Israeli Pullout Situation Could Worsen

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Hundreds of members of the disintegrating South Lebanese Army crossed the border into Israel Tuesday, accompanied by their families, as fighting continued behind them in what is left of Israel's "security zone."

The mostly Christian SLA, which earlier abandoned positions in the western and central sectors of the zone, are now evacuating outposts in the eastern sector, leaving the Israeli army to man the positions.

The Israeli army, due to complete its evacuation from south Lebanon within days, fears the worst violence is yet to come.

Residents of northern Israel were ordered back into their shelters after two Katyusha rockets landed in an open area within Israel, but caused no damage or injury.

As Hizballah fighters continued to occupy areas vacated by the SLA, the militia's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, advised Israelis living near the border to stay in their shelters for at least the next few days.

The head of the Israeli army's northern command, Major-General Gaby Ashkenazi, said Hizballah fighters had taken over evacuated areas, but were not moving freely in areas still under Israeli control.

As many as 3,000 south Lebanese have crossed over the border into Israel according to an estimate by an Interior Ministry spokeswoman. The Israeli army said hundreds of families had passed over the border and the process was continuing.

The Interior Ministry is registering the refugees with visas, enabling them to stay in the country for an initial one-year period. The visa gives them the right to work and to obtain highly subsidized health insurance.

"We are taking care of all the SLA [members and family members] who want to come to Israel," Ashkenazi said in a radio interview.

"Everyone who choose[s] to come to Israel and [has] worked with us in the past will be invited. It will take time. People are upset. We should understand them."

Ashkenazi pointed out that the refugees had just left their homes and countries and "don't have a clear future."

Could have been worse

Despite the seeming chaos and the crumbling of the SLA, a high-ranking Israeli officer told reporters Tuesday that the pullout has not been as bad as it could have been. But he warned the situation could still deteriorate.

A few weeks ago, he said, it was clear to the Israeli army that the evacuation plan - originally set to be completed by July 7 - did not fit the situation on the ground and that it would have to be brought forward.

The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted that the break-up of the SLA happened later than expected and not all at once. Once the masses of Hizballah and Amal supporters started streaming into the villages, the Israeli army had two choices.

"One is to shoot into the crowd to stop them," he said. "The other is to let them in." In an effort to avoid casualties, and since Israel knew it was leaving anyway, the army decided it would be senseless to use force.

But he said Hizballah could yet begin shooting at the Israelis as they completes their withdrawal. This would lead to a much worse scenario.

Political Opposition

Opposition Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon meanwhile blasted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for the chaotic pullout.

Sharon has long advocated a unilateral withdrawal from the zone, but said the current pullout should be stopped immediately and military action taken against Lebanese and Syrian infrastructure in Lebanon.

Sharon was defense minister during Israel's 1982 invasion into Lebanon, which three years later led to the establishment of the "security zone."

Another former Likud defense minister, Moshe Arens, said he also favored immediate action in Lebanon to revive what he called Israel's "deteriorated" military deterrent.

"If we want to reconstitute our deterrent posture, I think we should talk less and do more," Arens said in a radio interview.

Barak reiterated his intention to hit hard at anyone who attacks Israel. But, he told Israel radio he believed that "after [the] fog lifts it will be clear that government did the right thing."

The fact that Israel pledged to withdraw from south Lebanon, according to UN resolution 425, Barak said, would give Israel wider international backing to retaliate if attacked.

Barak said that Israel would "clobber the real sources of power in Lebanon" - a reference to Syria, which is firmly entrenched in Lebanon and influences the government in Beirut - and added that Israel would not "need a telescope to see who it is."