The Israeli army began a partial pullback in southern Lebanon yesterday, moving its forces back a distance of one to four miles along a six-mile portion of the front near the Syrian border.
As the last of the dusty, ill-shaven Israeli troops moved out of this half gutted town in their tanks and armored vehicles, fresh Norewegian soldiers in the blue helmets of the United Nations command arrived in trucks.
The Israelis turned over seven sites - including this town five miles east of Marjayoun - to the United Nations yesterday. A similar pullbck is scheduled Friday in the western sector of Israel-occupied Lebanon.
The pullback, agreed to after Israel reportedly came under heavy pressure from the United States, is the first of any significance by Isreal forces since they occupied 500 square miles of southern Lebanon four weeks ago in an invasion designed to clear the territory of Palestinian commandos.
The current pullbacks are merely withdrawals to new lines nearer the Israeli border and do not necessarily reduce the number of Israel troops in Lebanon.
As is their customary practice in military matters, Israel officials have refused to say how many troops invaded Lebanon, how many have pulled out of the number remaining [As many as 20,000 were there at the height of the invasion, according to reliable estimates. After Friday's pullbacks, Associated Press reported from Beirut, Israel will still control more than 75 per cent of the territory it originally held.]
No further Israeli pullbacks after the one planned for Friday have been scheduled but more are expected as additional U.N. troops become available to replace Israeli forces.
There was a brief, informal ceremony here as the U.,N. command took over from the Israelis amid the rubble of collapsed houses and blasted walls in this once Christian village with it ruined churches and shattered bell towers.
Gen. Emmanuel Erskine, the Ghanaian commander of the U.N. force in Lebanon, shook hands with the departing Israeli commander, Identified only as Lt. Col. Yossi.
Erskine told reporters, who easily outnumbered in the U.N. Soldiers in the town, that he was authorized by the U.N. Security Council resolution of March 19 to "confirm the withdrawal" of the Israel troops from Lebanon.
"Today marks the beginning," he said.
Erskine said his mission was to insure that "this area will not again be used for hostile activity and this is what we plan to do."
He admitted, however, that he did not have enough troops. So far, he said, only 1,800 of the planned 4,000 man peacekeeping force were in Southern Lebanon and he had only about 150 Norwegians to patrol this six-mile-long stretch of rolling hill country in which infiltrators could easily penetrate unseen.
Except for the rench, few if any of the U.N. troops in southern Lebanon have had any combat experience and all are lightly armed.
Tousands of refugees, prodded by the Lebanese government, returning to their homes in Southern Lebanon yesterday as Israel started to relinquish the area, AP reported from Beirut.
At least 5,000 headed home from refugee camps in Sidon and Beirut on the first day of a government-Sponsored repatriation program. About 20,000 returned earlier. About 220,000 fled the area during the invasion and their numbers created serious political and population problems for Lebanon.
[Israel Defense Minister Ezer Weizman paid a surprise visit to a checkpoint south Tyre yesterday to reasure the refugees that they had nothing to fear from the Israel army.]
The Israel attitude about the pullback could best be summed up by an unidentified source quoted in the Jerusalem Post this morning: "In essence we are losing very little in terms of tactical advantage and getting rid of a lot of political pressure." It is understood that the Americans have been putting pressure on Israel to abide by the Security Council resolution to withdraw from Lebanon.
This ruined town, with its back to the snow cap of Mount Hermon, commands a strategic position looking out over the rolling hill country that was once known as "Fatahland" because of the heavy concentration of Palestinian guerrillas here.
The peace and beauty of the countryside, alive with blue, red and yellow wild flowers in the spring sunshine, contrasted with the evidence of the violence that happened here four weeks ago.
The devastation of Rashiya Foukhar was typical of what happened in other towns in southern Lebanon. Yossi told reporters that the town had been heavily bombed and shelled by artillery but that there was no battle for the town itself.
When the Israeli troops entered the town, the hundred or so Palestinian troops quartered there had fled, Yossi said. There were only eight aged civilians left in the town when the Israelis arrived but that more had moved back since.
Indeed, there were many more civilians to be seen in the battle zone of southern Lebanon yesterday than two weeks ago although life cannot be said to have returned to normal.
The head man of the village told reporters that about 50 civilians were in the town when the bombing and shelling started. Three were killed, he said, and many fled. He confirmed the Israeli estimate that baout a hundred Palestinians had been there since about 1970. The letters "PFLP" for Popular front for the Liberation of Palestine could be seen painted on one of the ruined walls.
A few old Arab civilians began a heated conversation with one Arabic-Speaking reporter told us.
In the distance heavy demolition charges could be heard and Israel officers said they were blowing up Palestinian bunkers before they withdrew.
The road leading to the village was being widened and improved and a new section of road had been bulldozed through the hills leading back to the Israel border. Scores of truck were bringing tons of dirt and tar while earth graders leveled the road in a feverish effort to pave the new stretch before the pullback.
The official reason for the road is to give the U.N. troops adequate access to their positions but the road will also give the Israel army easy access into the area.