Residents of the north were spending their nights in shelters
as Israel's strategic defense policy in south Lebanon
collapsed early this week with the desertion of hundreds of
members of the South Lebanese Army's (SLA) Shi'ite battalion
from the security zone. The vacuum was filled by returning
residents led by Hizbullah gunmen, some of whom drove right
up to the border waving the organization's flags and leaving
little doubt as to who is now in control of the areas
abandoned by the SLA. They now have permanent positions less
than two kilometers from the border.
The bulk of the SLA is Christian, and they remain firm.
However the collapse of the Shi'ite battalion cuts the former
security zone in two.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak called an emergency cabinet meeting
Monday night at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv to discuss
the deteriorating situation in southern Lebanon and to make
decisions about Israel's next moves.
Officially, the Prime Minister's Office said that the mass
SLA defections and the occupation of the security zone by
Hizbullah had been "in the realm of the predictable," and
were thus no cause for panic. However, senior officials and
ministers said privately that the events were a sign that
"complete chaos" is taking over and that Israel should move
out as "quickly as possible." Barak said he had expected such
a sequence of events.
One minister said that, after all the planning, southern
Lebanon is simply collapsing "like a house of cards."
Barak said that, following the withdrawal, Israel will hold
the governments of Lebanon and Syria responsible for keeping
the peace and would respond with full force if the North is
At least five civilians were killed and 20 wounded as a
result of IDF shelling or in IAF raids Monday near Huleh,
Markabeh, and other villages in the vicinity, prompting a
decision to order residents of confrontation line communities
to enter bomb shelters in case of retaliatory Katyusha rocket
attacks by Hizbullah.
OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi, however, said
at least some of those killed were Hizbullah or Amal gunmen
who were hit in IDF barrages while trying to remove equipment
from outposts abandoned by SLA soldiers.
Former Lebanese residents of the zone who fled their homes
years ago literally walked back to them on Monday. The march
of the returnees to their villages was made possible by the
defection of the SLA soldiers who abandoned outposts in the
villages of Huleh, Markabeh, and the Shi'ite battalion's
headquarters in Beit Leif and Bint J'bail in the central
sector of the zone.
The deserting soldiers left behind large quantities of arms
and even heavy weapons including tanks and armored personnel
carriers. Hizbullah and Amal activists among the returnees
were quick to announce their the presence, raising their
respective flags at abandoned positions.
The IAF was given instructions to destroy all tanks,
artillery, and other heavy weapons left behind by the fleeing
SLA soldiers. Tanks also fired in front of the convoys of
returning citizens in an effort to prevent them reaching
villages which adjoin the border, particularly those close to
the kibbutzim Menara and Misgav Am, and the town of Metulla.
The efforts proved only partially successful.
IDF gunners also shelled the abandoned SLA outposts,
including those in Taibeh and Kantara which were deserted on
Sunday, to prevent Hizbullah and Amal gunmen seizing weapons
The sudden disintegration of the SLA's 70th battalion,
composed almost entirely of Shi'ites, might have been
expected under the circumstances; but the speed of the
collapse took many by surprise.
Reports from Lebanon said that more than 300 SLA soldiers --
all from the Shi'ite battalion -- surrendered yesterday, most
to the Lebanese authorities.
Other SLA soldiers, officers, and their families made a mad
dash for the Turmous and Biranit border crossing points,
where they asked for and were granted asylum in Israel.
For those who remained behind, surrendered themselves, or
were caught by Hizbullah, their fate remained unclear,
despite assurances by Lebanese President Emile Lahoud that
they would be treated fairly and that Lebanon is not seeking
a "blood revenge."
Meanwhile, long lines of cars within Israel streamed south
from Kiryat Shemona early this week, as thousands of
residents chose to leave the northern city rather face the
uncertainty of the next weeks in the north.
Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who visited
the North on Monday, said that Israel would respond harshly
to any attacks on IDF soldiers in the process of withdrawing
from the zone, and especially for any attempts to hit
civilians in Galilee communities. Barak made it clear that
retaliation might not be against targets immediately north of
the security zone, but could include painful strikes against
targets elsewhere in Lebanon.
Kiryat Shemona Mayor Chaim Barbivai called for firm action to
be taken to against Hizbullah, even if it meant that
residents would have to remain in bomb shelters for a month.
Barbivai said that if residents were assured that Israel
would respond decisively to whatever situation had send them
underground again, they would have the stamina to withstand
the tension and fear.
Without those assurances, however, Barbivai said residents of
the city with the resources to do so would leave.
Scores of Kiryat Shemona residents have reportedly put their
homes up for sale and many families have delayed registering
their children for kindergarten and first grade, apparently
because the are unsure they will still be living there in