With the snap of a padlock at dawn, Israel is finally defeated

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The Independent Online

It was all over in the snap of a padlock. As the first rays of morning sun rose above the south Lebanon battlefield yesterday, the last Israeli tank gave off a belch of dense black smoke and drove home, ending 22 years of occupation.

It was all over in the snap of a padlock. As the first rays of morning sun rose above the south Lebanon battlefield yesterday, the last Israeli tank gave off a belch of dense black smoke and drove home, ending 22 years of occupation.

A cheer went up from the watching soldiers. The big iron border gates were swung shut. An Israeli army major stepped forward, smiled, and locked them. One minute later, at 6.42am precisely, Israel's withdrawal from its nasty little Vietnam was over.

The shelling was still reverberating around the low hills and olive groves of Lebanon as Israel's final few hundred troops made their hasty departure early yesterday.

As the last Merkava 2 tank rolled through Gate 93 at Egel Crossing, just outside the Israeli border town of Metulla, the departing soldiers went through the motions of celebration, unfurling Star of David flags and making two-fingered victory salutes for the cameras. And they were, genuinely, deeply relieved that they are out of the Lebanon mess, at least for now. But the sense of failure was also tangible.

Earlier, their commander in Lebanon, Brigadier General Benny Gantz, 40, drew up in an old grey Mercedes to see the last man out. He has been engaged in Israel's Lebanese venture since 1978. "I came here a young man, I leave as an old one," he said, quietly.

The withdrawal was not, he said, a defeat - Israel planned it a year ago. But he was not particularly convincing. "Hizbollah is a very well-trained guerrilla organisation. I am not sure that too many regular armies would have done as well against them."

The operation began after midnight and was announced by a steady, deafening thump of Israeli artillery, providing cover fire for the retreating convoys. According to the Israeli military, their departing soldiers came under heavy guerrilla mortar fire, and yet they escaped without injury or loss. Hizbollah - heady with the thrill of victory - was keen to chase them out.

For more than two hours, the Israeli guns pelted away, their din mingling occasionally with squirts of distant machine-gun fire. From time to time, orange flashes lit up the south Lebanon hills. The Israelis were blowing up their bases, leaving as little as possible behind for their victorious opponents.

By 4am, a line of tanks and other military vehicles was rumbling out into Israel, leaving a plume of dust in the night sky. We all knew the pull-out would be quick. After the South Lebanon Army fell apart, the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, needed to get his boys home before it turned even bloodier. But few expected it to be quite so sudden.

By dawn, dazed-looking Israeli soldiers were out of the zone and posing on their tanks for photographs. It was all over. Israel was back within its borders - though these have yet to be precisely determined - and ready to claim that it was, at last, fulfilling UN Resolution 425, and would have right on its side if anyone dared attack it.

Towards the end of the retreat, David Busilla, a 21-year-old Israeli soldier, arrived at the border and unfurled a large Lebanese flag in one last, hopeless, defiant gesture. He said he felt both "happiness and heartache" at leaving the battlezone. A cliché, made-for-television news. Perhaps. But it aptly summed up Israel's conflicting moods - pain over a humiliating defeat, counterbalanced by the pleasure that a pointless war was over. The heartache was everywhere evident.

The Good Fence border crossing point near Metulla faces the Arab village of Kfar Kila, just a few hundred metres away. By early afternoon the guerrillas had arrived, eager to savour their triumph in full view of those who had lorded it over them for so long.

A parade of their supporters moved noisily through the streets, flourishing yellow Hizbollah flags. They marched past the half-finished, now abandoned, mansions of Lebanese businessmen, who made fortunes trading with Israel.

They blared their car horns, cheered, chanted, and blasted AK-47 rifles into the air, vowing that the next battle with Israel would be over the disputed Shebaa farms in the foothills of the Golan. On the Israeli side, these celebrations were closely, moodily, observed. Knots of people climbed on rocks to get a better view of their foes.

Scores of Israeli soldiers, armed and ready, stood hidden in an apple orchard that runs up to the border's edge, but the man whose incompetent militia did so much to set these scenes in motion was only a mile away. As "liberated" south Lebanon celebrated, Antoine Lahd, the 72-year-old commander of the collapsed South Lebanon Army, was eating a roast chicken lunch in an alpine-style tourist hotel in Metulla.

Discredited long ago, he looked less of a general than ever. Clad in a lilac shirt and sports jacket, he sat in a corner, a bleak and distracted figure smoking a Marlboro. While he ate, his villa in south Lebanon stood ransacked, a Hizbollah flag planted in the garden. The old man was in no mood to talk.

General Lahd faces the death penalty as a traitor in Lebanon, but Israel may not prove much of a haven, for he faces the wrath of his own men and their families. The shame of defeat has already turned to indignation about their treatment by Israel.

Israel has promised to take them in. To accommodate the new arrivals from Lebanon over the past three days - several thousand in all - the Israeli authorities have erected a tented camp on the slopes of the Mount of Beatitudes, overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

It is built in a giant car park built for Pope John Paul II's visit to the Holy Land two months ago and is, officials insist, meant only to be a temporary shelter until homes can be organised. Hundreds were delivered there by bus yesterday. Accustomed to greater luxuries - $150,000 villas and Mercedes cars, for example - the militiamen and their kin were not impressed, and began angrily hectoring officials over their conditions. But, as the ones who ran away from the battlefield, they carry even less weight than they did as Israel's mercenaries in a fruitless, now finished, occupation.