As war recedes, Israelis hold on to calm

Israeli troops quit Lebanon, but chances for lasting peace are shaky

October 01, 2006|By John Murphy | John Murphy,Sun Foreign Reporter

SHTULA, Israel -- Six weeks after the end of the Israel-Hezbollah war, residents of this small farming community in the rugged hills along the Lebanese border say they are getting their lives back to normal.

They've repaired their mortar-damaged chicken coops and houses. One farmer wounded by a Hezbollah rocket is walking with the help of crutches. And the once-artillery-shattered evenings are quiet, the silence broken only by the music from an ice cream truck making its rounds.

Israel withdrew the last of its troops from Lebanon early today, the army said, fulfilling a key condition of the U.N. cease-fire that ended a monthlong war with Hezbollah guerrillas. Military officials said the last soldier left Lebanon just after 2:30 a.m. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the news media.

The Israeli withdrawal marks a key step in the Aug. 14 cease-fire agreement, which halted 34 days of fighting between Hezbollah guerrillas and Israeli forces. More than 800 Lebanese and more than 150 Israelis were killed in the fighting, according to the Associated Press.

Yet many here doubt whether the U.N. forces and the Lebanese Army will be enough to stop Hezbollah from rearming and plotting another attack against Israel.

"As far as I know Lebanon, as a soldier who fought there and a resident who lived along the border for more than 30 years, Lebanon is still fertile ground for terrorist operations against Israel," said Peretz Eliyahu, 47, one of the original settlers of this community established in 1969 by Jewish families who emigrated from Kurdistan in northern Iraq.

The 50 families here speak from experience. Just a few hundred feet from their homes, near a peach orchard, Hezbollah fighters launched an ambush on a passing Israeli military patrol on July 12, killing three soldiers, abducting two others and triggering the month-long war.

"There was a strong noise, and the whole house shook," Eliyahu's wife, Illana, recalled. Rockets and mortar shells fell near the Israelis' homes.

Israeli tanks and troops arrived in pursuit of the kidnappers. Apache helicopters hovered overhead, firing missiles into Lebanon.

Shtula's women and children fled to southern Israel, out of range of Hezbollah's rockets. Reunited with his family, Eliyahu sat in his yard last week, predicting that in a year or two war may return to this border region.

"There is not going to be a new order in Lebanon. This war has not produced any change," said Eliyahu, voicing a common feeling in Israel.

But Israel defense officials disagree.

While Israel did not achieve the goal of crushing Hezbollah or winning the release of the two kidnapped soldiers, the war resulted for the first time in Lebanon's agreeing to deploy its army in south Lebanon, Israeli defense officials say. A newly expanded U.N. force - with troops from Europe - will bring greater attention to any violations of the cease-fire.

"It's a step forward," said a senior Israeli defense official.

Disagreements about the deployment of U.N. and Lebanese forces and their rules of engagement have delayed the final withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon.

The U.N. cease-fire resolution calls for an international force of 15,000 troops to patrol south Lebanon along with Lebanese soldiers. It also requires that Israeli forces withdraw and that south Lebanon be weapons-free except for arms approved by the Lebanese government.

Israel is demanding that the peacekeeping forces disarm Hezbollah, a task that both the U.N. and Lebanese forces are reluctant to undertake. Israeli, Lebanese and U.N. officials say they are working on a solution to these problems.

Of greater concern, Israeli defense officials say, is Israel's border with Syria, which Israeli officials fear will continue to be used as a corridor to re-supply Hezbollah with rockets and missiles. Israel is pushing U.N. forces and the Lebanese Army to enforce strict controls at all border-crossing points.

If not, an Israeli defense official added, "we might find ourselves in a fiasco and all that we are trying to achieve will disappear."

In the days after the cease-fire, truck convoys loaded with rockets and missiles crossed into Lebanon from Syria, he said. Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah boasted during a huge rally in Beirut last month that his Shiite Muslim group was stronger than before the war and possessed 20,000 rockets. Nasrallah balked at suggestions that the Lebanese government would disarm him.

Although residents remain concerned about what will happen in Lebanon, they are equally wary of the turmoil within their own borders.

Israelis were startled that their storied military force did not deliver a clear and quick defeat to Hezbollah guerrillas, who put up fierce resistance and managed to launch about 4,000 rockets into Israel during the war.

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