Jubilation, fear as Israel calls troops home


JERUSALEM, May 24 (JTA) — Israeli soldiers crossing the border from southern Lebanon this week took time out at at least one military outpost to hastily take down the Israeli flag and sing Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem.

The gesture was made, as one Israeli soldier put it, so “we would have the good feeling we are not leaving with our tail between our legs.”

At the border crossing, soldiers dropped their gear and pulled out cellular phones to call their parents.

“Just so my mom knows she can now sleep at night,” said one soldier.

The images of cheering and singing Israeli army soldiers crossing the northern border dominated the international news media this week as Israel unexpectedly completed a hasty withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

When Israeli soldiers locked the border gate behind them on Wednesday, it marked the fulfillment of Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s campaign pledge to “bring the boys home.”

The withdrawal ends a 22-year-old military presence that had grown increasingly unpopular in Israel and had claimed the lives of some 900 Israeli soldiers.

But the images of jubilation mixed with fear and confusion among Israel’s northern residents as gunfire erupted across the border and fundamentalist Hezbollah fighters occupied many of the border villages abandoned by fleeing members of Israel’s ally, the South Lebanon Army.

Some soldiers expressed mixed feelings about the pullback because of these concerns.

“My feeling is half-happy and half-sad,” one soldier was quoted as saying. “For me, the personal danger is reduced, but I feel as if I’m abandoning the security of Israel right now.”

Said another: “No soldier doubts for a second” that if he has to go back in “he will do so without question.”

Wednesday’s completed pullback came more than a month prior to the July 7 deadline set by the Israeli government.

Israel had envisioned a gradual pullback, with United Nations forces simultaneously taking up positions vacated by the Israel Defense Forces.

Instead, the redeployment was hastened by the rapid disintegration of Israel’s South Lebanon ally, which started last week when the IDF began handing over outposts to the SLA.

SLA troops abandoned those positions, some turning themselves in to Lebanese authorities, others fleeing south to Israel.

Hezbollah fighters and Lebanese who had previously left the area flowed in to take the region, a trend that snowballed this week.

By Tuesday, Hezbollah had reportedly established a presence in 90 percent of the nine-mile wide security zone, leaving the remaining IDF outposts in a vulnerable position.

Barak, authorized by his Security Cabinet Monday to accelerate the pace of the pullback, ordered the full withdrawal.

“This 18-year tragedy is over,” Barak declared on Army Radio on Tuesday, referring to the start of Israel’s war in Lebanon.

The proximity of some of the towns to Israeli settlements on the border has raised concern that the Iranian and Syrian-backed Hezbollah will use them to launch attacks on Israel.

Barak reiterated a stern warning to Hezbollah and all other players in Lebanon that Israel would respond severely to any attacks on its soldiers or citizens.

“I don’t advise any element in Lebanon, directly or indirectly, to test us,” he said. “They will pay a very heavy price.”

Barak delivered a similar message to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In a letter to Annan, Israel warned Syria and Lebanon not to encourage terrorist attacks on Israel from Lebanese territory.

Israel established its security zone 15 years ago to protect northern settlements from cross-border attacks. However, amid rising public pressure in the face of continuing Israeli casualties, Barak promised to pull out of the security zone, saying it no longer served its purpose.

“The Katyusha rockets continue to come, fired from outside the security zone,” Barak said, arguing that Israel’s military might is its primary defense and deterrent to future attacks.

At a news briefing Wednesday in the border town of Metullah, the army chief-of-staff rejected suggestions that Israel had beat a hasty and disorderly retreat from South Lebanon.

Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz called the pullback “historic,” and said IDF commanders had been prepared to carry out the withdrawal at a moment’s notice in a variety of situations.

He reiterated that there would be grave consequences for anyone who tried to test the IDF’s resolve to defend Israel’s borders and residents.

“If there are attempts to hurt the security of northern residents or IDF troops, we will hurt all sources of power in Lebanon including Syrian interests in Lebanon,” Mofaz said. “The planes are ready, the pilots are on alert, their skills are known, we have seen results in recent days.”

In northern Israel, residents emerged from bomb shelters hours after completion of the pullback. For the first time in days, the shuddering boom of artillery was silent, replaced by the uneasy quiet of what lies ahead.

In Kiryat Shmona, the largest northern town that has also borne the brunt of Katyusha rocket attacks from Lebanon, many residents had headed south — out of rocket range — in recent days.

The Kiryat Shmona mayor praised the IDF withdrawal for occurring without any Israeli troop casualty.

He called on the government to ensure that if town residents must again sit in shelters, Israel should make sure Lebanese residents do as well.

Residents of other northern villages, whose outer perimeters are now part of the border fence with Lebanon, expressed hope that the IDF redeployment, including fortified positions and an electronic fence, would prevent cross-border infiltration by terrorists.

On the Lebanese side of the border crossing north of Metullah, Hezbollah members, some of them armed, gathered Wednesday but later left the area.

Israeli officials were quoted as saying that the current show of force by Hezbollah in areas so close to the Israeli border were just demonstrations — and would subside.

Meanwhile, Israel completed arrangements Wednesday for some 5,000 SLA members and their families who crossed the border this week seeking asylum.

Israel Radio reported that almost all the families who had been gathered at a special center set up on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee had been settled in accommodations, mostly in kibbutzim and guest houses.

Interior Minister Natan Sharansky said Israel would do what it could to help the SLA members, including those interested in settling in other countries.

In Jerusalem, Foreign Minister David Levy on Tuesday insisted that Israel had not abandoned its ally.

“Israel has not abandoned the SLA. Our gates are open to them,” Levy told a news conference. He added that Israel expects the Lebanese government to protect the well-being of those SLA members who turned themselves in to authorities in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, U.N. special envoy Terje Larsen arrived in Lebanon Wednesday to assess the security situation.

If the United Nations confirms that the Israeli withdrawal adheres to U.N. Security Council resolution 425, calling for a full withdrawal from all Lebanese territories, it will clear the way for the stationing of an expanded contingency of U.N. forces in the area, known as UNIFIL.

Annan also already concluded that Israel may remain in Shabaa Farms, a small hamlet Lebanon had laid claim to. The report said the land belongs to Syria, but its return must be a subject of Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

How that U.N. peacekeeping force will take up its duties in light of the turn of events remains to be seen. The U.N. Security Council on Monday adopted Annan’s recommendation to increase its peacekeeping force in Lebanon from 4,500 to 5,600, and ultimately, to 7,900.

However, given the unstable situation on the ground, Israeli officials are concerned that some countries may be reluctant to send their troops into a potentially dangerous environment.

“The thing to do is to consolidate and reinforce its position in an area that’s troubled,” a senior Israeli diplomat said, on condition of anonymity.

“Because the situation is volatile, it is the responsibility of the international community to restore peace and stability. Having said that, the ultimate guarantee for the citizens of Israel is the Israel Defense Forces.”

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