Israeli troops out of Lebanon, amid uncertainty but no sign of Hezbollah


ISRAEL-LEBANON BORDER — Israel’s war with Hezbollah ended much the way it was waged — unpredictably, and with a good deal of self-doubt.

“It’s over, Mom,” one soldier muttered into his cell phone as he crossed back from Lebanese territory at the Israeli border village of Zarit before dawn Sunday.

One of his comrades jauntily clutched an Israeli flag. The rest abstained from ceremony, boarding buses ahead of the sleepy ride back home or to their bases.

The lack of fanfare was a departure from Israel’s last Lebanon withdrawal, in 2000, and its 2005 pullout from the Gaza Strip.

Back then, journalists were encouraged to turn out en masse for the departing tanks and troops and the locking of border fences. This time around, the maneuvers seemed almost furtive.

“Our priority is security for our forces, of course, but I won’t deny that no one felt a great need to trumpet this withdrawal,” one Israeli source said. “There is a sense that the war began and ended, somehow, out of our control.”

The observation appeared to be confirmed by Sunday afternoon, when the United Nations announced — contrary to Israeli declarations — that the withdrawal was not quite complete. Some soldiers remained in the northern half of Ghajar, a village bisected by the Israeli-Lebanese border but whose residents claim allegiance to neighboring Syria.

“I expect that they will leave this area in the course of the week, thus completing the withdrawal in line with Resolution 1701,” said Maj. Gen. Alain Pellegrini, commander of the UNIFIL peacekeeper force in southern Lebanon.

He was referring to the U.N. Security Council resolution of Aug. 14, which halted Israel’s monthlong war with Hezbollah on the promise that peacekeepers and Lebanese troops would take over and police the Iranian-backed militia’s former strongholds.

Israel later confirmed that it had not left the Lebanese half of Ghajar. Israeli officials said they would leave Ghajar once security arrangements are complete.

On Monday, a Hezbollah leader said violence could resume if Israel did not leave Ghajar and Shebaa Farms, a portion of the Golan Heights that Israel won from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and that Lebanon suddenly claimed after the Israeli withdrawal in 2000.

The United Nations checked the Lebanese claim and found it baseless, ruling that the status of the area should be decided between Israel and Syria.

As day broke Sunday above the orchards and hills of the border, the Hezbollah flags and armed patrols that had been a menacing presence for the past six years were gone. Instead, a Lebanese army helicopter buzzed overhead, and blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers could be seen taking up positions.

“Finally, I can go out with my children without feeling we are being tracked by Hezbollah gunmen,” said Eitan Davidi, chairman of the Fence Communities Forum. “We won the war.”

But there was little Israeli jubilation at the pullout, which coincided with the somber run-up to Yom Kippur. Israel went to war after Hezbollah killed eight of its soldiers and abducted two in a July 12 raid. The fact that Hezbollah was pushed back from the border fell short of early Israeli promises to crush the militia and retrieve the two hostages.

The loss of 157 Israelis, some of them to thousands of Hezbollah rockets fired across the border, undermined Israel’s sense of national security.

In a round of media interviews, military chief Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz described Israel’s performance during the Lebanon offensive as “mediocre.”

The country’s biggest newspaper, Yediot Achronot, mentioned the withdrawal on its front page, alongside an expansive analysis of how well Israel could expect to fare in an exchange of ballistic missiles with its archfoe, Iran.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been at pains to highlight the strategic gains of the war, noting the U.N. intervention in southern Lebanon and arguing that Israel has boosted its deterrence in the face of Iran and Syria, another Hezbollah patron.

But dissent has reached as deep as Olmert’s own Cabinet. According to a Ha’aretz expose, one of Olmert’s closest colleagues, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, campaigned for an “exit strategy” early in the war. Another Cabinet member, Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, predicted that the calm on the Israel-Lebanon border would not last.

“Whoever is banking on us gaining security from the Lebanese army’s presence in the south is delusional,” Ben-Eliezer, a former defense minister, told Army Radio. “I believe we’ll be seeing all the usual sights of a Hezbollah presence very soon.”