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PULLOUT FROM LEBANON

Israel Leaves South Lebanon After 22 Years

Mideast: Hezbollah rebels fill military vacuum as troops complete pullout today. The withdrawal spurs thousands of SLA proxy militia members to seek refuge in Jewish state.

May 24, 2000|MARJORIE MILLER and JOHN DANISZEWSKI and TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BEIRUT — 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."

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