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Militants Sweep In as Israel's Hold on Buffer Zone Crumbles

Mideast: In southern Lebanon, Hezbollah guerrillas and supporters enter string of villages as Jewish state's proxy militia scatters. Accelerated Israeli pullout will be completed within a few days, Barak says.

May 23, 2000|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Israel's 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon crumbled Monday, as Islamic guerrillas and their jubilant civilian supporters swept into village after village, laying claim to disputed Lebanese land and moving to within scant distance of the Israeli border.

Scores of members of Israel's proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, defected, were arrested as collaborators, surrendered to Lebanese authorities or were fleeing south toward Israel in search of asylum.

With dizzying speed, the militia appeared to be disintegrating and Israel hastened its forces' retreat from southern Lebanon after two decades of occupation and bloodshed.

The chaos dashed all Israeli hopes for an orderly withdrawal and threw the ambitious agenda of Prime Minister Ehud Barak into disarray. Barak had promised to end Israel's traumatic occupation of Lebanon by July 7. An emergency session of the Israeli Cabinet early today gave Barak the power to expedite the pullout.

Hours later, Barak told Israeli Army Radio that the withdrawal would be complete within a few days.

"This . . . tragedy is over," he said.

Israel and its allies shelled roads and abandoned outposts in a frantic attempt to stop crowds from swarming positions as soon as militiamen deserted them, while Islamic fighters pressed their attacks on Israeli positions. Six Lebanese civilians were reported killed.

Fully one-third of the 9-mile-deep "security zone" that Israel maintained along its northern border inside Lebanon fell to the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah guerrillas Monday, according to the Israeli army.

Hezbollah militants raided abandoned posts and sauntered through newly "liberated" towns, waving their new weapons, some with Hebrew inscriptions, and receiving the cheers of their supporters.

Terrified Israeli residents in the pastoral communities that dot Israel's northern tier watched in disbelief as red and yellow Hezbollah flags waved just a few hundred yards from their homes, across a border marked by a wire fence.

Many of the Israelis headed for bomb shelters Monday afternoon in anticipation of Hezbollah shelling.

Caught off guard by the sudden turn of events, Barak came under renewed pressure, from both the military and some members of his Cabinet, to speed up the withdrawal. Publicly Monday, he insisted that his government would decide the timing of the pullback based on its own criteria, and he warned that reprisals against Hezbollah attacks would not be limited to southern Lebanon.

"If someone initiates attacks on Israeli soldiers, not to mention [against] the settlements of the north, as we withdraw . . . the response will be very painful," Barak said.

But the reality on the ground was shifting around Barak, even as he toured the north in what had been intended as a reassuring visit to besieged Israeli farmers and kibbutzniks.

"It's very simple," said Ehud Yaari, a prominent Arab affairs commentator for Israeli television. "The Israeli plan for an orderly pullout is over. Basically, we have lost control over what is happening there."

Desertions Precipitate Change of Control

The South Lebanon Army desertions in effect severed the security zone, ceding the middle section to Hezbollah control.

Overnight, Israeli troops pulled out of Bint Jbeil, their second-largest base in southern Lebanon, the army said today.

That left firmly in Israeli hands only the eastern segment, the site of Lebanese Christian strongholds. More than 12 villages--all Shiite--were retaken Monday by Hezbollah, and two of the SLA's five battalions folded.

Israel had begun its withdrawal, piece by piece, more than a week ago. But the domino of events began Sunday when the SLA abruptly withdrew from the Taibe outpost that it had received from the Israeli army a few days earlier.

Hezbollah guerrillas, as well as displaced residents from the area, seized on the news and began streaming back into the villages around the Taibe post. The movement snowballed as the returning throngs drove unimpeded through United Nations checkpoints--or got out and walked.

Roads were jammed with vehicles and with people chanting "Allahu akbar! [God is great!]" In villages, there were tearful reunions of family members who had been separated by the conflict.

Nisrin Kteish, a 24-year-old medical student, came to her family village of Houla for the first time, carrying a bouquet of roses to place on her grandparents' grave and shedding her disbelief that her homeland was finally "free."

"We are certain there's no turning back now," she said.

The Israeli air force found itself in the odd position of having to bomb tanks and artillery that Israel had supplied the SLA but that the fleeing militia had left behind, lest the same weapons be turned against Israeli soldiers by the quickly advancing Hezbollah, or Party of God. The army beefed up defenses along the Israeli side of the northern border.

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