Israel Remains on Alert During Cease-Fire

Israeli troops welcome the cease-fire with Hezbollah guerrillas as a chance to rest. But the Israeli military remains ready to resume full operations if ordered to attack again. About 30,000 Israeli forces remained in Lebanon.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's go next to northern Israel, an area that's been hit by rockets practically every day since this conflict began.

NPR's Eric Westervelt is there. And, Eric, exactly where are you and what's happening?

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

I'm Qiryat Shmona, on the Israel-Lebanon border. There was heavy outgoing Israeli artillery fire, Steve, and rocket fire throughout the night. You could see and hear the multiple-launch rocket systems they have firing late into the night, and again early this morning the outgoing fire picked up again. And around 7:00 a.m., the warning sirens blared telling people to get inside their bomb shelters. It was just a warning, though. No Hezbollah rockets were fired into Israel. But the fighting went right up until - right before 8:00 a.m. The artillery batteries finally went silent just a few minutes before 8:00.

INSKEEP: Now, we heard about Lebanese taking advantage of that silence to try to return to their homes. What are Israelis doing?

Eric, you still with us? Eric Westervelt in northern Israel.

Okay, we have lost NPR's Eric Westervelt. He is in northern Israel, where a silence has fallen over northern Israel.

WESTERVELT: Steve, can you hear me?

INSKEEP: Yes, we can, Eric. How about you?

Okay, we'll come back to NPR's Eric Westervelt as soon as we can.

Let me just tell you that the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah is holding, giving refugees in south Lebanon, as we heard, a chance to return home.

Israel says it will not immediately withdraw from positions that its troops seized in the last few days. Thirty-four days of warfare have devastated much of south Lebanon and left northern Israel in shambles. About 900 people have been killed.

Now, in the final hours before this truce, Israeli warplanes struck a Hezbollah stronghold in eastern Lebanon and a Palestinian refugee camp in the south, killing two people. Israeli artillery pounded targets across the border through the night.

Now, on the Israeli side, now, the highway leading to southern Lebanon is jammed with refugees returning to their homes. That's in answer to the question we just put to Eric Westervelt. Now that that cease-fire is under way - this is according to the Associated Press - Lebanese troops are scrambling to repair bombed out roads. Many people don't know if they still have a home or not. That's one of the things they're finding out today. And there's also a notable absence of Israeli warplanes. And we're going to learn more now from NPR's Eric Westervelt. We've got him back on the phone.

And, Eric, I was asking if people are returning. It appears that some people are.

WESTERVELT: Some people are, Steve, but it's fragile so far. Not that many people have returned. The Israeli government has not told people it's safe to return, they haven't changed their alert status. They haven't told people yet in the north that it's safe to leave their shelters.

But I was just driving around downtown Qiryat Shmona, and there were more people visible on the streets. The atmosphere has changed. There aren't fires burning all around from Katyusha fires, like normal; people have taken off their flak jackets, police have. There was a change in atmosphere, but people are not returning in droves like they are yet in Lebanon.

INSKEEP: Now one of the key next steps is what Israeli forces do across the border. What are you hearing from Israeli military and political leaders about what their plans are?

WESTERVELT: Well, there will be a phased withdrawal, in theory, along with the deployment of U.N. forces and Lebanese army forces. But that's days, if not weeks away, Steve, and until then Israel says they will stay put.

We saw some troops leaving this morning, coming out, but we're told that that's part of a normal rotation of forces in and out. And I've walked by some artillery batteries this morning. People were more relaxed, cleaning their equipment and lounging around, but they certainly have few illusions that the fighting is necessarily all over. There were - there was one clash this morning, according to Israeli Army Radio, where a Hezbollah fighter opened fire on Israeli forces, the army says, and was shot and killed up near the Litani River this morning. And whether there'll be more clashes, it remains to be seen.

INSKEEP: You said a withdrawal in theory. Does that mean Israelis haven't made it entirely clear that they do intend to withdraw once there's an international force?

WESTERVELT: No, they do intend to withdraw in phases, but they say they will not pull back until there is a U.N. force on the ground, a Lebanese army force, and they want to make sure that Hezbollah gunmen are disarmed.

INSKEEP: Okay, Eric, thanks very much.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: We're talking to NPR's Eric Westervelt in northern Israel. We also heard from NPR's Ivan Watson in Lebanon on this day when a cease-fire, at least for the moment, appears to have taken effect in the war between Israel and Hezbollah.

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