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PULLOUT FROM LEBANON

Period of Adjustment Begins for Israelis, New Northern Neighbors

May 25, 2000|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

METULLA, Israel — Israelis along their northern border awoke to a new reality Wednesday, with Hezbollah guerrillas a stone's throw away and defense forces under orders not to fire into Lebanon unless fired on first.

Ending its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon with a swift predawn retreat, the Israeli army Wednesday redeployed troops just inside Israel's northern border. Droves of curious Israelis came to peer at their new neighbors.

At the Fatima Gate border crossing, armed, jubilant Hezbollah militants brandishing huge yellow flags staged a victory parade along the barbed wire fence just a few yards from Israeli military patrols. Israeli civilians and the Lebanese engaged in remarkable face-to-face exchanges, stares, taunts and even a few attempts at conversation. On this first day, at least, nothing more serious than a few melons and Molotov cocktails that were thrown by Hezbollah served as ammunition.

The withdrawal, achieved without Israeli casualties, signifies a historic moment in the Middle East. The border with Lebanon was Israel's last active war front, and thousands of people from the two sides have been killed. The chances of new violence are at least as great now as the chances for peace. And Israel, a country defined by its wars, faces the psychological trauma of having been unable to defeat a small Arab guerrilla force.

In some of his most pointed comments to date, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak proclaimed Lebanon and Syria accountable from now on for any attacks on Israel--attacks that would constitute "an act of war," he said, and would invite harsh reprisals. Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz said that, if attacked, Israel would bomb Syrian targets.

Barak came under withering criticism the day before because of the chaotic appearance of the withdrawal and on account of the demise of Israel's proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, or SLA. On Wednesday, some criticism was replaced by praise for having brought the troops home.

An unusually emotional Barak went on national television Wednesday night. His voice cracking, he paid homage to the Israeli soldiers who died in Lebanon and to those who carried out the withdrawal. Those who ended the war, he noted, "were in their cradles" when the war began.

"We made the promise, and we kept it: We brought our sons home," he said.

The withdrawal ended at 6:42 a.m., when the last tank rumbled through a border gate, which two Israeli officers then padlocked. "There was a lot of noise and not a lot of talking," officer Yoni Gur Zeev said Wednesday, describing to radio listeners the journey out of Lebanon. He was one of the last men out. "It was fear, but also joy that this was over," he said.

The new reality was taking some getting used to. One young Israeli soldier named Yaniv, not yet born when the war began, was finding it hard to understand the new divisions in real estate and new rules of engagement.

"I see a Hezbollah with a Kalashnikov [rifle] 70 meters away, and I can't shoot him because he's on his property," Yaniv said. "Why do we have to be the good ones?"

Nerves were on edge throughout the north, even as Hezbollah-watching became a popular sport.

"Hezbollah is so close they can come inside my door," Guy Fegelson, a father of two, said in Metulla, one of Israel's northernmost settlements. "It's good to know that the army is out [of Lebanon], but I'm not sure what will happen next. Metulla used to be one of the best places in the Galilee. Now things are very different."

"For Sale" signs have popped up recently, but Fegelson, a sturdy 35-year-old who installs stoves for a living, said he did not intend to flee this pleasant hillside town of bougainvillea and cherry trees.

At the Menara kibbutz a few miles away, the withdrawal from Lebanon also means a new border because boundaries are being redrawn to comply with United Nations resolutions. Over the years that it occupied southern Lebanon, Israel pushed the border here north to protect the kibbutz. Now, the fence that separates Menara--which sits atop a bluff and has a sweeping view of Lebanon--from the Lebanese, and Hezbollah, will be only 10 yards from the kibbutz.

Already struggling economically, the kibbutz may not survive its new life on the edge, member Roi Kfir said.

"The slightest change in security, and this place vanishes," Kfir, 20, said. "It doesn't need for a missile to be shot. All you need is someone to say they will shoot."

Back at Fatima Gate, the Hezbollah fighters, their jackets packed with grenades and rifle clips, marched on the pavement, chanting, "Oh God, oh God, you gave victory to Hezbollah!" They displayed huge painted signs; one had a truck-size depiction of an Israeli military helmet with a bullet hole in its crest and a 10-foot-long knife sticking through it.

They also torched several of the Mercedes-Benz cars left behind by fleeing SLA officers and looted the contents, mostly family picture albums and clothing.

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