Israel's militias flee the guns of the Hizbollah

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The Independent Online

The steady thump of heavy artillery and the clatter of helicopters rumbled across northern Galilee last night as Israel's 22-year-old occupation of southern Lebanon appeared to enter its final few hours.

The steady thump of heavy artillery and the clatter of helicopters rumbled across northern Galilee last night as Israel's 22-year-old occupation of southern Lebanon appeared to enter its final few hours.

As night deepened, preparations were gathering pace among the Israeli military to complete the withdrawal and to get out of the territory as quickly as possible after the chaotic collapse of their proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army. "We are leaving tonight," said one Israeli soldier in the border town of Metulla, as heavy guns - presumably providing cover fire - sounded nearby.

Their departure was far from the orderly exit that the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, a much-decorated general, would have wished. At one point, several thousand Lebanese refugees arrived at a border crossing to request asylum, only to find themselves in the midst of a gun fight.

By sundown, Israeli troops were left in only eight outposts in Lebanon. At the same time, thousands of scared SLA militiamen and their relatives streamed south, trying to stay ahead of advancing Hezbollah men. They abandoned their cars, grabbed hastily packed suitcases and marched on foot to the border.

But the stream of refugees came to a standstill when gunmen opened fire on Israeli troops from a high-rise building in Kfar Kila. Refugees caught in the middle ducked behind parked cars, and at one point about a dozen sprinted toward the Israeli side, with bullets flying above.

By nightfall, about 3,000 Lebanese refugees had settled in a temporary tent camp in Galilee and in hotels along the border. Many of them kicked back in a balmy holiday beach resort by the Sea of Galilee.

Busloads of young men from Israel's proxy militia and their families had rumbled into the fenced-off resort compound at Amnon and last night they were relaxing among the palm trees and eucalyptus groves, trying to forget the horribly embarrassing and near-complete collapse of their ranks over the past two days.

They arrived looking nervous and tense, bruised no doubt by the grilling that they must have had from the Israeli security services - which are anxious to ensure none of their enemies sneak in through the northern border - and by their recent humiliation on the battlefield.

Yet they quickly seemed to adapt. Children ran around near the stony beach by the lake's warm, placid waters, licking ice creams. Elderly women smiled and waved. Although they had travelled less than 50 miles, they must have felt they had landed on a wholly surreal planet, but for the surly, Rayban-wearing Israeli soldiers who guarded the camp gate from unwelcome intruders and tried to stop journalists from talking to the camp's new occupants.

The compromise, corruption, and permanent fear of the occupation zone had been traded - as the notice at the gate of the camp promised - for a land of "touring, relaxation, entertainment and camping". On the horizon beyond, a couple of boats cruised across the lake's milky waters. Windsurfing lessons were on offer. The refugees could choose between a stroll through the resort's ambitiously named "Paradise Village" or a pleasant wander through the bougainvilleas.

Bizarrely, just down the road, convoys of glossy, air-conditioned, luxury coaches swept in and out, conveying elderly Western Christian pilgrims from site to site. The fact that, only 20 miles up the road, Israeli tanks and artillery were blasting off shells - and 170,000 Israelis were once again fleeing to their bomb shelters - did not appear to have reached their ears. What the tourists wanted to see was the spot, just near the Lebanese holiday village, where Christ worked his miracle with the loaves and fishes.

Catering for Israel's erstwhile allies will not require assistance from God. But it is a task that Israel clearly does not much relish. It has, however, promised to take in members of the militia it armed, paid, and sent to fight its battles in its occupation zone. Yesterday it appeared to be trying to live up to that pledge.

"They will get all the services that Israelis enjoy," said Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident turned Israeli minister, who paid the beach resort a visit. Israel had, he said, a "moral obligation" to help the displaced Lebanese.

He became vaguer when asked about granting them citizenship. They would be issued with one-year tourist visas, but would have the right to work, he said. Leaving the occupation zone has been painful enough for the Israeli army, but it is even worse for their Lebanese allies.