Israel exits most of Lebanon

The Lebanese government and Hezbollah say the move falls short. Other issues remain.

Published October 2, 2006

MARWAHEEN, Lebanon - The United Nations called Israel's pullout from nearly all of south Lebanon on Sunday "significant progress." But sources of friction remained, as Israel still holds the Lebanese part of a divided border village and its planes patrol Lebanon's airspace.

Both the Lebanese government and Hezbollah dismissed the withdrawal, which came more than six weeks after a cease-fire ended a 34-day conflict, as "incomplete" and demanded Israel stop what they called its violations of Lebanon's airspace, sea and land.

"What is required is a complete and comprehensive Israeli withdrawal and a halt to Israeli attacks on Lebanon," Information Minister Ghazi Aridi told the Associated Press. "So far, there is no final solution. Israel's pullout today is incomplete."

Senior Hezbollah official Sheik Hassan Ezzeddine warned that the Islamic militant group would resume attacks against Israel if it breached the U.N. cease-fire, which went into effect Aug. 14.

"The enemy must bear the consequences of its continued air, sea and land violations in Lebanon," said Ezzeddine, the group's top political official in south Lebanon.

The Israeli army withdrew from the entire south except for the village of Ghajar, said a statement by the commander of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL.

"Significant progress has been achieved today," Maj. Gen. Alain Pellegrini of France said. "I expect that they will leave this area in the course of the week, thus completing the withdrawal in line with the (U.N. Security Council) Resolution 1701."

The predawn pullout put a formal end to a nearly three-month troop incursion into Lebanon that began after Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three others in a July 12 cross-border raid.

It clears the way for the full deployment of UNIFIL's 15,000 soldiers who will police the border with an equal number of Lebanese army troops.

Israel has been gradually withdrawing troops since the cease-fire went into effect, from a peak of 30,000 during the fighting. The Israeli naval blockade of Lebanon ended more than three weeks ago.

U.N. Force spokesman Alexander Ivanko, speaking on Lebanon's privately owned Christian TV station LBC, said a deal on Ghajar was expected in several days. He did not elaborate.

But there were no scenes of jubilation Sunday similar to those that greeted the withdrawal of Israeli forces from south Lebanon in 2000 after an 18-year occupation.

In the border village of Marwaheen, the most visible of the 10 vacated positions, the Israelis had held a hilltop position before pulling out early Sunday.

The villagers went about their business in what is perhaps a reflection of the weariness felt by many in south Lebanon after decades of almost continuous fighting with Israel.

It also could be attributed to the uncertainty over the future.

"You can never know whether they will be back again," said Mohammed Musseileh, a 67-year-old farmer from Marwaheen, referring to the Israelis.

Witnesses said Israel began moving tanks and armored carriers out of pockets near the border after midnight. The roar of Israeli tanks could be heard on the Lebanese side as they moved across.

Israeli military officials said the last soldiers returned to Israel around 2:30 a.m. ahead of the onset of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, at sundown Sunday.

Israeli spokeswoman Miri Eisin said Israel was "now waiting for Lebanon to do its part under the truce."

Israel wants Lebanon to keep Hezbollah out of the south and disarm it, but Beirut has indicated it would not actively seek Hezbollah's weapons. The militant group said it would disarm only when a strong central government was in place.