The South Lebanon Army came under guerrilla attack Tuesday while in retreat from villages in Lebanon’s strategic Jezzine enclave, prompting Israel to launch air raids and artillery strikes in support of its beleaguered ally.
The SLA’s long-awaited withdrawal from the enclave it has occupied for 14 years is widely viewed as a precursor to an eventual pullout of Israeli troops from a so-called security zone they have occupied in southern Lebanon since 1985. But Tuesday’s violence put to rest any notion that this test case might be accomplished peacefully, and left some residents of the area newly pessimistic about the future.
It also underscored the difficulties Israel could face extricating itself from its two-decade occupation of the 9-mile-deep swath of southern Lebanon. Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak promised during his recent campaign to withdraw Israeli forces within a year, but he has given few specifics.
The SLA, a 2,000-member force trained and financed by Israel, pulled back during Monday night and early Tuesday morning from more than a dozen villages near the Christian town of Jezzine. The move is a prelude to a withdrawal from Jezzine itself, which could occur as early as today.
On Monday, the militia commander, Antoine Lahad, announced the withdrawal from the enclave just north of the “security zone.” The SLA, which has been hard hit by increasing Hezbollah guerrilla attacks and demoralized by talk of an Israeli departure, “could no longer endure more slow deaths,” he said.
As the SLA began the pullout, sending convoys of militiamen and equipment south from Jezzine, Hezbollah guerrillas set off three roadside bombs, killing two militiamen and wounding another.
Israel retaliated with a series of air raids and artillery bombardments of suspected guerrilla targets At midday, exchanges of artillery and mortar fire near this village west of Jezzine echoed across the hills. Israeli warplanes flew overhead, dropping bombs that sent plumes of brown smoke into the sky.
Israeli planes also hit the Bekaa Valley northeast of Jezzine. Three Syrian workers reportedly were injured, along with a Lebanese soldier.
Two Israeli civilians were later wounded in what authorities said was a Hezbollah mortar attack on an Israeli army post in the Galilee near the border with Lebanon.
Nadim Salem, who represents Jezzine in the Lebanese parliament, said the day’s violence was causing the mood within the community to shift from hope to pessimism.
“The atmosphere in Jezzine is an atmosphere of fear. On Saturday, there was a breeze of optimism, but now it’s the other way around,” said Salem, a former minister of industry and trade. “The [Israeli] evacuation is coming, but we hope it will pass without any more problems for people who have suffered for 14 years.”
But not all residents were worried. Some celebrated the end of years of occupation of the area by Israel or its militia allies.
At a checkpoint near here, Fouad Issa, 45, and his brother, Mourad, 32, who had visited their parents Tuesday in a nearby hamlet, said the withdrawal restored their hopes for a better life. Fouad said he plans to reopen his Jezzine restaurant and nightclub after four years.
“Now I will open it; let the music play,” he said, describing the region as “liberated.”
Tuesday’s violence, including the Hezbollah mortar strike on the Galilee, did prompt concern in Israel, where outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened an emergency meeting of his security Cabinet to discuss the escalation.
Israel had hoped for a peaceful pullback of the SLA as a sign of how a wider withdrawal from southern Lebanon could play out. But late Tuesday, Israeli officials clearly appeared worried at the level of hostilities, and a high-level team of security advisors was dispatched to brief Barak.
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.