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French Version

Israeli Army vacates almost all of South

But Troops stay behind in border village of Ghajar, raising fears of another Shebaa

The Israeli Army withdrew its soldiers from most of South Lebanon in the early hours of Sunday morning, except for a small border village, as part of a handover to the Lebanese Army and UN peacekeepers under a cease-fire deal that ended a war with Hizbullah fighters.

Crossing the frontier without fanfare before sunrise, Israeli troops padlocked the border gate at Zarit, close to where Hizbullah fighters seized two soldiers on July 12 before the conflict with Israel erupted.

In the darkness of the early morning, the headlights of Israeli tanks lit up clouds of dust as they crossed back into Israel past coils of barbed wire.

"The Israeli Army has withdrawn its troops from the south, except from the area around the village of Ghajar," United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) commander Major General Alain Pellegrini said in a statement.

"I expect they will leave this area in the course of the week, thus completing the withdrawal in line with Resolution 1701."

Southern villagers were delighted to see the troops go but there were few signs of celebration. Most are preoccupied with rebuilding their battered villages and shattered lives.

Around 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and 157 Israelis, mostly soldiers, died in the worst fighting since Israel's 1982 invasion.

The Israeli Army said Sunday that an "insignificant" number of troops will continue to operate in the Lebanese area of the village of Ghajar, until security arrangements in the divided town are agreed with UN and Lebanese forces.

Israel's failure to pull out of Ghajar has raised fears the already divided town will become another prolonged and disputed issue like the Shebaa Farms.

UNIFIL confirmed the pullout after conducting patrols in the area but said it was "in close contact with the Israeli Army to facilitate a speedy withdrawal from the area of Ghajar."

Lebanese armed forces are to begin their deployment in areas vacated by Israelis starting Monday, UNIFIL added.

But Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, chief of staff of the Israeli Army, warned that Israel would not hesitate to strike again if Hizbullah tried to rebuild its positions destroyed during the war.

"If Hizbullah approaches the frontier with arms and tries to reconstruct its infrastructure that we have destroyed, we will use all means at our disposal to prevent this," he told Israel Radio.

Halutz aimed unusual criticism at his own troops, saying in comments coinciding with the pullback: "The result in Lebanon is mediocre."

A spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Mark Regev, told AFP other parties now had to honor their commitments to UN Resolution 1701.

Israel, he said, expected to see the "immediate" release of two soldiers seized by Hizbullah.

"We have to see the creation in South Lebanon of an area free of all armed Hizbullah personnel and we have to see the enforcement of the international arms embargo to prevent arms transfers to Hizbullah," he said.

An Israeli government-appointed commission has begun a probe into the way Premier Ehud Olmert, the Cabinet and the military conducted the conflict.

According to the results of an investigation by Israeli daily Haaretz into diplomatic moves during the war, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the Foreign Ministry staff began to plan the exit strategy from Lebanon on July 13, the day after the war broke out. However, Olmert gave his nod to the move only 10 days later, the paper stated.

The probe revealed Livni met with Olmert on July 16 and proposed a diplomatic exit, but "Olmert said the [Israeli Army] would need more time. [Livni] then had difficulty gaining access to Olmert, encountering postponed and delayed meetings," the paper reported.

Only a week later did Olmert approve the principles of the diplomatic plan, the crux of which was the deployment of a strong international force in Lebanon and an arms embargo on Hizbullah, it added.

"Olmert at first objected to the international force, but after the Israeli Army expressed support for the idea, Olmert accepted it on July 23. From that point on until the end of the war, Israel presented a coordinated stand, with diplomatic talks headed by Yoram Turbovicz, Olmert's chief of staff," stated the report.

The Haaretz probe also revealed that the Foreign Ministry believed from the outset that "Israel would have a difficult time freeing its captive soldiers ... through a military operation."

Beirut,10 02 2006
The Daily Star
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