As the last of the Israeli troops in southern Lebanon hurriedly completed their withdrawal Tuesday night — just 48 hours after they began — Baruch Peretz and his four young daughters slept in their bomb shelter in Kiryat Shemona while their mother in Manhattan worried whether they were right to move to the northern Israeli town four months ago.
“I have horrible thoughts,” said Tami Peretz. “Is it correct to raise kids there? Just 10 minutes away from Kiryat Shemona kids are not suffering.”
Peretz, who was here to attend a dinner for Elem/Youth in Distress for which she works, said that when her family was looking to buy a home in Kiryat Shemona, “the first question we asked was whether it had a bomb shelter.”
Her organization works with teenagers 13 to 18 who have problems of adolescence. Peretz said a Hezbollah-launched Katyusha rocket attack on Kiryat Shemona two years ago had resulted in youngsters “showing horrible signs of distress, like running away from home, refusing to eat and wetting their pants. We had a hell of a lot of kids who came to us.”
But her husband said by phone that he did not regret the move. And as bombs exploded in the distance — Israeli troops apparently were blowing up equipment being left behind — Baruch Peretz said he planned to stay until Friday or Saturday to see if the situation had stabilized enough for residents to leave their shelters. If it did not, he said, he planned to drive to Tel Aviv and stay with relatives.
“The kids are getting nervous and my family is telling us to come,” Baruch said.
Whether the Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces are content to remain in southern Lebanon or push farther south into Israel itself is unclear. Hezbollah this week shelled a contested area at the foot of Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights known as Shebaa Farms, and its leaders vowed to continue fighting Israel until it withdraws from that area as well. But Israel’s consul general in New York, Shmuel Sisso, insisted that Shebaa Farms is Syrian territory that Israel will not vacate until a peace deal with Syria is reached.
The United Nations is expected to side with Israel and certify a complete Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, in a satellite address Monday to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, said Israel holds the Lebanese and Syrian governments responsible for keeping the border quiet.
Israeli Army Chief of Staff Shaul Mafaz warned that Israel would be prepared to attack Syrian targets in Lebanon if violence flared. Dennis Ross, the special U.S, envoy to the Middle East, said he also believed that “when the Israelis are out, there is no justification whatsoever for there to be violence. The Lebanese ought to focus on the reconstruction of Lebanon.”
And the chairman of an American pro-peace process group, Michael Sonnenfeldt of the Israel Policy Forum, said he too supported a strong Israeli response if Hezbollah launched attacks on northern Israel.
At least half of Kiryat Shemona’s 20,000 residents fled south Monday when air raid sirens sounded at 4 p.m. after it became clear that Israel’s hoped-for orderly withdrawal had collapsed. Israeli military officials had planned for months how best to extricate troops from Israel’s self-imposed nine-mile wide security belt in southern Lebanon, while at the same time ensuring that Hezbollah terrorists would not fill the vacuum.
Israel wished to withdraw in accordance with UN Resolution 425, according to the country’s UN ambassador, Yehuda Lancry. That resolution calls for Lebanese authorities and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon to move into the area once Israeli troops pulled out and its South Lebanese Army allies were disarmed with assurances they would be treated in accordance with international law, Lancry said.
“But the facts in the field in the last two days disturbed this schedule,” he said Tuesday.
Lancry was referring to the large numbers of SLA members who abandoned their posts and fled, opening the door to a flood of Lebanese civilians, with Hezbollah terrorists in civilian clothes mingling among them. They swarmed into the SLA-abandoned villages — some to be reunited with relatives for the first time since Israel moved into the zone 22 years ago. Villagers greeted them by throwing rice and rose petals. Hezbollah forces then moved in and confiscated the Israeli weapons, munitions and equipment — including tanks — the Israel-sponsored SLA left behind.
It was an ignominious end to an Israeli occupation that had cost the lives of 950 Israeli soldiers in an often futile attempt to keep terrorists from bombing Israel’s northern communities.
“The tragedy is over,” Barak told army radio as the last troops were pulling out. During his election campaign last year he had pledged to “bring the boys home” within a year.
But the timing and speed of the pullout caught everyone by surprise, including the United Nations, which did not have time to properly deploy.
Barak had warned that stepped-up Hezbollah attacks in recent weeks were designed to give the impression that its estimated 600 troops had chased out Israel’s mighty military. That was the approach the Arab newspapers took throughout the Middle East, and the Israeli press wasn’t far behind.
“A Day of Humiliation,” read one headline in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot.
“Caught with our pants down,” blared another.
Maariv, another daily, ran the headline, “Memories of Saigon.” Columnist Hemi Shalev wrote that the pictures of the Israeli troop withdrawal would be “seared into Israeli memories just as the picture of the last helicopter leaving the rooftop of the American embassy in Saigon has become part of the American collective memory.”
Public opinion polls showed two-thirds of Israelis favored the withdrawal, but in the northern Israeli town of Metulla, Sylvia Gur said she and her neighbors did not.
“People are very apprehensive,” she said. “Before the army [established the zone in 1985], there was a lot of Palestinian terrorism and a lot of casualties. So we are very nervous. The whole thing now rests on diplomacy and negotiations, and you can’t tell which way things will go. There is a nursery school that was just built here, but nobody has signed up for next year because it is exposed to the Lebanese side.”
Local newspapers reportedly are filled with homes for sale, but Gur said: “I don’t think there is a big buying market.”
By the time the Israeli troop withdrawal was complete, half of the 2,500-man SLA force reportedly had surrendered to Hezbollah forces. Others had torn off their uniforms and tried to blend in with the populace, while the rest sought refuge in Israel.
By Tuesday, more than 3,000 former SLA members and their families had crossed the border into Israel and were being cared for at a makeshift site at Lake Kinneret. Israeli Interior Minister Natan Sharansky met with them and told reporters that Israel owed a “very strong, deep, moral debt to them.”
Sharansky said Israel would issue them work permits and tourist visas, and help those who wished to relocate to another country.
Israel plans to examine requests for citizenship on a case-by-case basis, and those interested in staying in Israel would be given government subsidies for apartment rentals. It was also reported that Israel’s largest charity, Na’amat, was asking Israelis to donate food and clothing for them.
Lancry said that “one of the interesting outcomes of the current disorder is the self-disbanding and self-disarmament of the SLA.” Some of its leaders had vowed never to give up and to continue fighting even after Israeli troops withdrew.
In addition to the disbanding of the SLA, Lancry noted, the UN Security Council demanded that nearly 150 Lebanese held by the SLA in the Khiam prison be released. That too was accomplished Tuesday when an angry mob broke down the doors of the SLA-abandoned facility and freed the prisoners, some of whom had been held 15 years.
All that was left as a prerequisite for the 4,500 UNIFIL troops to take an active peacekeeping role in the zone, Lancry said, was for Israel to declare it had withdrawn to the international boundary. He said the UN troops then would fly over the border to verify that claim. Early Wednesday, the last of the Israeli troops crossed the border into Israel without injury.
Lancry noted that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had called for an additional 3,500 troops in the area, which he said he expected in the next several weeks.
Lancry pointed out that the withdrawal had been carried out relatively peacefully, although there was a report that five Lebanese civilians were killed and more than 30 injured Monday. With a complete withdrawal, he said, “there is no reason for any armed elements in Lebanon to try to attack Israel. If that happens, we will respond with all of our power.”
Ross, the U.S. Mideast envoy, said the Clinton administration has made it clear that the “door to the Syrian track is not closed.” But he said the “process is brittle because there is no relationship” like there is between the Palestinians and Israelis. Consequently, “gaps [that] are not that wide” are difficult to bridge, he said.
Regarding the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, Ross said that for the first time he has detected a genuine desire to tackle the tough issues and not just conduct “probing exercises.”
“The object at this stage is to produce a framework agreement that will be an end-of-conflict agreement,” said Ross. “And I think it is possible to achieve that in the next couple of months.
“The talks show real promise and clearly there is a potential [for an agreement]. Obviously there are real differences that have to be overcome, but they are engaged in a serious negotiating process now.”
Asked if it was possible to reach a peace agreement before Sept. 13 — the date Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat has promised to declare a Palestinian state — Ross appeared hopeful. He said if there was sufficient movement to justify a summit meeting in coming weeks, he hoped such a meeting would resolve all remaining issues.
Once-secret talks in Sweden, which were suspended last week in the wake of Palestinian violence in the streets of the West Bank and Gaza, should resume within days, according to one of the negotiators, Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. He said gaps in positions were narrowing and might be close enough to warrant a summit meeting next month.
An Israeli government spokesman, Moshe Fogel, said the Palestinian street violence, in which Palestinian policemen shot at Israeli troops while youths threw stones and rocks, had “backfired.” He said that as the tensions in the territories grew, “even the left wing said that if this is the Palestinian response to peace, we have to rethink our approach.”
Ross said that for the talks to succeed there had to be an “environment that supports and makes possible success.”
“It is very important that calm was largely restored. It is important to press ahead because the fundamental realities of both sides have not changed,” he said. “There is an opportunity that should not be lost. The stakes are high but there is a moment here that should be seized.”