Israel Leaves South Lebanon After 22 Years

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Israel's "security zone" became Lebanon's "liberated zone" as the last Israeli troops pulled out of southern Lebanon early today, swiftly ending the Jewish state's 22-year occupation of this nation.

Under cover of darkness and Israeli air force sorties, columns of Israeli army tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled south as Islamic Hezbollah guerrillas filled the military vacuum and celebrated what they called the "glorious victory" of Israel's withdrawal.

On Tuesday, the South Lebanon Army, a pro-Israeli militia, abandoned all of its positions, tanks and heavy weapons throughout the 9-mile-deep border swath.

By dawn today, the Israeli army had also evacuated all of its positions, including its headquarters in the Lebanese town of Marjayoun, and from the air it was blowing up equipment and ammunition left behind. A final convoy came under heavy Hezbollah fire, but there were no casualties as the withdrawal wrapped up, army spokesman Lt. Col. Sharon Grinker said.

The last Israeli soldier crossed the border back into Israel in a Merkava tank at 6:42 a.m., Grinker announced.

"We've awakened to a new dawn, a new reality!" Israeli radio proclaimed just before daybreak.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Sheik Hassan Nasrallah celebrated with hundreds of followers at his headquarters in Beirut, the Lebanese capital. "This is the first glorious victory in 50 years of Arab-Israeli conflict," he said.

Although the withdrawal had begun in earnest in the last 48 hours, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak issued the formal orders early today, indicating that "the tragedy," as he called it, would be over within hours.

Often regarded as its Vietnam, Israel's 22-year entanglement with Lebanon--invasion, war and occupation--cost the lives of more than 900 Israeli soldiers and of thousands of civilians, the majority Lebanese or Palestinian. The withdrawal dramatically alters the volatile Middle East landscape but also ushers in a period of new uncertainty on both sides of the border.

The departing Israeli soldiers looked as happy to leave a no-win conflict in Lebanon as the Lebanese were to see them go. Visibly relieved, they stripped off flak jackets, hugged comrades and cheered each other. Many grabbed cellular phones and called their mothers. "Mom, we're coming home!" one shouted.

About 5,000 SLA fighters and family members had sought refuge in Israel by early today, Israeli officials said, and several thousand more were expected. Lebanese officials said at least 175 SLA militiamen surrendered Tuesday, bringing the total number in Lebanese army custody since Sunday to more than 300.

On Tuesday, skirmishes broke out in the eastern and western tips of the zone, with the fiercest battle at the Karkom outpost, where Israeli officials said a Hezbollah convoy attacked and their troops responded with tank and artillery fire.

Lebanese security officials said Israeli warplanes staged six raids on guerrilla areas. Helicopter gunships fired on hillsides and back roads, they said, apparently to protect withdrawing SLA militiamen and Israeli soldiers.

Declaring that Israel's bloody occupation of Lebanon "is over," Barak earlier defended his handling of a withdrawal that many of his citizens saw as humiliating and staged according to Hezbollah's timetable.

Insisting that he had not been caught off guard, Barak said his government had anticipated that the SLA would collapse and that the exodus of militiamen and swift takeover by Hezbollah had always been a likelihood.

"We are not in the worst-case scenario, which is a good thing," Barak said. "We are not fleeing. We decided to leave, and we knew that Hezbollah would try and claim credit for our departure."

War of Attrition by Hezbollah Fighters

Israel first entered Lebanon in 1978 to root out Palestinian guerrillas, then escalated the operation to a full-scale invasion in 1982. By 1985, Israel had pulled back to the approximately 400-square-mile zone along the border that it said it needed to prevent attacks on northern Israeli towns and farms.

Funded by Iran and backed by Syria, the Shiite Muslim guerrillas of Hezbollah fought a war of attrition that cost thousands of lives all told on both sides of the border and forced tens of thousands of Lebanese families to flee north to Beirut, becoming exiles in their own country.

Caravans and convoys of those exiles continued returning to southern Lebanon to feel the soil and view the relatives and houses they had thought they might never see again. Throughout the region, chaos mixed with joy, as gunfire blended with singing, dancing and ululating in Lebanese villages. Families poured into abandoned SLA checkpoints and explored abandoned trenches.

"We have all been reborn. We were dead, and we are living again," said Mahmoud Jamal, 30, in Naqoura. "All of us are very, very happy."

Added Mohammed Daher, a 24-year-old fisherman: "We don't exactly know what will happen after this, but inshallah [God willing], there will be peace."

He added, however, that he was in favor of stiff retribution for anyone who fought alongside the Israelis. "If someone worked with Israel, he must go to prison until doomsday," Daher said.

Feared clashes between Christian villagers--who back the SLA--and Hezbollah did not materialize. In some cases, it seemed that Hezbollah was trying to keep troublemakers out of Christian villages.

"We got used to the SLA, now we will get used to Hezbollah," said Tony Nasrallah in Debel, a village about four miles north of the border with Israel. Then, in a barely audible whisper, he added, "But we prefer the SLA."

In one of the more dramatic moments of an emotion-charged day, scores of villagers on Tuesday overran the SLA's notorious prison in Khiam, two miles southeast of Marjayoun, and freed about 130 Lebanese prisoners held by the militia, some for as long as 15 years.

The crowd waited for guards to leave the compound before tearing down the prison doors. Scores of detainees rushed out with tears in their eyes and hugged their liberators, who shot volleys of gunfire into the air.

"The nightmare is over," one inmate repeated as he sobbed on a friend's shoulder. "I can't believe the nightmare is actually over."

While all of Lebanon celebrated with the joyful of the southern zone, there were notes of caution here in the capital.

"In 1982, the Israelis were welcomed in the same jubilant manner that Hezbollah is being welcomed today," said Jamil Mroue, publisher of the Daily Star English-language newspaper, referring to Israel's crackdown against Palestinian guerrillas who had taken up operations in Lebanon. "We are careful when it comes to dramatic and quick political changes. The dust needs to settle."

Syria, the dominant power in Lebanon, said that the withdrawal proved the Israeli occupation had failed and that the Jewish state would find no peace until it gives up all Arab land. But officials in Damascus, the Syrian capital, added that their nation affirmed the need to avoid military escalation in Lebanon during Israel's withdrawal.

"People are happy to see the Israelis go. They would be happy to see the Syrians go," said Beirut political analyst Michael Young. "There is a lot of anxiety about what will happen in the coming months, and there is a feeling that Lebanon can't do much to neutralize the situation in the south."

Pullout Hastened by Events on Ground

During last year's Israeli elections, Barak had vowed that he would pull Israeli forces out of southern Lebanon. Unable to negotiate a peace agreement with Syria that would include withdrawal from southern Lebanon and return of the Golan Heights seized by Israel during the 1967 Middle East War, the Israeli government opted for a unilateral pullout. Barak had said that the withdrawal would be completed by July 7, but those plans were overtaken by events on the ground.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been urging the Lebanese government to move its army into the southern area to reestablish control over its own territory. Some Lebanese troops were seen along roads in the south, checking cars for escaping SLA fighters. The Beirut government has been hesitant to fill the void, however, stating that it did not want to cover Israel's back.

The Security Council on Tuesday endorsed a U.N. plan to verify Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon and to help reestablish the Lebanese government's authority over the area. The council called on "the states and other parties concerned" to exercise utmost restraint and cooperate with the existing U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 425, passed soon after Israel's 1978 invasion, demanded Israel's withdrawal from the southern zone and created UNIFIL to restore peace.

Annan, in a report published Monday, recommended increasing the U.N. peacekeeping force from 4,513 to about 5,600 to verify the Israeli pullout, and then to 7,935 to help restore the authority of the Lebanese government.

He said a full withdrawal means that Israel must pull all of its military and civilian personnel from Lebanese territory, including from its airspace and territorial waters, and ensure that the SLA--paid and supplied by Israel--will "cease to exist."

Annan's report said that, as soon as the Israeli withdrawal had been confirmed, the Lebanese government "should resume the normal responsibilities of a state" throughout the area. The Lebanese armed forces, he added, "should ensure that all national territory falls under the effective authority of the government."

Miller reported from Beirut, Daniszewski from Naqoura and Wilkinson from Fatima Gate on the Israeli-Lebanese border. Special correspondent Kim Ghattas in Houla, Lebanon, contributed to this report.

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Power Shift in Southern Lebanon

Israel's 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon has virtually ended with the military's rapid withdrawal from its 9-mile-deep "security zone." The area is now largely occupied by the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, which has fought Israel in a protracted guerrilla war. The South Lebanon Army, Israel's proxy militia in the area, has abandoned most of its positions, and many are seeking asylum in Israel.

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1948-49

* Thousands of Palestinians, fleeing when Israel is formed, enter Lebanon.

1970

* Palestine Liberation Organization establishes its main bases in Lebanon after being forced from Jordan; PLO builds virtual state-within-a-state.

1978

* March 14: About 30,000 Israeli troops invade southern Lebanon aiming to destroy PLO bases in retaliation for an attack on a bus that killed more than 30 Israeli civilians.

* March 19: U.N. Security Council adopts Resolution 425, demanding that Israel withdraw from Lebanon. U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, is set up to monitor and ensure withdrawal. Troops leave three months later.

1978

* PLO guerrillas shell settlements in northern Israel. Israel reacts with bombings and commando raids until a U.N.-brokered cease-fire July 1981.

1982

* June 6: In response to the shooting of Israel's ambassador in London, Israel invades Lebanon, bombing Syrian missile sites and besieging West Beirut and trapping the PLO.

* Aug. 4: Israeli invades West Beirut.

* Aug. 30: PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and guerrillas evacuate Beirut under truce plan supervised by U.S., French and other forces.

* Sept. 16-17: Lebanese Christian militiamen kill hundreds of Palestinian civilians in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, an area under Israeli control.

1985

* June 10: Israel completes withdrawal from Lebanon, except for border strip "security zone" controlled by Israel and its proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army.

1990-91

* With Syrian backing, Lebanese government attempts to regain control of the south and to crush all militias. It ends up clashing with PLO guerrillas; Israel refuses to withdraw from the south.

1993

* July 25-31: After a deadly series of attacks on Israeli troops in the occupied zone, Israel attacks guerrilla bases across Lebanon. Guerrillas respond with rocket barrages on Israel's northern towns and farms. About 130 people, mostly Lebanese civilians, are killed in a week of fighting and 500,000 flee their homes.

1996

* April 11: Israel launches "Operation Grapes of Wrath" military campaign against Islamic guerrillas in southern Lebanon, killing more than 150 Lebanese, mostly civilians.

* April 26: Clinton administration arranges a cease-fire between Israeli forces and Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon, ending 16 days of fighting.

1998

* April 1: Israel's national security Cabinet team votes to adopt U.N. Resolution 425 on condition that Lebanon provide security guarantees in the south.

2000

* Feb. 27: As peace talks with Syria falter, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak indicates that Israel might withdraw troops from southern Lebanon without security arrangements.

* March 5: Israeli government votes unanimously to back Barak's plan to pull Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon by early July.

* May 22-23: Israel begins rapid withdrawal from southern Lebanon, South Lebanon Army crumbles, and Hezbollah rebels claim much of "security zone." *

Sources: Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, Facts on File; Compiled by SCOTT J. WILSON

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A Hurried Exit

Israel had set July 7 as the deadline for its withdrawal from Lebanon, but the collapse of its militia allies speeded up the army's exit from the "security zone," which was created in 1985 to protect Israel's northern settlements from cross-border attacks.

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Miller reported from Beirut, Daniszewski from Naqoura and Wilkinson from Fatima Gate on the Israeli-Lebanese border. Special correspondent Kim Ghattas in Houla, Lebanon, contributed to this report.

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