Looking back warily, Israel exits Lebanon

The Israeli army left all but one divided border town in Lebanon Sunday, fulfilling a key condition of the truce.

Israel nearly completed its pullout from Lebanon Sunday, formally concluding the war with Hizbullah guerrillas that failed to secure the release of two soldiers kidnapped in July.

Despite initial concern that the UN brokered cease-fire would dissolve, the truce has so far proven resilient because of the reluctance of both Israel and Hizbullah to launch strikes that would undermine the recovery effort on both sides of the border.

And yet, that hasn't eliminated the lingering risk that differences between Israel and Lebanon over implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 could give way in the future to another round of hostilities.

The resolution provided a framework for a staged withdrawal of Israel and a simultaneous deployment of the Lebanese Army along the border. But differences have arisen on implementation of provisions calling for an arms embargo on Hizbullah, a zone in southern Lebanon free of armed militiamen, respect for the international border, and a clause in the resolution's preamble calls for the unconditional release of Israeli soldiers kidnapped in July.

"I'm not sanguine about the prospects of the cease-fire holding and the UN fulfilling its mandate. First of all because there are differences over what the mandate is," says Michael Oren, a military historian who is a senior fellow at Jerusalem's Shalem Center.

"While the UN force might hinder Hizbullah from rearming, it won't prevent Hizbullah from rearming, and in the process might become Israel's worse nightmare because it could prevent Israel from responding to Hizbullah terror. Do you think Hizbullah will go quietly into the night?"

The month-long campaign destroyed much of Hizbullah's positions near the Israeli border as well as a good deal of its missile arsenal, but the Shiite guerrilla group's leadership and organization survived largely intact.

While Israel expects the UN force to actively assist the untested Lebanese Army in demilitarizing the south and blocking arms shipments to Hizbullah, the commander of the UN forces said earlier this month that disarming the Shiite guerrillas isn't the job of the international force.

Hizbullah has lowered its profile in the south, but refused to hand over weapons. The Lebanese, meanwhile, expect the group's military wing to be disarmed through a political agreement sometime in the future.

On Sunday, French Maj. Gen. Alain Pellegrini, the leader of the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon hailed as "significant progress" the pullout of Israeli forces from south Lebanon, but added that the pullout would not be complete until Israeli soldiers left one remaining divided village that straddles the border. General Pellegrini said he expected Israel to leave the Lebanese side of the village of Ghajjar within a week.

A spokeswoman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that the pullout was ordered after the UN finished mediating security coordination efforts between Israel and the Lebanese Army. Israel's withdrawal was also linked to the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur, the annual fast that began sundown Sunday.

Despite the pullback, Israel is still worried that not enough is being done to prevent weapons from reaching Hizbullah through the Syrian border. Israel expects an enlarged force of UN peacekeepers to actively assist the Lebanese Army to implement the cease-fire.

"The resolution is a general resolution [and] it doesn't go into fine details," says Miri Eisen, an adviser to Mr. Olmert. "We hope that this new force will bring about a new era of stability along the Israel-Lebanese border.... We're not into threatening, but Israel will know how to defend itself and its citizens if the Lebanese don't comply."

In Lebanon, Hizbullah is concentrating on shoring up its domestic support and fighting political battles rather than renewing the conflict with Israel.

No one expects Hizbullah to be disarmed anytime soon and UN peacekeepers aren't expected to become involved in using force against the militia unless it's explicitly requested to do so. Memories of botched US and French peacekeeping mission in 1983 are expected to make the UN force wary of getting bogged down in a conflict with Hizbullah, analysts say.

To be sure, some Israeli analysts concur that a new flare-up in the foreseeable future is unlikely. "I don't think there's going to be a confrontation between Israel and Hizbullah for a while," says Hirsch Goodman, a fellow at Tel Aviv University's National Institute for Security Studies. "The main interaction right now is a dynamic between Lebanon and Hizbullah, and whether it will remain an independent militia in a democratic country."

Israel says the Lebanese government is ultimately responsible for preventing cross-border attacks like the July kidnapping that triggered the war.

But one former Israeli general said it's the UN peacekeepers that will play the crucial role in ensuring the success of the cease-fire.

"Now is the test not for Israel, not for Hizbullah, and not even for [Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad] Sinora, it's a test of the international community," says Yakov Amidror, former head of planning in the Israeli military. "It must be clear to the international community and to the Lebanese, if the resolution isn't implemented completely, Israel will act to prevent [attacks as] it sees necessary."

Nicholas Blanford contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.

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