Peretz: Israel, UNIFIL officials coordinating land handover
Cease-fire takes effect Monday morning after month of fighting; IDF kills six Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon.
Israel Defense Forces troops killed six Hezbollah fighters Monday in southern Lebanon, in four separate skirmishes that illustrated the fragility of an hours-old cease-fire.
Despite the incidents, the UN-imposed truce ushered in a calm that the border region had not witnessed for more than a month, with the first tentative signs that people on both sides could begin rebuilding their homes and lives.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Monday that Israeli officials have begun meeting with members of the United Nations peace-keeping force in Lebanon to discuss the withdrawal of Israel Defense Forces troops from the south of the country.
"We have launched coordination with UNIFIL officials to start handing over the ground," Peretz said, referring to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) which, under the terms of the cease-fire that went into effect hours earlier, will help the Lebanese army control the south.
A tense calm took the place of more than a month of bitter fighting between Israel and Hezbollah as guns were stilled at 8.00 A.M. Monday.
In one of the incidents that occurred Monday, IDF troops killed a Hezbollah man who had opened fire on them in southern Lebanon, hours after the United Nations-brokered truce took hold, but the cease-fire held.
In mid-morning, IDF soldiers shot dead the Hezbollah fighter, who sprang from a hiding place and opened fire at them. The clash took place near the village of Ghanduriya, in central south Lebanon.
Senior IDF officers said the incident fell within guidelines allowing for resort to weaponry. The guidelines allow troops to fire at Hezbollah members who pose a mortal and immediate threat. According to the officers, the Monday incident did not jeopardize the cease-fire.
Tension was high before and after the deadline. Israel launched new air strikes on Lebanon on Monday less than two hours before the truce began.
There were also scattered exchanges of fire between IDF soldiers and Hezbollah men prior to the cease-fire, but no injuries were reported.
"It's emotional," a exhausted but smiling soldier told Israel Channel 10 television as his unit left Lebanon Monday morning. "It's a cease-fire."
Air raid sirens sounded in Haifa, Safed, and other hard-hit communities in the north as the truce deadline neared early Monday, as authorities braced for a possible last-minute salvo by Hezbollah gunners.
There were no reports of rockets, but the army urged residents of some northern communities to remain in shelters until further notice.
The only rockets fired at Israel on Monday were Grad-Katyusha missiles fired from Gaza at the southern Israel coastal city of Ashkelon. No injuries were reported.
Army recommending quick withdrawalThe army is recommending that once the cease-fire takes effect, Israel should begin withdrawing its forces from Lebanon relatively quickly.
The intention is for the forces to move back to a line north of the border with Lebanon within about 10 days, or as soon as the Lebanese Army is ready to begin entering south Lebanon. This means that the IDF will not be conducting searches for Hezbollah fighters or arms caches in the areas that it has captured over the last few days, which the army defined as "the heart of the operational campaign" against Hezbollah.
Once the Lebanese Army is fully deployed in the south, together with a beefed-up UNIFIL force, the IDF troops will withdraw completely.
Sunday, five IDF soldiers were killed in the fighting and more than 30 were wounded, 10 of them seriously. In addition, despite the IDF's advance, Hezbollah fired some 250 rockets on Israel, the war's heaviest one-day total to date. The strikes killed one person and wounded dozens.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and the chiefs of the defense establishment met Sunday night to discuss the cease-fire, and Olmert ordered the army to begin abiding by it as of 2 A.M. Monday morning, other than in cases of self-defense.
But Israeli air strikes went on well after that time, targeting areas in eastern Lebanon and near the southern city of Sidon, the security sources said. Fierce clashes between Israeli troops and Hizbollah were also reported early on Monday. Army Radio said the air force had attacked 175 targets, among them 11 rocket launchers.
The eleventh-hour airstrike hit an office of the pro-Syrian Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General-Command on the edge of the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp in the southern city of Sidon. One person, a garbage collector, was killed and three civilians who lived nearby were wounded, security officials said.
Air strikes on the village of Brital near Lebanon's eastern border with Syria overnight killed at least nine civilians, medics said.
Olmert and the defense chiefs also agreed that the IDF will begin withdrawing some of its forces from Lebanon immediately, but will remain in various positions that offer control over surrounding areas until these positions can be handed over to the Lebanese Army and the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
As of Sunday night, the IDF had begun removing the first reservist units out of Lebanon. Over the coming days, the remaining forces will be gradually reduced, and in some cases, reservists will be replaced with regular army units.
IDF sources admitted that in the time remaining until the cease-fire takes effect, the army will only manage to reach the Litani River - which was the goal of the current offensive - in a few places.
Late Sunday night, the General Staff drafted new rules of engagement for the forces that will remain in Lebanon once the cease-fire goes into effect. Army sources told Haaretz that the new rules will allow soldiers to open fire at any Hezbollah fighter who endangers them. If necessary - meaning if troops are endangered, if wounded men need to be evacuated or if a pinned-down force needs to be rescued - commanders will also be able to call in helicopter fire, fighter jets and artillery.
IDF to halt advanceAs soon as the cease-fire takes effect, the IDF will order its ground forces to halt their advance. In addition, Israel is considering lifting its naval and air blockade of Lebanon. If it does so, it will also cease firing on trucks crossing the border from Syria into Lebanon, which may enable Hezbollah to acquire a new arms supply - particularly since large weapons shipments from both Iran and Syria are known to be waiting on the Syrian side of the border.
In addition, the IDF will not conduct bombing raids in Beirut or other places deep in Lebanon's interior.
The IDF believes that the cease-fire might well lead Hezbollah to stop its rocket fire on Israel, though Military Intelligence also suggested that the organization might try to fire long-range rockets at the Tel Aviv area in the final hours before the cease-fire takes effect, in order to "have the last word."
However, Hezbollah is considered likely to continue attacking the ground forces that are slated to remain inside Lebanon until the Lebanese Army and UNIFIL take over.
As a result, defense establishment officials are doubtful that the cease-fire will hold.
Sunday, the IDF foiled a Hezbollah attempt to send two drones over Israel. It is not yet known whether the drones were carrying explosives.