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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israelis Abandon Southern Lebanon




BINT JBEIL, Lebanon -- Israel's 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon has crumbled as Islamic guerrillas and their jubilant civilian supporters have swept into village after village, laying claim to disputed Lebanese land and moving to within scant distance of the Israeli border.


Israel's militia allies, the South Lebanon Army, surrendered or fled in humiliation as the Moslem Shiite Hezbollah guerrillas swept through most of the so-called security zone Tuesday. The militia abandoned its infamous Khiam prison, leaving the 140 inmates to walk free.


Events began unraveling Monday with dizzying speed as the SLA militia disintegrated and Israel hastened its forces' retreat from southern Lebanon.


Israel had begun its withdrawal, piece by piece, more than a week ago and had hoped for an orderly retreat, with UN forces gradually taking up abandoned positions. Instead, the South Lebanon Army collapsed, fleeing outposts that were quickly seized by Hezbollah guerrillas.


By Tuesday afternoon, Hezbollah controlled about two-thirds of what was once an Israeli-controlled buffer zone in southern Lebanon. In many cases, Hezbollah took up positions on the Israeli-Lebanon frontier.


Terrified residents of Israeli border communities watched in disbelief as red and yellow Hezbollah flags waved just a few hundred meters from their homes, across a border marked by a wire fence.


Many of the Israelis have headed for bomb shelters in anticipation of Hezbollah shelling.


The disintegration of the enclave snowballed early Tuesday when the Israeli army abandoned its base in Bint Jbeil. Crowds of Lebanese guerrillas and sympathizers surged in to take over. They kissed and hugged or waved the flags of the main Shiite guerrilla groups, Hezbollah and Amal.


Guerrilla flags fluttered from electricity poles and rooftops in the town of 4,000. Guerrillas packed trucks with ammunition and mortar guns abandoned by the SLA. Others drove around in captured armored personnel carriers.


"This is an unforgettable moment,'' said Hala Ayoub, a 55-year-old woman who squeezed and kissed her 18-year-old son Fadi in the town square. She said she saw her son once a year outside the zone because he feared harassment by the SLA.


The jubilant scene was repeated in dozens of smaller villages.


Tuesday's takeovers were peaceful - unlike Monday, when six civilians were killed and 19 wounded as Israeli and allied militia gunmen opened fire in an attempt to halt the masses streaming back to their hometowns.


But a Lebanese driver working with the British Broadcasting Corp. was killed Tuesday 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.


At Khiam, minutes after the SLA evacuated the town, residents went to the notorious detention camp, broke the locks and freed the prisoners.


Scores of detainees rushed out with tears in their eyes to embrace their liberators who fired volleys into the air. "The nightmare is over," a wild-haired detainee repeated as he sobbed on a friend's shoulder. "I can't believe the nightmare is actually over."


Human rights groups have long denounced conditions there, saying prisoners were systematically tortured. Israel denied involvement in running the prison but last year acknowledged that it had trained Khiam's interrogators.


Hundreds of SLA militiamen surrendered en masse or fled with families to Israel, giving the guerrillas unimpeded access to the border. By Tuesday afternoon, about 2,000 had entered Israel. Most were given a first refuge in a tent camp on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.


Those who surrendered were hauled into Lebanese army trucks. They are expected to stand trial on charges of collaboration that carry prison terms and, in extreme cases, the death penalty.


"It is a beautiful scene to see the collaborators rounded up in humiliation,'' said Nasser Fakhreddine, a 33-year-old truck driver. But, he added, some SLA members "have been my neighbors for 20 years, and they were forcefully drafted. I hope the government takes this into consideration.''


Despite the haste of their retreat, Israeli soldiers were clearly relieved to be getting out of a conflict that appeared unwinnable and was deeply unpopular with the Israeli public. Prime Minister Ehud Barak won election a year ago on a promise to withdraw by July 7.


At the Egel border crossing, dozens of returning soldiers gave the thumbs-up sign, unloaded rifles and shed flak jackets.


"In the end we took down the flag in haste and we sang the Tikva [national anthem] ... so that we would have the good feeling we aren't leaving with our tail between our legs," one said.


But Israeli newspapers likened the withdrawal to the U.S. rout from Saigon in 1975. "Day of Humiliation," read one headline.


Once the pullout is complete, Hezbollah, the main guerrilla group in Lebanon, was expected to flow in and tighten its control over virtually all of the zone running from the Mediterranean Sea to the foot of the Golan Heights.


Hezbollah has refrained so far from exacting revenge on its enemies and has sought to assure Christian residents in the border areas.


Israel, which has in the past repeatedly attacked Lebanese infrastructures including power plants, roads and bridges to retaliate for guerrilla attacks, has said Lebanon will bear the consequences if Hezbollah strikes its territory and has warned it could send troops into Lebanon again.


In Beirut, Lebanese took to the streets in celebration.


"This is a great victory for our country and the resistance brought that honor for us," said Ali, a 32-year-old shopkeeper in the Shiite southern suburbs.


Syria, the dominant power in Lebanon and a backer with Iran of the Hezbollah, said the withdrawal proved Israel had failed to achieve its objectives through occupation and would find no peace until it gave up all Arab land.


But Syria and the United States both affirmed Tuesday the need to avoid military escalation during Israel's withdrawal. The Lebanese government pledged to cooperate with UN peacekeeping forces in the wake of the pullout.


Barak said Israeli troops will deploy in a few days on the Israeli-Lebanese border.