Israel's Cabinet voted Sunday to begin immediately the second phase of its withdrawal from south Lebanon. The rare show of unity in a Cabinet split between the right-wing Likud bloc and the Labor Party reflected growing sentiment in Israel that the withdrawal of its forces should be completed as quickly as possible.
A government press release said the vote was unanimous, though Israel Radio reported that Cabinet ministers Ariel Sharon and Moshe Arens did not participate.
The vote came a day after Lebanese Shiite Muslim leader Nabih Berri said attacks would be launched against northern Israeli villages each time Israel attacks a south Lebanese village. The Israelis started applying their so-called ``iron fist'' to the south two weeks ago in response to an increase in attacks on Israeli forces, particularly in the heavily Shiite area east of Tyre.
Israeli forces have launched massive raids on dozens of villages in the areas it still controls, demolishing homes, arresting hundreds of village men, and shooting some villagers described by the Israeli Army as ``terrorists.''
On Saturday, the Israelis raided the Shiite village of Maarakeh, east of Tyre, killing one man and destroying three houses. An Army spokesman said the raid yielded the largest cache of arms yet discovered by the Israelis in a single village. [Israeli troops came under fire Sunday near Maarakeh, Reuters reported.]
The south is under a dusk-to-dawn curfew, and the coastal city of Tyre -- sealed off by the Israelis -- is reportedly running low on bread, fuel, and medical supplies.
Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Prime Minister Shimon Peres have defended the raids as necessary to protect the retreating Israeli Army. The Lebanese have sought United Nations Security Council condemnation of Israel's activities in the south.
The increase in attacks on Israeli soldiers since Israel began its withdrawal last month has alarmed some military strategists here, who fear that the growing strength of radicals in the south will spill over Israel's northern border once its troops completely withdraw.
Mr. Berri's statements to the press were seen here as largely rhetorical. But analysts here believe that Berri, head of the moderate Shiite Amal movement, is feeling increased pressure from more radical fundamentalist groups such as the Hizbullah (``Party of God'').
Voice of Israel radio said the second phase of the pullout, from the lower part of the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, could be finished in as little as six weeks.
Israel announced in January that it would unilaterally end its 32-month occupation of the bottom third of Lebanon in three stages. The Israelis has sought assurances from the Lebanese and Syrians that its northern border would remain secure once the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon ended. But Syria and Lebanon refused to grant any guarantees.
The first stage of the pullout was completed Feb. 16, and brought Israeli troops out of the predominantly Sunni Muslim city of Sidon, to a much longer front line between the Litani and Zahrani rivers.
The second phase of the withdrawal will pull troops away from the strategic Jebel Barukh mountaintop, where they have been both face to face with Syrian troops in the Bekaa Valley and within artillery range of Damascus.
The Army will be redeployed along a new line running about 10 miles north of the Israeli-Lebanese border. An Army spokesman estimated that 10 times as much equipment will be removed in the second stage as was taken out in the first stage of withdrawal.
Mr. Rabin has said that Israel could finish its pullout by the end of summer. The Israelis hope that the mostly Christian South Lebanon Army it has trained and paid will patrol a ``security belt'' above the northern border after the last Israeli troops withdraw.
Rabin is scheduled to take a tour today of the northern Israeli towns that will again be within range of Katyusha rockets from south Lebanon once the second phase of the withdrawal is completed.
It was ostensibly to secure the north from such attacks that Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982 and destroyed the Palestine Liberation Organization military infrastructure in the south.