BEIRUT, Lebanon, AP – Lebanese civilians streamed back to their homes Monday after a U.N.-imposed cease-fire halted fighting in a monthlong conflict between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas. Israel’s defense minister said that, barring isolated skirmishes, the cease-fire was holding.
Speaking 6 1/2 hours after the truce went into force, Amir Peretz said that as a result of the war, Islamic extremists have been weakened, opening a window for negotiations with Lebanon and for renewing talks with Palestinians.
“Except for local incidents, the cease-fire is holding,” Peretz said in a televised statement.
“We have launched coordination with UNIFIL officials to start handing over the ground,” he said, referring to the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, which is to help the Lebanese army control the south.
“We have no intention of sinking in the Lebanese quagmire,” Peretz said.
Lines of cars — some loaded with mattresses and luggage — snaked slowly around bomb craters and blasted bridges as people tried to reach southern Lebanon for their first view of what is left of their homes and property.
The rush to return and rebuild came despite the fragility of the cease-fire. Just hours after the truce, Israeli troops opened fire on a group of armed Hezbollah fighters approaching them “in a threatening way,” the army said. One of the fighters was hit, but the army did not say if he had been killed or wounded.
Some 30,000 Israeli forces remained in Lebanon and Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said the militia would consider them legitimate targets until they withdraw from the country. The next step — sending in a peacekeeping mission — still appeared days away.
A Lebanese cabinet minister told Europe-1 radio in France that Lebanese soldiers could move into the southern part of the country as early as Wednesday. The U.N. plan calls for a 30,000-member, joint Lebanese-international force to move south of the Litani River, about 18 miles from the Israeli border, and stand as a buffer between Israel and Hezbollah militia.
“The Lebanese army is readying itself along the Litani to cross the river in 48 to 72 hours,” said Lebanon’s communications minister, Marwan Hamade.
But implementation of the hard-won agreement was already in question Sunday night when the Lebanese Cabinet indefinitely postponed a crucial meeting dealing with plans to send Lebanon’s half of the contingent to the region.
Lebanese media reported that the Cabinet, which approved the cease-fire plan unanimously Saturday, was sharply divided over demands that Hezbollah surrender its weapons in the south.
The deployment of the Lebanese troops and U.N. peacekeepers was a cornerstone of the cease-fire resolution passed Friday by the U.N. Security Council. France, Italy, Turkey and Malaysia have signaled a willingness to contribute troops, but consultations are still needed to hammer out the force’s makeup and mandate.
Officials said Israeli troops would begin pulling out as soon as the Lebanese and international troops start deploying to the area. But it appeared Israeli forces were staying put for the moment. Some exhausted soldiers left Lebanon early Monday, but were being replaced by fresh troops.
Israel also would maintain its air and sea blockade of Lebanon to prevent arms from reaching Hezbollah guerrillas, army officials said.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave the order Sunday to halt firing as of Monday morning, his spokesman Asaf Shariv said. However, “if someone fires at us we will fire back,” he added.
Isaac Herzog, a senior minister in the Israeli Cabinet, said it was unlikely all fighting would be silenced immediately. “Experience teaches us that after that a process begins of phased relaxation,” in the fighting, he said.
Meanwhile, both Hezbollah and Israel claimed they had come out ahead in the conflict.
Hezbollah distributed leaflets congratulating Lebanon on its “big victory” and thanking citizens for their patience during the fighting, which began July 12 when guerrillas killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two others in a cross-border raid.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Hezbollah’s “state within a state” had been destroyed, along with its ability to fire at Israeli soldiers across the border.
Lebanon said nearly 791 people were killed since the fighting began. Israel said 116 soldiers and 39 civilians were killed in fighting or from Hezbollah rockets.
In Beirut — where Hezbollah strongholds in southern suburbs came under relentless Israeli attacks — street life cautiously returned Monday. Traffic was heavier and some stores reopened.
Thousands of vehicles, meanwhile, crept south along bomb-blasted highways. At one intersection, traffic was backed up for more than a half mile as police tried to direct vehicles around bomb craters.
Many parts of southern Lebanon have been virtually deserted for weeks after a huge wave of residents fled to Beirut and other places to escape the fighting.
It was unclear how Israel would respond to the flood of traffic. Israeli officials said they would keep travel restrictions in place, which banned all but humanitarian convoys across much of southern Lebanon to try to choke off Hezbollah supply lines.
Lebanon’s interior ministry issued a statement urging civilians to stay away from their homes until army engineers could inspect them for unexploded cluster bombs or artillery. At least one child was killed and 15 people were wounded Monday by ordnance that exploded as they returned to their homes in south Lebanon, security officials said.
Northern Israel remained virtually empty in comparison. The streets of Haifa, Israel’s third-largest town, which has been peppered by Hezbollah missiles, were quieter than normal.
Restaurant owner Ronen Ginsburg said the cease-fire “doesn’t make an impression on anyone. … It will take about a week without a Katyusha rocket for people to go back to their routine.”
More than half the 22,000 residents of the border town of Kiryat Shemona had fled in the fighting, and those who remained stayed holed up in their homes. Only a few businesses — most selling food — opened for a few hours.
“People are still scared,” said Haim Biton, 42. “You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Fighting had remained fierce right up to the implementation of the cease-fire. Early Monday, Israeli warplanes struck a Hezbollah stronghold in eastern Lebanon and a Palestinian refugee camp in the south, killing two people, and Israeli artillery pounded targets across the border through the night.
The airstrikes continued until 15 minutes before the truce went into force, destroying an antenna for Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television southeast of Beirut.
Israel’s army said seven soldiers were killed on Sunday, a day after 24 died in the highest single-day death toll for the army since the conflict began. Hezbollah reported one of its fighters killed, but did not say when.
Also Sunday, Israeli warplanes attacked gas stations in the southern port city of Tyre on Sunday, killing at least 15 people, Lebanese officials said.
Two Israeli air raids on houses in the eastern village of Brital killed at least eight people and wounded nearly two dozen, civil defense official Ali Shukur said. More people were feared trapped under the rubble, he said.
Israeli jets also pounded a Hezbollah stronghold in south Beirut with at least 23 missiles, most coming in a two-minute period. An Associated Press photographer who reached the area saw the body of a child being removed from the wreckage.
Hezbollah fired 250 rockets Sunday, killing an Israeli man and wounding 53 people, rescue officials said. Cars were set afire in the northern city of Haifa.
Before the cease-fire went into effect, Israeli aircraft dropped leaflets on central Beirut, warning it will retaliate against any attack launched on it from Lebanon. More than 4,000 Hezbollah rockets reached deep into northern Israel — including the vital port of Haifa — and forced thousands of Israelis to flee or pack bomb shelters during the fighting.
One leaflet said Hezbollah serves the interests of its Iranian and Syrian patrons and has “brought destruction, Lebanon against the State of Israel.” Addressed to Lebanon’s citizens, it said, “Will you be able to pay this price again?”