Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Israel Quietly Withdrawing Troops from Lebanon

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Israel Quietly Withdrawing Troops from Lebanon

Article excerpt

JERUSALEM -- Unheralded and all but unannounced, Israeli troops have begun withdrawing from southern Lebanon, ending 22 years of continuous occupation.

The piecemeal pullout signals the conclusion of a long, bloody chapter in the Middle East, and the start of a perilous new one.

In recent days, Israel has dismantled and evacuated at least two of its outposts in the 750-square-mile strip of southern Lebanon that it has used as a buffer zone to protect the Jewish state's northern residents from cross-border attacks.

Last night, Israeli television reported that Prime Minister Ehud Barak has ordered the army to prepare to evacuate its remaining bases in southern Lebanon within 10 days. The prime minister's office denied the report, but there is no doubt the evacuation is under way and will be complete by Barak's self-imposed deadline of July 7.

Meanwhile, the Israeli-sponsored militia in the occupied zone, the South Lebanon Army, has begun disintegrating. According to reports from Beirut, 46 members of the 2,500-man SLA defected yesterday alone, leaving three crucial outposts in the occupied zone undefended and Israeli positions more exposed than ever.

Among the positions abandoned by the SLA is one at Taibe, barely two miles west of Israel's northern border town of Metulla.

Even as they quit their bases, the Israelis are coming under ferocious mortar, missile and artillery bombardment by Hezbollah, or Party of God, the militant pro-Iranian Shiite Muslim guerrillas who have outlasted the Israeli army and disheartened the Israeli public by inflicting a steady toll of casualties on Israeli troops.

While Israel officially portrays its pullout as the end of a tragedy and a reasoned strategic shift, Hezbollah says it is determined to demonstrate that the Israelis are fleeing Lebanese territory under fire and are suffering a humiliating military defeat.

The withdrawal is taking place despite the opposition of much of Israel's military establishment. High-ranking officers have argued the pullout will leave communities along the Jewish state's northern border exposed to attacks by groups operating from Lebanon. …

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