MOSHAV ZARIT, Israel – Israeli military officials said the army withdrew the last of its troops from Lebanon early today, fulfilling a key condition of the cease-fire that ended a monthlong war with Hezbollah guerrillas.
The pullout ended a nearly three-month troop presence and cleared the way for the full deployment of an international peacekeeping force that will police the border.
Israeli military officials said the last soldiers returned to Israel around 2:30 a.m. ahead of the onset of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar which begins at sundown. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity under military guidelines.
Israel had gradually reduced its troop presence since the Aug. 14 cease-fire from a peak of 30,000 during the fighting to several hundred in recent days. The final pullout was swift, taking just several hours to complete.
Under the cover of darkness, the roar of Israeli tanks and armored vehicles could be heard moving across the Lebanese side of the border during the operation.
An armored column creaked across the border at the Israeli border community of Moshav Avivim, leaving tank treads in the soil and sending a large cloud of dust into the air that was visible in the vehicle’s headlights. Later, the last group of soldiers was seen boarding a bus at nearby Moshav Zarit.
During the withdrawal, the military censor imposed a blackout on all details of the troop movements, citing security concerns. The army set up roadblocks to block reporters from reaching the border.
Israel sent the troops into Lebanon shortly after Hezbollah guerrillas abducted two soldiers and killed three others in a July 12 cross-border raid. More than 150 Israelis and 850 Lebanese were killed in 34 days of fighting.
Israeli officials had been reluctant to withdraw the last of the troops. They cited disagreements over the deployment of Lebanese and U.N. forces in southern Lebanon, which has long been a stronghold of the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah guerrillas. Israel is concerned about the force’s ability to prevent Hezbollah, which launched 4,000 rockets into Israel during the fighting, from rearming.
The last troops had been scattered at four locations along the border, including Maroun el-Rass, where heavy fighting raged in July and August.
The U.N. peacekeepers deployed in southern Lebanon were expected to send patrols today to verify the Israeli withdrawal.
As in previous Israeli withdrawals since the cease-fire, U.N. peacekeepers would send patrols to the vacated areas after being informed by the Israelis to verify and in turn inform the Lebanese government.
The U.N. resolution calls for 15,000 peacekeepers to work with an equal number of Lebanese soldiers to prevent another outbreak of fighting. It mandates a full Israeli pullout and requires the south be kept weapons-free except for arms approved by the Lebanese government.
Some 10,000 Lebanese soldiers and more than 5,000 U.N. troops have been deployed in the south.