- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2000

METULLA, Israel Israeli troops evacuated their remaining positions in south Lebanon before dawn today, carrying out an unexpectedly hasty withdrawal that ended one of the most divisive chapters in Israel's history.

The final pullout began with departing troops blowing up most remaining position after Prime Minister Ehud Barak ordered the evacuation, leaving the border region to Shi'ite Muslim guerrillas who have been rapidly filling the power vacuum.

Mr. Barak initially planned to begin the pullback only several days from now. However, his hand was forced when the South Lebanon Army militia, Israel's ally, rapidly disintegrated. Over a span of several days, SLA fighters abandoned posts and either surrendered to advancing Hezbollah guerrillas or fled south, seeking asylum in Israel.

Hundreds of soldiers, many dusty and tired-looking, drove across the border in long convoys of tanks and truck. Several soldiers atop a tank proudly held up a large Israeli flag. Others waved olive branches. A few climbed down from the armored vehicles and hugged each other once they reached Israeli soil.

"The nightmare is over," said Ephraim Gandelberg, a bereaved father whose son was killed in fighting in Lebanon in 1996.

However, relief was tempered by concern that Israel would be unable to extricate itself fully from what has been called the "mire of Lebanon."

Mr. Barak has said he would retaliate harshly for any Lebanese guerrilla attacks on northern Israel, a scenario that could lead to a renewed Israeli entanglement.

By 5 a.m. today, all Israeli outposts in Lebanon had been dismantled, Israeli military officials said. The last Israeli troops were making their way across the border.

The Israeli withdrawal had begun overnight Monday. The homeward-bound Israeli soldiers were joined by hundreds of panicky militiamen and their families converged in search of asylum.

All day yesterday, jubilant guerrillas assumed the positions abandoned by Israeli-allied SLA militiamen, who surrendered or fled into Israel, leaving tanks and weapons.

The security zone was created in 1985 to protect Israel's northern settlements from cross-border attacks by Lebanese guerrillas. A complete withdrawal was expected within days.

Despite the retreat, fighting continued. Israel sent in Merkava battle tanks to protect its troops as they withdrew from front-line positions and Israeli air force jets rocketed guerrilla positions and destroyed roads into its old enclave.

By last night, the Israeli army had abandoned several front-line positions and pulled armor and artillery from the area of Marjayoun, the town that served as the enclave's capital.

Earlier yesterday, it also abandoned Bint Jbeil, Israel's second-largest base in Lebanon, and crowds of Lebanese guerrillas and sympathizers surged in to reclaim the village of 4,000.

The scene was repeated in dozens of smaller villages, where hundreds of South Lebanon Army militiamen surrendered en masse or fled with families to Israel, giving the guerrillas unimpeded access to the border. In the east, militiamen abandoned the notorious Khiam prison, leaving 140 inmates to walk free.

In Israel, border residents took to their bomb shelters yesterday, fearing possible reprisal attacks.

At Fatima Gate, an inland border crossing into Israel, hundreds of militiamen and their families left cars backed up for miles and finished the journey on foot, carrying suitcases crammed with their belongings. Several hundred more fled through the Naqoura border post on the Mediterranean coast.

Among those heading to Israel were the widow and six daughters of Maj. Saad Haddad, the first Lebanese military man to publicly ally himself with Israel. Maj. Haddad, a renegade from the Lebanese army in the opening years of the 1975-90 civil war, founded the Army of Free Lebanon, forerunner of the South Lebanon Army.

By yesterday afternoon, about 2,000 Lebanese refugees had entered Israel, most taking refuge in a tent camp on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Yesterday's withdrawal from Bint Jbeil and dozens of other villages was mostly peaceful unlike Monday, when six civilians were killed and 19 wounded when Israeli and allied militia gunners opened fire in an attempt to halt the masses streaming back to their hometowns.

However, a Lebanese driver working with the British Broadcasting Corp. was killed when a shell landed beside his car near the border, BBC Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen said. It was not immediately known who fired the shell.

Another Lebanese civilian lost a leg when he drove his motorcycle over a land mine outside an abandoned militia position in the village of Baraachit.

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