Tensions Escalate As Israel Vacates Southern Lebanon

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

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Thousands of South Lebanese fled their homes Monday, many arriving at the Israeli border to seek asylum. Their departure occurred on the day Israeli troops began their withdrawal from Lebanon and Iranian-backed Hizballah fighters continued their advance on the Lebanese villages.

As part of the high drama in South Lebanon, Israeli planes and artillery bombarded outposts deserted by its crumbling South Lebanese Army ally, according to the army spokesman's office. Navy vessels also fired at terrorist targets from the Mediterranean. And for the first time, Israeli air force jets destroyed heavy equipment Israel had itself supplied to the SLA, but which had been left behind.

During its 22-year occupation of south Lebanon, Israel has used the area as a buffer zone against attacks coming from the north. Hizballah forces, however, have already reportedly succeeded in cutting Israel's self-declared "security zone" in two, advancing in places to within one mile of Israeli border settlements. More Israeli allies defected to the enemy and Israel denied reports it was bringing forward its planned withdrawal by five weeks.

Residents of northern Israel were ordered into their shelters after the Israeli air strikes reportedly killed four civilians and injured others in Lebanon. Hizballah usually launches rocket attacks on northern Israel if there are civilian casualties in Lebanon.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned Hizballah against attacking Israeli military or civilian targets.

"The response will be very painful and won't necessarily be only here in the villages but in completely different [places] ... I do not recommend that anyone in the area test the response of Israel," Barak said.

At least 46 SLA militiamen and family members handed themselves over to the Lebanese authorities over the weekend, according to reports. As they left, hundreds of former residents of the area, who had abandoned the area when Israel entered, returned to reclaim their homes and villages.

Lebanese television broadcast footage of exuberant Lebanese, escorted by Hizballah gunmen, returning to their villages, many for the first time in 18 years.

The scenes were clearly not what Israel had hoped to see when it declared its intention to leave south Lebanon unilaterally.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan agreed to international monitoring of the withdrawal and talked about beefing up the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon.

But UNIFIL spokesman Timur Goksel said the UN never had any intention of taking over south Lebanon "piecemeal."

Israel would have to complete its withdrawal before UNIFIL takes over, Goksel said. Afterwards, the UN would verify that Israel had redeployed, he added.

He confirmed the UN was not stopping the hundreds of Lebanese who are flocking to their old villages - "why should anybody?" Goksel noted that many were visiting to examine their former homes, and then leaving.

"There is room for trouble - big trouble," he acknowledged said. "It's not a perfect situation. It could easily get out of control."

Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh called the fact that the UN had not prevented Hizballah from entering the villages a "serious" development.

"If Hizballah is allowed to enter villages close to the border we will return to the reality of the '70s," Sneh said.

"That is why the way to avoid [Israel] having to enter [Lebanon] again is to prevent Hizballah [from claiming positions] along the border. I cannot say this any clearer," Sneh said.

Sneh's references to the 1970s recalled an era when Palestinian terrorists used south Lebanon as a launching-pad for attacks on Israel. Israel cited that security reality as the reason for its invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and subsequent declaration of the "security zone."

Date confusion

Israel television reported Sunday evening that the army had been ordered to leave by June 1, five weeks ahead of the previously scheduled date. The Defense Minister's media advisor quickly denied the reports.

Israel was "preparing to withdraw and will do so when conditions are ripe," the statement said.

"Israel is working to carry out the withdrawal in the framework of United Nations Security Council Resolution 425 and will exhaust all chances of doing so."

After Monday's events, however, political commentator Ehud Ya'ari said it seemed clear that Israel's plans for "an orderly pullback" had been dashed, and that the situation was "out of control."

The central section - some 20 per cent - of the "security zone" is now in Hizballah hands, and its fighters in some places are located little more than a mile from Israeli border settlements, with no Israeli soldiers in between.

For Israel, Ya'ari said the decision is whether to pull out now or to stay and try to strengthen and defend the Christian Maronite enclaves.

There are three components to the SLA, which has served as Israel's ally for the past 22 years - Shi'ite Muslim, Christian and Druze, although the officers are primarily Christian. Analysts have said it seems to be the Shi'ites who are leaving at this stage. Many have relatives in Hizballah or another terrorist organization, Amal.

Hizballah has pledged to kill all SLA militiamen who do not defect. Israel has offered shelter to the SLA and their families.

The SLA spokesman could not be reached for comment.

In northern Israel, one resident of Kibbutz Menara, which borders Lebanon, said she did not know what was happening outside, but she could hear "booms" all the time - some close and some farther away.