JERUSALEM -- Israel's Cabinet unanimously decided yesterday to end the nation's 18-year occupation of South Lebanon by July, opening an uncertain new chapter in the violent history of the area.
Israeli officials said the pullout would occur even without progress in Mideast peace talks, but warned that once their troops are moved south of the border, the Jewish state would react harshly to any cross-border attacks on its northern towns by hostile forces in Lebanon, such as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas.
"I don't recommend that anyone test our reaction," Prime Minister Ehud Barak said.
Yesterday's action was the first Cabinet decision on Barak's election promise to get out of Lebanon within a year of taking office.
The pledge was driven by public weariness here with a lengthy and bloody involvement in Lebanon that has claimed more than 1,200 Israeli lives since 1982. Through the conflict, thousands of Lebanese civilians have been killed.
"It's an end to the tragedy," Barak told reporters. "We are bringing the boys home."
Although the decision marks a retreat, Israel is trying to use it to gain important leverage in peace talks with Syria, which controls Lebanon, with the Lebanese themselves, and against Hezbollah.
For Syria, its strategy against Israel would be undermined by an Israeli pullout. Syria has encouraged Hezbollah to launch cross-border attacks from Lebanon into northern Israel as a way to pressure the Israelis to return the Golan Heights, the Syrian plateau that Israel has occupied since the 1967 Mideast war. Syrian-Israeli peace talks broke off in January, when Israel would not guarantee a full Golan withdrawal as a precondition.
For Hezbollah, a withdrawal would deprive it of a moral justification for fighting Israel in its effort to end the occupation in Lebanon.
And for Lebanon, an Israeli pullout would fulfill Beirut's desire at the expense of its sponsor-state, Syria, which has about 35,000 troops in Lebanon.
Israel hopes for a settlement with Syria that would greatly ease the withdrawal by allowing for a border agreement between Lebanon and Israel and making Syria and Lebanon responsible for controlling Hezbollah.
"Our continued stay there is like an alibi to Hezbollah, legitimizing those who operate it and support it -- Iran and Syria," Foreign Minister David Levy said.
"If Syria wants peace, our decision should prod it to go back to the talks," he said, adding that Israel was sending a signal "that we shall not be hostages to Syrian refusal."
Lebanon's prime minister, Salim al-Hoss, welcomed Israel's decision yesterday, but said he had always hoped for an agreement because he didn't trust Israeli intentions.
No immediate official reaction came from Syria. But last week, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa compared a unilateral Israeli withdrawal to committing "suicide."
"If they want to pull out unilaterally, let them do that," he told the London-based Arabic daily Al Hayat. "They will bear the consequences and should never use this possibility as a means of pressure against us."
Israel has occupied part of southern Lebanon since it invaded the country in 1978 to quell attacks by Palestinians who were using Lebanon as a base. After its second invasion, in 1982, it kept a larger occupation zone, up to 16 kilometers deep and running the length of the border.
Since 1985, its main enemies there have been Shiite Hezbollah guerrillas, who in the past have fired rockets into northern Israel but now concentrate on carefully planned roadside bombings and hitting Israeli outposts with anti-tank missiles.
Yesterday's Cabinet decision made clear for the first time that Israel would withdraw with or without an agreement, something stated by officials in recent weeks but not formally decided.
"In the event that conditions will not be conducive to [Army] deployment in the framework of an agreement, the government will convene, at an appropriate time, to discuss the method of implementation" of withdrawal, the Cabinet stated.
The withdrawal poses complicated and risky problems for Israel. A key one is what to do about its Lebanese proxy force, the South Lebanese Army, whose 2,000 soldiers have performed most of the main occupation chores for Israel for many years.
The Cabinet pledged that "Israel will honor its commitment toward the South Lebanese Army and the civil aid forces in Southern Lebanon."
The withdrawal also poses new risks to northern Israel, deprived of a buffer zone of protection, and to the troops who will be protecting it.
The army's chief of staff asked rhetorically yesterday, "Shall we have to pay a dearer price with the lives of soldiers and civilians? That will be the question."
The Israeli move opens up a potential role for the United Nations to help ensure that withdrawal doesn't add to instability in the region.
By pulling its troops out, Israel would finally end its defiance of U.N. Resolution 425 of 1978, which required that Israel withdraw its forces from Lebanese territory.
That resolution established a U.N. force "for the purpose of confirming the withdrawal of Israeli forces, restoring international peace and security and assisting the Government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area."
That force, called UNIFIL, has been deployed in southern Lebanon but has been unable to fulfill most of its mission because of the Israeli occupation.
A spokesman for U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said the emphasis now was on restarting negotiations with Syria.
The Cabinet decision makes clear "Israel would prefer to withdraw as part of a negotiated settlement with Lebanon and Syria," Philip T. Reeker told journalists in the Czech Republic, where Albright was visiting.