Israeli Army Leaves Key Lebanon Area : Rabin Sternly Warns Terrorists Against New Rocket Attacks
The Israeli army evacuated a triangular-shaped area around Nabatiyeh in southern Lebanon on Thursday in what promises to be a major test of the prospects for peace along the international border after the troops return the rest of the way home in about two months.
The pullback means that for the first time since the army marched north in June, 1982, Israel’s northern settlements will be within Katyusha rocket range of Lebanese territory not occupied by Israeli troops.
“We hope for the best, and we are prepared for the worst,” Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin told a pool of reporters allowed in the area to witness Thursday’s pullback.
“The basic principle that we would like to adopt is to live and let live,” Rabin said. “But if (the local residents) do not allow any tranquility to our settlements, they’ll get hell.”
650th Death Reported
Rabin’s comments came amid reports of the 650th Israeli death in the Lebanon war. The latest fatality came when an Israeli vehicle hit a land mine near the town of Hasbayya, an army spokesman said. An army major was killed and another soldier was wounded in the incident.
The area involved in Thursday’s evacuation has been a hotbed of mostly Shia Muslim resistance to the continuing Israeli occupation.
At least six Israeli soldiers have been killed in the area, dubbed the Nabatiyeh triangle, in the last two months alone. The army’s command center in Nabatiyeh--a building that was formerly a tobacco factory--has come under nightly attack for weeks.
“We are delighted to be leaving--delighted,” the base commander told reporters.
Normally a city of 30,000 to 40,000 people, Nabatiyeh was virtually deserted Thursday. Israel radio reported earlier in the week that thousands of residents have left, fearing that trouble might erupt between rival Lebanese factions after the Israeli withdrawal.
As the last Israeli tanks rumbled out of the city, helicopters wheeled overhead, dropping leaflets warning that “Israel will not hesitate to strike with an iron fist against anyone who tries to attack Israeli soldiers.”
There are about 30 villages and up to 70,000 people in the picturesque hill country affected by Thursday’s pullback, according to the Israeli army. About 95% of the population is Shia Muslim.
The new occupation line follows the Litani River from its outlet on the Mediterranean north of Tyre eastward to the area around Marjayoun. From there the line runs north to envelop Jezzine and Mt. Barouk. It leaves the army in control of nearly 20% of the total land area of Lebanon, down from about one-third of Lebanon that it once occupied.
A senior defense source described Thursday’s redeployment as a “mini-stage” of withdrawal that required no new Cabinet decision. While not part of the original plan adopted three months ago, this source said, the army decided that “there is no reason to stay in that area any more.”
The Israelis took up positions in the Nabatiyeh triangle when they evacuated Sidon on Feb. 16 as part of the first phase of the pullout. The Cabinet approved the second stage, involving a pullback from Mt. Barouk and the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border, in early March, but set no deadline for its completion.
The Israeli Cabinet must still vote on the timing for the third stage under the original plan, although it now appears certain that most, if not all, the troops will be back home before the third anniversary of the Lebanon invasion on June 6.
Pullout Speeded Up
It had originally been thought that Nabatiyeh would be evacuated as part of the withdrawal’s final phase.
A key move paving the way for the latest redeployment was the closing April 4 of the Ansar Detention Camp on the perimeter of the Nabatiyeh triangle. The camp housed more than 1,900 Shia Muslim and Palestinian prisoners.
Israel freed 752 of the detainees but, in a controversial action, transferred the rest to a prison in Israel. It said those still imprisoned will be freed as the security situation in southern Lebanon permits--a move that critics charged has turned the captives into hostages and violated the 1949 Geneva Convention, which forbids the forcible transfer of civilians from their own country to the territory of an occupying power.
Military sources said that 30 of the former Ansar detainees were returned to southern Lebanon and released Thursday morning. “The release was executed in line with the (Israel Defense Forces) policy that the Ansar detainees were being transferred to Israeli territory temporarily, and would be released in accordance with the stages of the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon,” the sources said.
They added that more releases are expected in the “near future.”
‘Freedom of Action’
Rabin told reporters Thursday that once Israel finishes its withdrawal from Lebanon, it will defend its borders from positions in its own territory, assisted by local Lebanese militia forces in an unspecified “security zone” immediately north of the frontier. He added, however, that “Israel will maintain freedom of action to do whatever is needed in backing these Lebanese local forces . . . even north of the security zone.”
The recruitment of these local forces and the issue of exactly how far Israel will back them if they get into trouble is a matter of increasing controversy here.
The independent newspaper Haaretz reported Thursday that the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army, a militia group that is expected to become an umbrella organization incorporating local civil guards in Lebanese border villages, sealed off three Druze villages east of Hasbayya earlier this week after residents failed to supply the demanded quota of young fighters. The newspaper said that Israeli agents had threatened to deport four prominent citizens in one of the villages unless the quota was met.
Separately, the same newspaper’s respected military correspondent, Zev Schiff, reported that several Cabinet ministers have demanded a full debate on plans by the South Lebanon Army commander, Gen. Antoine Lahad, to maintain a Christian-controlled corridor between the security zone and Jezzine, a Christian village.
Jezzine, which is separated from the security zone by a wedge of Shia Muslim villages, is to be evacuated by Israeli troops within weeks as part of the second stage of its withdrawal.
Lahad was previously given “indirect approval” for his plans to station his troops in Jezzine, according to Schiff, but now dissenting Cabinet ministers are concerned that the Israeli troops could be drawn back into the area to defend the militia chief if he comes under attack by the Shia Muslims or the Druze, an offshoot sect of Islam, who control the area just north and east of Jezzine.