SLA is a Christian militia. No SLA forces will be left outside the 10-kilometer security belt after the third stage of the IDF withdrawal is underway. Individual SLA soldiers will be permitted to live in their home villages north of the belt, but not in uniform.
SLA units are being pulled out of Sidon before the IDF abandons the town in order to protect them from reprisals for having cooperated with Israel. But the Israelis admittedly have no solution to the problem of how to protect the entire Christian population in the evacuated areas.
Another question concerns the undisclosed number of prisoners held by the Israelis in the Ansar camp which will remain under IDF control only until the second stage of the withdrawal is completed.
Presumably, they will be available for exchange for Israeli prisoners held by the various terrorist groups affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization, or by the Syrians. Israel may exchange prisoners for information as to the fate of IDF soldiers still on the missing list.
AREAS TO BE EVACUATED
In the first stage of withdrawal, the IDF will evacuate some 500-square kilometers of territory, about five percent of the total area of what is known as south Lebanon. It will relinquish control over between 150,000-200,000 in habitants out of the total of between 600,000-900,000 who comprise the population of the region south of the Awali River.
The second stage of the withdrawal will involve a more massive movement of men than the first stage, but not of equipment. Most of the IDF’s equipment has already been moved, either to the new line on the Litani River or all the way back into Israel.