Lebanese affectionately call the gently sloping hillsides of southern Lebanon Jebel Amil. But for more than 20 years, since Israel first invaded its northern neighbor in March 1978, the Jewish state has called this large swath of mostly sun-baked scrubland the "security zone."
Israel had set up the zone to prevent cross-border attacks. But as the occupation became increasingly unpopular at home in the wake of growing casualties, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced last year Israel would withdraw all forces by July, regardless of any peace deal.
And as Israel accelerated its withdrawal this week, rarely have events unraveled with such speed in this part of the world, swiftly transforming the political and military landscape.
The pullback simultaneously raised concerns about the safety of the 2,500-strong Israeli-trained and -financed South Lebanese Army (SLA) militia - which jointly controlled the territory. Scores have surrendered and some SLA members fled to Israel in the past two days as the Iranian-backed Hizbullah guerrillas rapidly moved in to fill the void.
The militia is "collapsing faster than anyone had anticipated," says Timor Goksel, spokesman here for the United Nations peacekeeping force (UNIFIL). "There are a lot of guns in this part of the world. A wrong move by anybody could set off a disaster."
"We will redeploy in the next few days on the international border," Mr. Barak told Israeli Army Radio yesterday. "This 18-year tragedy is over."
In Israel, the retreat from the area that had become a deathtrap for Israeli soldiers was greeted with feelings of relief and humiliation. At the Egel border crossing, returning soldiers gave the thumbs-up sign, unloaded their rifles, and shed flak jackets, Reuters reported. Long lines of Lebanese cars with SLA members waited to enter Israel, some of them accusing Israel of betraying them.
Some see Israel's motives in the pullback as a means to seek legitimacy and international backing for striking at targets in Lebanon if its northern towns come under cross-border fire from pro-Iranian Hizbullah guerrillas, who are poised to become the dominant force in southern Lebanon. There are some concerns in Israel that a guerrilla war might now be carried on across the border, and that there may be revenge attacks against the SLA.
But Augustus Norton of Boston University, who served with the UN Truce Supervision Organization in southern Lebanon during the early 1980s, thinks that the chances for a peaceful resolution are good.
"Hizbullah has a harsh rhetoric, but they will stop shooting when Israel leaves, and they do not wish to become involved in vengeance," Professor Norton says. "They understand the risks very greatly.". But first "there will have to be army deployments in the south, in coordination with UNIFIL, but I expect that to occur. If it doesn't, Lebanon will be ridiculed worldwide."
"Hizbullah is declaring victory against Israel," says Ja'afar Haidar, a Shiite Muslim whose wife is from the occupied village of Aitaroun. "But everyone is going to lose if the Lebanese government doesn't step in quickly and stop a cycle of revenge from developing."
The Lebanese government, however, has not yet announced that it is ready to reassert control over the "security zone." Beirut's staunchly pro-Syrian minister of the interior, Michel al Murr, said last week that Beirut had "no plans to deploy the Lebanese Army" in the border-strip. That would leave the area under firm control of Hizbullah.
A high-ranking Lebanese government official, who asked that his name not be used, told the Monitor that Syria, which has 35,000 troops in Lebanon, was "pressuring Beirut to be as unaccommodating as possible" toward the Israeli withdrawal, including making it difficult for UN peacekeepers to deploy. Syria and Lebanon have coordinated their negotiating positions in the stalled peace. Syria has been pressuring for the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 war.
Norton also says that Israel's withdrawal and the collapse of the SLA can only be positive, because it has caused cracks in the relationship between Lebanon and Syria. "The past few months have been witness to a sad farce, while Lebanon's most senior politicians have scrambled to play handmaiden to Syria's interests," Norton says. At the same time Syria ignored "the interests of Lebanon, which don't neatly coincide with Syria's."
A good deal of the uncertainty over the present situation, Norton says, stems from each side misreading the other. He suggests that Israel has misread Hizbullah's intentions by thinking it will continue fighting across the international border, and he also says that Lebanon and Syria have misread Israel's intentions to pull out completely.
"Beirut and Damascus politicians were caught flatfooted by the unfolding situation, because they were so captured by their stereotypes of Israel that they were blind to serious analysis," Norton says. "As a result, there has been precious little preparation or contingency planning in Beirut."
Meanwhile, hundreds of happy villagers are flocking to see homes and relatives many had not visited in 20 years. At the same time, Hizbullah guerrillas accompanied returning villagers, searching buildings and rounding up a number of what it called "suspected Israeli collaborators." Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's leader, said that "all Israeli collaborators must leave with the Israelis ... I say it is the best guarantee for the future."
Gen. Antoine Lahd, the SLA's leader, was in Paris the past week in a bid to get France, the former colonial power, to grant refuge to his men. He told France's Le Monde newspaper that he had "no intention of turning himself in to the Lebanese government."
Israel has also asked friendly governments like those in Canada, Australia, and the US to take some the refugees.
In many villages, long-standing animosity and hard feelings have festered during the years of Israeli occupation. A plea by Lebanon's Maronite-Catholic Patriarch Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir for a blanket amnesty were flatly turned down by the Lebanese government.
Israel's south Lebanon border enclave is a mosaic of Christians, Shiite Muslims, and Druze; the SLA is a composite of that population. It is mostly the Christians, however, that say they are fearful of revenge by Hizbullah, especially after incendiary remarks by Hizbullah's deputy leader, Sheikh Naim Qassem, last month "offering a pardon to militiamen who kill one of their officers or an Israeli."
Simon Karam, former Lebanese ambassador to the US, says the Lebanese government isn't doing much to quiet the fears of ordinary citizens. "What does Lebanon need an army for in the first place, if it is not going to deploy it in the south once Israel leaves?," he says.
"These [SLA militiamen] will be left to their fate, and one can see a sad, unforgiving scenario developing, with a harsh and vindictive state punishing people for collaborating with Israel under a 1950s-era law forbidding collaboration with the 'enemy,' " Mr. Karam says.
Meanwhile, residents in the northern Israeli border town of Kiryat Shemona, say they are concerned over having Hizbullah as their neighbors. "It is impossible to know what will be here," says Meir Elmadri, a restaurant owner. "That is why everyone is in a state of panic and fear. We all feel there is a danger of this becoming a ghost town."
Kiryat Shemona Mayor Haim Barbivai says that if the withdrawal leads to an escalation of Hizbullah attacks "the only people staying here will only be the ones who have no other choice." Only half of the town's parents have registered their children for school next year, Mr. Barbivai added. "They are waiting to see what will happen, to decide whether to leave or to stay."
*Ben Lynfield contributed to this report from Jerusalem.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society