- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2006

KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel — Several hundred foot-weary reservists trudged home across the border yesterday as Israel began thinning its troop presence in Lebanon less than 48 hours into a tenuous cease-fire.

Wire services said the Israelis would turn over some vulnerable positions in southern Lebanon as early as today to U.N. forces already based in Lebanon, seeking to reduce their exposure to any Hezbollah action that could restart hostilities.

Israel had originally said it would hold its ground until a robust international force was in place between the Islamist militia and the Israeli border, but that deployment now looks to be three weeks or longer away.

Relieved to be back in Israel, the returning soldiers described an enemy that had controlled the battlefield and enjoyed the element of surprise.

“The fighters of Hezbollah had six years to prepare. It’s their stage. They are the director, and you are the actor,” said Yaron Yaniv, a sniper who spent the last five days in Lebanon. “It’s their land. They know the disadvantages and the advantages.”

Only a few scattered incidents disrupted the cease-fire that took effect at 8 a.m. Monday. Israel said its forces killed five Hezbollah fighters yesterday in defensive actions.

No casualty report was available from Hezbollah, but its allies took to the airwaves proclaiming a victory for the Iranian-armed organization and a changed Middle East.

In a strident post-war address, Syrian President Bashar Assad said Israel risked defeat unless it sought peace with Arab countries. He declared the war a “failure for Israeli and its ally,” referring to the United States.

Mr. Assad also pledged to “liberate” the Golan Heights, captured by Israel from Syria in 1967, “with our hands and determination,” according to wire service reports from Damascus. He declared the Arab-Israeli peace process dead and said “the next generations in the Arab world will find a way to defeat Israel.”

In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier canceled a trip to Damascus in protest over the Syrian president’s praise of Hezbollah and warning to Israel.

The German diplomat had planned to fly to the Syrian capital from Amman, Jordan, for a round of talks aimed at resolving the crisis between Israel and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.

But he called off the Syrian leg at short notice, saying Mr. Assad’s comments were a “negative contribution.”

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a large crowd in the Iranian city of Arbadil that “God’s promises have come true.”

“On one side, it is corrupt powers of the criminal U.S. and Britain and the Zionists … with modern bombs and planes. And on the other side is a group of pious youth relying on God.”

In Kiryat Shemona and other towns in northern Israel, residents who had spent long weeks in bomb shelters or further south began surveying the damage from the daily rain of Hezbollah missiles.

At one road junction, teenaged girls handed flowers to Israeli soldiers as they passed on foot.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni announced in Jerusalem that she will travel to New York to pursue the release of two Israeli soldiers in a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The U.N. cease-fire resolution called for an unconditional return of the two soldiers, whose July 12 abduction sparked the war.

“From this point on, the process of bringing the soldiers home will continue,” she said. “As long as the abducted soldiers haven’t been returned, the operation hasn’t been completed.”

The Associated Press quoted unnamed Israeli military officials proposing to swap 13 Hezbollah prisoners and “dozens” of bodies for the two soldiers. Before the war, Israel had ruled out any such swap.

Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz found himself fighting on a new front yesterday, facing calls for his dismissal after reports that he sold off investments in the first hours of the monthlong crisis.

The Israeli military has come under a torrent of criticism saying it was unprepared to fight Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israeli news Web sites said lawmakers spanning the political spectrum were pressing for Gen. Halutz to resign.

Sitting in a wheelchair with stitches after being injured by an anti-tank missile that struck his tank, Cpl. Michael Mizrahi said Hezbollah had displayed a high level of training in its use of advanced weapons. “They know how to fire and where to fire,” he said.

Cpl. Mizrahi’s tank was hit after he and his crew had given up the search for a Hezbollah squad firing rockets into Israel. The gunner complained that Hezbollah fighters shoot and then melt into the population or dive into a bunker. Driving a tank in southern Lebanon exposed the crew to severe danger, he said.

Laid up in a ward of Haifa’s main hospital, Capt. Arik Dayan said Hezbollah was fighting a different sort of war, in which the goal was not to conquer territory, but to inflict maximum casualties.

“They say, ‘Come take the village,’ then they come to you,” he said. “They work in small groups. Simplicity wins.”

cThis article is based in part on wire service reports.

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