Israeli concerns about violence delay final troop withdrawal from Lebanon

Thursday, September 28th 2006, 6:34 am
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Despite repeated Israeli assurances of a quick troop withdrawal from Lebanon, Israeli officials said Thursday they were reluctant to complete the pullout more than six weeks after a cease-fire agreement ended a month of bloody conflict.

Several issues _ large and small _ remain unresolved, involving the future roles of Hezbollah guerrillas, U.N. forces and the Lebanese army in the border area, and the overall prospect of keeping the guns and rockets silent. Israel fears protests by Hezbollah supporters along the border are a harbinger of greater violence.

Security officials say a few thousand Israeli troops are still just across the border in Lebanon, left over from a large-scale Israeli offensive that followed a July 12 cross-border raid by Hezbollah guerrillas who killed three soldiers and captured two others.

In 34 days of combat, Israel targeted Hezbollah neighborhoods, weapons and bases in Lebanon, and the guerrillas fired almost 4,000 rockets at Israel. More than 800 Lebanese and more than 150 Israelis were killed. A cease-fire based on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 went into effect on Aug. 14.

But disagreements over the deployment of Lebanese and U.N. forces in southern Lebanon have delayed the final Israeli troop pullout, Israeli military officials said Thursday.

The resolution calls for an international force of 15,000 troops to join Lebanese soldiers in patrolling southern Lebanon to prevent another outbreak of violence. It also mandates an Israeli withdrawal behind the border and requires that south Lebanon be weapons-free except for arms approved by the Lebanese government.

Israel insists this means Hezbollah guerrillas must be disarmed, but neither the U.N. force nor the Lebanese military is eager to take on the task.

Israeli officials say a likely solution would have the U.N. force informing the Lebanese army if it finds armed guerrillas in southern Lebanon, and the army would then deal with them.

Israel believes Hezbollah still has massive weapons stores in south Lebanon and guerrillas in place to use them, and that a full-scale conflict could erupt at any time if the U.N. force and Lebanese army do not take firm control. Hezbollah leaders boast that despite the Israeli offensive, their forces still have thousands of rockets ready to fire.

The concerns also reflect a widespread feeling among Israelis that their government and army failed to achieve their stated goals in the war _ devastating Hezbollah and winning release of the captured soldiers. Now Israeli leaders are being extra-cautious in giving a seal of approval to the new arrangements by pulling out their last forces.

Other unresolved issues involve security arrangements for an Arab village that straddles the border, and coordination between U.N. war rooms that will be set up to communicate with each country's army, the Israeli military officials said. The spoke on condition of anonymity, since they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

Israelis also warn that daily protests on the border, in which a few dozen people waving large Hezbollah flags throw rocks at Israeli army vehicles patrolling a road in Israel across the chain-link fence, could escalate into cross-border fighting.

Cabinet Minister Gideon Ezra told a Cabinet meeting Wednesday that Israel had to stop the protests before they spiral out of control. The Israeli army chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, told the meeting he instructed soldiers to fire on stone-throwers in self defense and informed the U.N. forces of his decision.

``We clarified that we will use means to disperse protests against Hezbollah along the border,'' Halutz told the Cabinet, according to a participant. Soldiers who feel threatened will fire in the air and then at the legs of demonstrators, Halutz said.

But the main issues are the duties of the forces in south Lebanon and the pullout of the last Israeli forces.

Halutz said Wednesday that he expected a final agreement clearing the way for an Israeli withdrawal would be achieved in ``a day or two,'' but Israeli military officials said Thursday that the pullout would most likely come after the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur next Monday.

Alexander Ivanko, a spokesman for the U.N. force in southern Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, said Thursday that the United Nations expected the Israeli withdrawal to be completed by the end of the month.

``That is the force commander's understanding, and we are working very actively on ensuring that that happens,'' he said.