After 22 years, Israel begins its departure from Lebanon

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It has begun. It was only a convoy of trucks, a pile of communications equipment and a few occupation soldiers. But the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon - so desired by Israel, so hated by Lebanon unless it is accompanied by a retreat from the Golan Heights - is now under way. At the hilltop at Taibe, so frequently attacked by Hizbollah guerrillas, 85 Israeli soldiers simply climbed on to their trucks and headed south yesterday. Many of them were redeployed elsewhere in the 10 per cent of Lebanon still occupied by Israel. But another few square metres of land were given up.

It has begun. It was only a convoy of trucks, a pile of communications equipment and a few occupation soldiers. But the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon - so desired by Israel, so hated by Lebanon unless it is accompanied by a retreat from the Golan Heights - is now under way. At the hilltop at Taibe, so frequently attacked by Hizbollah guerrillas, 85 Israeli soldiers simply climbed on to their trucks and headed south yesterday. Many of them were redeployed elsewhere in the 10 per cent of Lebanon still occupied by Israel. But another few square metres of land were given up.

Two months ago, the Israelis pulled out of two of their positions in the Bekaa Valley and escorted their increasingly demoralised "South Lebanon Army" militiamen out of their bunkers, blowing up the bunkers as they departed. At their three revetments yesterday, they bulldozed the earthworks flat before the astonished gaze of a few local Lebanese who have lived under Israeli occupation for almost a quarter of a century.

In 1978, the Israelis blasted their way into Lebanon. In 1982, they did the same again, with 40,000 troops and more than 17,000 dead, most of them Lebanese civilians. But they withdrew like mice yesterday, leaving before dawn, in silence and in secret. One of the positions was only a few hundred yards from the Israeli frontier to which the Israelis - so they say - will all have retreated by July.

But will they? In at least four locations in southern Lebanon, the Israelis have moved their frontier wire forward - a "technical fence" as the United Nations like to call it in their ingratiating way - and there are no signs that these strips of land will be handed back to Lebanon when the Israeli retreat has finished. Nor is there the slightest sign that the retreat will be a peaceful one. Without an agreement with Syria and a concomitant pull-out from Golan - for which the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, has already apportioned funds for further Jewish settlements - the bulk of the Israeli army will have to fight its way out of Lebanon in the late spring.

"There is activity all the time and this is part of the preparation for the withdrawal," an Israeli army spokesman said in Tel Aviv. But this is unlikely to save the occupation army. To withdraw even a thousand men could mean the temporary insertion of a brigade - a prime target for the Hizbollah whose wire-guided missiles are now cutting through the toughest armoured skin of Israel's Merkava tanks. And if Israel's army is under fire, its air force will wreak its usual retaliation. Israel's foreign minister has already told Lebanon - a country with which it reportedly wants to make peace - that its land will "burn" if rockets fall on northern Israel; which they will if Israel kills Lebanese civilians during its withdrawal.

The United States, France and the UN are already issuing their usual calls for restraint - appeals that usually mean it is time to put on flak jackets - while the half-hearted promise from the Lebanese Prime Minister that UN forces will have to fill the "security vacuum" left behind has reassured no one. Only five days ago, a Hizbollah suicide bomber blew up a truck next to an Israeli post inside southern Lebanon, wounding three SLA men and virtually demolishing the gun battery. It could well be a sign of thingsto come.

Comments