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Jubilation, Confusion and Fear As Israel Calls Its Troops Home

May 24, 2000
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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 news media here this week amid an accelerated withdrawal that Prime Minister Ehud Barak said could be completed within days.

But the images 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.”

The escalating tension appeared to dash hopes for a quiet, orderly withdrawal from Lebanon that will end two decades there.

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

Barak was speaking hours after the Security Cabinet authorized him to set the pace of the government’s promised pullback from the southern Lebanon security zone.

The Israeli government had pledged to withdraw the troops by July 7.

But the emerging collapse of the SLA as the Israeli army began the initial transfer of outposts to its South Lebanon Army ally raised the likelihood that the withdrawal would be completed sooner, possibly within 10 days, to avoid further fighting.

In recent days, Hezbollah has established a foothold in dozens of Lebanese villages as SLA troops abandoned posts in the area, turned themselves in to Lebanese authorities, or sought asylum in Israel.

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 sought to play down concerns over the latest developments.

“We considered far more difficult scenarios,” Barak said, adding, “We are not facing the worst-case scenario right now.”

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.”

The Israeli army chief-of-staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, echoed these remarks in an appearance before the parliamentary foreign affairs and defense committee on Tuesday.

Mofaz was quoted as saying that Israel would retaliate harshly against any attacks on soldiers or civilians during the withdrawal. Such retaliation would include Lebanese infrastructure, Syrian interests and all other “sources of power” in Lebanon, he said.

Israel established the nine-mile-wide security zone 22 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.

In towns and villages along Israel’s northern border, residents emerged from bomb shelters where they had spent Monday night at the order of the Israel Defense Force.

The IDF said residents could resume their daily lives, but reminded them to be on alert for future directives, given the likelihood the security situation could change at any moment.

Many families, however, chose not to wait out the withdrawal. The Acre municipality, further south on the coast, said it was making arrangements to take in northern residents opting to seek calmer surroundings for the turbulent period.

And local officials in the northern settlements, including the largest town of Kiryat Shmona, fear the new situation will prompt a permanent exodus from the area.

The government last week approved a $1.6 billion aid package for economic, social and educational spending as part of an effort to reassure residents the area will continue to develop.

Meanwhile, along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, more than 1,000 SLA members and their families arrived at a holiday village set up for those seeking asylum.

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 insisted that Israel had not abandoned its South Lebanon Army 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.

Levy stressed that Israel also holds the Lebanese government directly responsible for maintaining quiet and order along the border following the Israeli withdrawal.

He also said Israel does not expect United Nations peacekeepers to be stationed in Lebanon to have any role in Israel’s defense.

At the United Nations, meanwhile, the Security Council adopted Secretary- General Kofi Annan’s recommendations for the U.N.’s role in the Israeli withdrawal, which calls for an increased peacekeeping force from 4,500 to 5,600, and ultimately, to 7,900.

The Security Council also said that Israel must pull back completely to within its internationally recognized border for its withdrawal to be officially “confirmed” by the international body.

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

Overall, Israeli diplomats said they were satisfied with the report.

“It gives clear demands of the Lebanese government to reassert its sovereignty over south Lebanon,” said one Israeli diplomat.

“It tells the Lebanese, `It’s your country, your responsibility.'”

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

“If they get cold feet, the situation will still not disappear,” said a senior Israeli diplomat.

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

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

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