IDF: Withdrawal to last up to 10 days

Army to release reservists; Paratroopers march back to Israel on foot.

IDF soldier lebanon 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
IDF soldier lebanon 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
In an interview on Israel Radio Tuesday afternoon, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz predicted that the IDF withdrawal from Lebanese territory would last no more than a week to 10 days, assuming "everything goes as planned," he said. Halutz said that in the 32 days of fighting, a number of very significant achievements were made, and that through such achievements Hizbullah suffered considerably. He emphasized that Hizbullah's international reputation had been harmed by the casualties and damage caused by their long-range rockets. He added, however, that currently they were abiding by the ceasefire. With regards to the UN Security Council resolution, Halutz said that by his estimate, it would considerably alter the security situation in southern Lebanon. Halutz also promised to check claims made by reservist soldiers about a lack of equipment and training. Every reservist soldier, he said, would receive a special form upon release, by which opinions and concerns could be submitted. On that note, Halutz also said that the IDF could not and would not be an obstacle to the formation of a committee charged with investigating the management of the conflict. Halutz also said that the IDF was already transferring Lebanese territory to UNIFIL, and that UNIFIL would transfer it to Lebanon. 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. The IDF began to pull troops out of Lebanon, with the first unit to leave, a group of reserve paratroopers who had been airlifted to the region of Tyre, marched back to Israel on foot on Tuesday morning, headed by its brigade commander. One of the returning soldiers told Army Radio, "The feeling was of uncertainty, which stemmed from chaos on our side. There were no clear orders and no clear briefings." On Tuesday afternoon, Lebanese officials reported that the IDF had withrdrawn completely from the towns of Marjayoun, 12 kilometers north of the border, and Ghandourieh, 15 kilometers from Israel, but remained in other villages nearby. The army occupied Marjayoun last Thursday as it made a final push into Lebanon in the last days of the fighting. Senior officers told The Jerusalem Post the IDF planned 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. Hizbullah guerillas fired at least three mortar shells at IDF forces in south Lebanon early Tuesday morning. Mortars were not fired over the border into Israel. No casualties were reported. 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. "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 other 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.