Israeli Troops Begin Leaving South Lebanon

The cease-fire between Hezbollah and Israel seems to be holding in its second day, prompting many Lebanese to return home and Israelis to cautiously emerge from bomb shelters in northern Israel. Some minor clashes were reported within Lebanon as Israeli troops begin to withdraw.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning. Residents of southern Lebanon and northern Israel are returning to their homes as the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah held for a second day. There were a number of isolated incidents, including some clashes that left about 10 Hezbollah fighters dead. But it seems both sides are generally keeping to the terms of the cease-fire.

NPR's Eric Westervelt is on the Israeli-Lebanese border in northern Israel, and he joins me now. And Eric, there are reports that some Katyusha rockets have been fired, but they have been fired inside southern Lebanon. What can you tell us about that?

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

That's right. Around midnight last night, I could hear several explosions on the northern border, just north of Metula. It sounded like incoming mortar or Katyusha rocket fire. Israeli defense force officials tell me that Hezbollah fired eight to 10 Katyusha rockets last night and early today, but all of them fell within south Lebanon, not in Israeli territory. No one was injured, and the Israeli army says they have not and will not respond to those rockets, that they landed all within Lebanese territory.

And as you mentioned, Renee, there were several clashes in south Lebanon yesterday. Hezbollah fighters - the Israeli army says - came close by and were threatening their soldiers, so Israeli forces shot and killed a number of Hezbollah fighters. But despite those clashes, it does appear the cease-fire is holding.

MONTAGNE: So if the cease-fire seems to be mostly effective, what is the next step?

WESTERVELT: Well, Israeli commanders and sources here say they expect an initial vanguard force from the United Nations to start to deploy in some parts of south Lebanon by tomorrow or in the next coming days. Israel's preparing to give up some captured positions and turn them over to the Lebanese army as well within the next 24 to 48 hours. And Israeli sources say they hope to complete a withdrawal of their forces by the end of next week and start to return many reservists back to civilian life as soon as possible this week.

But Renee, many are saying that's an optimistic scenario. Big questions remain about the size and the deployment and the logistics of the U.N. and Lebanese forces that are supposed to come down and patrol this southern strip between the Israeli border and the Litani River. Israeli military officials are quietly expressing deep concern over whether the U.N. resolution - which calls for a Hezbollah-free zone from the Litani south - whether this will be implemented in time for them to withdraw their forces.

MONTAGNE: And we saw tens of thousands of Lebanese returning to their homes almost as soon as the cease-fire came into effect yesterday. But Israeli refugees seem more cautious. Has that changed as of today?

WESTERVELT: You do see more people coming back today. You do see some more businesses opening up, some more farm fields active that were mostly quiet with just a few people working them. You are seeing things throughout the northern Galilee and along the northern border starting to spring back to life. Israel's Home Front Command late last night told people officially, it's okay now, come out of your shelters. Try to get back to your normal routine. Certainly, quite a challenge for people who've lived with 34 days of fighting and daily Katyusha rocket fire. But you are seeing more stores opening back up, some people returned to the beaches in Haifa - Israel's third largest city - which was hit very hard by Katyusha fire. But people are still cautious and voicing skepticism that the truce will hold over the long term.

MONTAGNE: Well, all in all, though, would you say that there is more optimism today that the cease-fire would hold in the longer term?

WESTERVELT: Yes, but it's still guarded optimism. Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will tour several cities throughout the north today. It'll be interesting to see what kind of reception she gets from local officials and -more importantly - from local residents. There's a lot of anger here in Kiryat Shemona, where people are saying the evacuation of the city wasn't handled well, that political favoritism was involved in terms of who got priority to get out of the city. These allegations flying around now. People frustrated and feeling like both the local and national government didn't do enough to help them during these weeks of fighting.

MONTAGNE: Eric, thanks very much.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Eric Westervelt in northern Israel at the Israel-Lebanon border.

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