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One Year Later, Israelis Still Debating Wisdom of Withdrawal from Lebanon

Israeli security forces were on high alert along the northern border this week after Hezbollah threatened to mark the one-year anniversary of the Israeli troop withdrawal from southern Lebanon by attacking the Jewish state.

In a sign of that tension, the Israeli air force on Thursday shot down a Lebanese civilian plane after it entered Israeli airspace and the pilot ignored orders to identify himself.

The French news agency in Beirut said the pilot was a student who left his instructor on the tarmac and took off without authorization.

Israel said the air force used internationally recognized signals to give the pilot an opportunity to identify himself. When he failed to do so, the Cessna plane was regarded as a hostile aircraft and was shot down shortly before it would have reached Israel’s densely populated center.

The pilot was killed when the plane went down along the Mediterranean coast north of Netanya.

There was no immediate word on whether the plane was carrying weapons or explosives.

Israel also said shots were fired Wednesday night at Israeli troops near the Fatma Gate, a former crossing into Lebanon near Metullah. There were no Israeli injuries.

Thursday’s plane incident came exactly a year after the Israel Defense Force completed its withdrawal from southern Lebanon on May 24, 2000, locking a border gate behind the last troops.

The withdrawal ended a 22-year military presence that had grown increasingly unpopular in Israel and claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Israeli soldiers.

The withdrawal marked the fulfillment of then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s 1999 campaign pledge to “bring the boys home.”

After the withdrawal, however, Hezbollah gunmen filled the power vacuum that was created in the region.

Calls from both Israel and the United Nations for the Lebanese government to deploy its troops along the border went unheeded, with Beirut in effect leaving it up to Hezbollah and its Syrian sponsors to determine the degree of tension and violence along the border.

Within days after the Israeli withdrawal, Hezbollah called on the Jewish state to withdraw from an area known as Shabaa Farms, vowing it would continue its attacks until Israel gave the area to Lebanon.

However, the United Nations certified the Israeli withdrawal as complete and rejected the Lebanese claim to Shabaa Farms, saying it was Syrian territory that Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Last October, Hezbollah kidnapped three Israeli soldiers in a cross-border attack in the Shabaa Farms area. Shortly afterward, the group kidnapped an Israeli businessman whom it accused of being an intelligence agent.

A year later, Barak’s decision to withdraw troops is still controversial here.

Some applaud the move, saying it spared Israeli lives — and spared Israel international criticism over its occupation of a security zone inside Lebanon. These supporters only wish the withdrawal had happened sooner.

Others say that Israel’s Arab neighbors — far from viewing the withdrawal as a move toward peace — saw it as a sign of Israeli weakness. These critics say the Palestinians were emboldened by Hezbollah’s success in forcing out Israeli troops — a leading cause, they claim, of the violent Palestinian uprising that began last September.

Science Minister Matan Vilnai, a former IDF deputy chief of staff who was also a minister in Barak’s government at the time of the pullback, defended the move.

Vilnai said this week that it is too early to have a historical perspective on the withdrawal, but the events of the past year appear to show that it was the right decision.

“I think the process was correct strategically. When we look at the past year, all the incidents that occurred in a year along the border would have occurred in the course of a week when we were in the security zone,” Vilnai told Israel Radio.

Regarding recent Hezbollah threats to launch further attacks on Israel, Vilnai said they are to be taken seriously, but “there is a big gap between a threat and action.”

For residents living on Israel’s northern border, a single word comes up when they are asked about the past 12 months — quiet.

After years under threat of Katyusha rocket attacks and daily life conducted against a backdrop of artillery booms across the border, the troop withdrawal brought a calm that the region had not felt in decades.

The situation room in Kiryat Shmona — a border city often targeted by Hezbollah rockets — spends more time these days addressing mundane issues of municipal life than monitoring the state of bomb shelters.

But an undercurrent of tension remains among area residents, fueled by an awareness that everything could change in a moment.

A recent fireworks display during a students’ field day set off a flurry of inquiries by worried residents.

“Every small noise, we are concerned and check into. The children especially are afraid. There are situations when the children ask to sleep with us,” resident Shimon Biton said. “It was a relatively quiet year, but a year which is under test.”

The local tourist industry, devastated when fighting flared along the border, is starting to revive. Guest houses and hotels expected 80 percent to 90 percent occupancy over the Shavuot holiday weekend.

But residents of communities that sit right on the border, such as Zarit and Margaliot, complain that tourists have not yet returned. Local leaders note that a single holiday weekend is not enough to sustain the regional economy.

Shlomo Buhbut, head of a group representing communities on the northern confrontation line, complained that with rockets no longer falling on the area, the government is shifting its priorities elsewhere.

“The government is already talking about cutting budgets. What the region needs is sustained investment and development,” he told Israel Radio.

Still, according to the radio, 100 new families moved to Kiryat Shmona during the past year — reversing the outward flight during the period of rocket attacks.

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