Israel's war with Hizbullah seemed to come to an end on Monday, the first day of quiet after a UN-brokered cease-fire went into effect at 8 a.m. following more than a month of fighting. Senior officers told The Jerusalem Post the IDF planned to begin withdrawing troops from Lebanon by the end of the week and to begin releasing thousands of reservists back to their homes.
On Monday, high-ranking IDF officers met with officials from UNIFIL at the Rosh Hanikra crossing and discussed the planned handover of southern Lebanon to the multinational force - made up of an upgraded UNIFIL and the Lebanese army - set to begin gradually by the end of the week.
As the cease-fire took effect, the IDF suspended all air strikes and artillery shelling of Hizbullah targets. Troops inside Lebanon were ordered to hold their fire and only engage Hizbullah gunmen if their lives were in immediate danger.
One issue that remained unclear was what the IDF's response would be to Syrian attempts to smuggle weapons into Lebanon to rehabilitate Hizbullah. One member of the General Staff said the IDF reserved for itself the right to attack the convoys. A senior officer in the Northern Command said the IDF would hold its fire while asking the Lebanese army to assist in preventing the transfer of the weapons.
Explaining the new setup in Lebanon, one senior officer said that trucks carrying weapons or Hizbullah gunmen did not pose an immediate threat and therefore would not be targeted. "The idea is to open fire at Hizbullah only if soldiers are faced with an immediate threat. Trucks carrying weapons do not fall under that category," he said.
He added that soldiers were in position to begin an immediate withdrawal or to press forward and occupy additional territory.
Soldiers were also ordered to continue preventing residents of southern Lebanese villages from returning to their homes. The officer said there were still unexploded shells in the villages and that it was dangerous for residents to return. There was also the possibility that the fighting would flare up again.
By Tuesday evening, the IDF plans to begin moving its forces back from deep inside Lebanon to the line that was the security zone for 18 years until the IDF withdrawal in 2000.
"The forces will begin to deploy in better and more comfortable positions," the officer explained. "Over the next two days we will make adjustments to the line and will begin preparing for the transfer of the territory to UNIFIL and the Lebanese army."
The cease-fire was marred by two skirmishes between troops and Hizbullah gunmen. In the first, troops opened fire on a group of gunmen, hitting one. According to the IDF, Golani Brigade soldiers fired at the gunmen who were moving toward an IDF unit "in a threatening way." The army said it did not know if the fighter had been killed or wounded, but said the soldiers "fired in self-defense." A second incident was reported hours later as soldiers spotted an armed man near the village of Faroun and opened fire.
Addressing the Labor Party Knesset faction on Monday afternoon, Defense Minister Amir Peretz said the cease-fire was being maintained and the government was coordinating the planned withdrawal with UNIFIL. "Israel has no intention of getting stuck in the Lebanese mud," he said.
Following the cease-fire, the IDF Home Front Command released new guidelines for residents of the North, who began to return to their homes. Residents were called on to return to their normal lives, while remaining on heightened alert in case warnings of incoming Katyusha rockets were sounded. However, there remained an advisory against public gatherings, youth activities and day camps.
But no Hizbullah rockets fell, and no IAF planes launched strikes. However, "a provocation or a stray act... could undermine everything," French Maj.-Gen. Alain Pellegrini, who heads the 2,000-strong UNIFIL force, said. More international troops "need to arrive as quickly as possible."
AP contributed to this report.
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