TEL AVIV (Aug. 1)
Civilians in both northern Israel and southern Lebanon began returning to their homes Sunday as a U.S.-brokered cease-fire took hold along the border between the two countries.
The cease-fire, which went into effect Saturday evening, was arranged by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who spent hours in telephone conversations from Washington negotiating with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and leaders in Lebanon and Syria.
The Syrians and Lebanese, in turn, acted as go-betweens to put pressure on Hezbollah guerrillas operating in southern Lebanon.
Additional talks were held over the weekend between the U.S. coordinator for the Middle East peace talks, Dennis Ross, and Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s ambassador to Washington.
The talks have resulted in a verbal understanding that Hezbollah will refrain from firing Katyusha rockets into Israel, and Israel will cease its artillery bombardment of guerrilla strongholds and villages in southern Lebanon.
But if such an understanding was reached, Hezbollah was not admitting it Sunday.
The Iranian-supported guerrilla organization stressed it would not cease its military activities against the Israel Defense Force or South Lebanon Army, in the hope of trying to force Israel to withdraw from Lebanon completely.
The Shi’ite fundamentalist group insisted that it had never agreed to stop rocket attacks against Israel and that “all options remain open” in dealing with the Jewish state.
LONGER-TERM SOLUTION POSSIBLE?
There were also contradictory reports about a Syrian consent to halt the transfer of Iranian missiles through Damascus to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon.
And initial reports that Washington had agreed to remove Syria from a U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism, in exchange for Syrian cooperation, were later denied by U.S. officials in conversations with American Jewish organizations.
Israeli officials, for their part, praised the U.S. role in orchestrating at least a temporary halt to the exchange of fire across the border.
And hinting at a possible far-reaching deal, Rabin said at a news conference that if things quiet down, the various parties might well be able to find a solution “for the entire problem of south Lebanon.”
Fleshing out this hint, Israeli leaders are saying that if Hezbollah were completely disarmed, Israel would be willing to reconsider its stationing of forces in the security zone it has set up along the border in southern Lebanon.
For now, the cease-fire enables Christopher to carry out his planned peacemaking trip to the Middle East this week in a calmer atmosphere and without having to devote time to persuading the parties to halt their fire before the talks can resume.
The secretary, who was originally supposed to arrive in the region over the weekend, now plans to hold meetings in Cairo on Monday and in Israel the following day.
The cease-fire, at this point, is still a shaky one.
Although the guns and Katyusha rockets fell silent at 6 p.m. Saturday, residents of Israeli towns and villages along the border with Lebanon — from Nahariya on the coast to Kiryat Shmona and Metulla in the Galilee panhandle — were instructed to remain in their bomb shelters and structurally strengthened security rooms for a few hours more.
The delay, coming on top of an entire week underground, illustrated the fragility with which Israel regarded the halt to the shooting.
But during the following 24 hours all was quiet, except for one incident of mortar rounds fired from north of the security zone at an SLA post just beyond the zone. The mortar fire caused neither casualties nor damage.
The SLA men returned the fire, but it was not regarded as a serious breach of the cease-fire.
REFUGEES STREAM BACK HOME
In Israel, Galilee residents finally left the shelter of their homes Sunday to breathe fresh air for a change.
And while children have resumed their outdoor games and adults have gone back to their normal chores, government officials are examining damage to property after days of Hezbollah rocket attacks.
The IDF has begun to withdraw the reinforcements it sent into the security zone, including the heavy mobile artillery which pounded targets well inside Lebanon for the past week, as well as the lighter ground equipment shifted in at the end of the week in preparation for a possible ground assault.
And inside Lebanon, scores of thousands from among the more than 250,000 residents forced to flee their homes to escape the IDF artillery and air force bombardments of Hezbollah bases were reported from Beirut to be streaming back by car, truck, horse-drawn carts, tractors and even bicycles to begin the reconstruction of their damaged homes.
The coastal road leading south from Beirut was reported Sunday to be one vast traffic jam.
Reports from Lebanon spoke of thousands of homes destroyed in the Israeli air and artillery bombardments of hundreds of villages, many of which were completely destroyed.
According to sources from the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, 130 Lebanese residents were killed and over 500 injured in the IDF and SLA activities.
UNIFIL estimates that over 250 Katyusha rockets were fired at Israel, half of them falling inside Galilee and the others in the security zone.
Two Israeli civilians and a soldier were killed by the missiles, and some dozens were reported wounded.
UNIFIL reported that IDF gunners had fired about 26,000 artillery shells last week, and some 1,000 bombs, rockets and air-to-ground missiles had been launched by Israeli air force aircraft and assault helicopters.
The figures were given to the Foreign Ministry at a meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday between senior UNIFIL commanders and Uri Savir, director-general of the Foreign Ministry.
The meeting was held to discuss with the UNIFIL command the wounding of six international soldiers, as well as damage caused to several UNIFIL positions by IDF artillery and aerial fire.
Savir expressed Israel’s regrets at the casualties and damage, stressing that the IDF had done everything possible to avoid harming the international force.