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19 Iyar 5760 - May 24, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Hizbullah Moves in as SLA Flees

by Yated Ne'eman Staff

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 attacked.

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 left behind.

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 September.

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