Two and a half months after entering Lebanon, the IDF on Saturday received the green light from Defense Minister Amir Peretz to withdraw its remaining troops before Yom Kippur, which begins Sunday evening.
In the last few days, the IDF has reduced the number of soldiers stationed over the border. By Saturday night, barely 200 remained.
Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz presented the army's withdrawal plan to Peretz and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over the weekend.
Peretz also ordered an "aggressive IDF posture" along the border and instructed Halutz not to allow Hizbullah to hold demonstrations along the frontier. Last week, Halutz said he would allow soldiers to open fire at rock-throwing Hizbullah supporters along the Blue Line, the UN-demarcated border with Lebanon.
According to agreements between the IDF and UNIFIL, representatives of the multinational force will be stationed at Northern Command headquarters in Safed to coordinate military activity inside Lebanon in real time.
Officers in the Northern Command said over the weekend that even though Israel had decided to withdraw, there were several issues that needed to be resolved with the Lebanese army and UNIFIL. They said UNIFIL still needed to respond to questions on its rules of engagement and what it would do if it identified Hizbullah gunmen on their way to or in the midst of an attack against Israel.
Nearly 6,000 UNIFIL soldiers and 15,000 Lebanese troops are deployed in southern Lebanon.
A high-ranking IDF officer said that if Hizbullah violated the cease-fire, Israel would hold the Lebanese government responsible as well as the Islamist group. "The situation now is different, since there is an army in southern Lebanon and our discussions are with the government," he said.
On Friday, UNIFIL chief Maj.-Gen. Alain Pelligrini informed Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora of Israel's decision to withdraw. Milos Strugar, a senior UNIFIL official, told The Jerusalem Post the peacekeeping force was eagerly awaiting an IDF withdrawal and was prepared to assist the Lebanese army to take full control of southern Lebanon.
UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which opened the way for a cease-fire, called on Israel to withdraw, but did not specify a deadline.
Israel has been reluctant to withdraw the last of its troops, citing disagreements over the deployment of Lebanese and UN forces. The resolution calls for 15,000 peacekeepers to work with an equal number of Lebanese soldiers to prevent another outbreak of fighting.
It also requires that the south be kept weapons-free, except for arms authorized by the Lebanese government.
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