Amid great swirls of dust hundreds of feet above the Awwali River, the Israeli Army is digging in its new defensive positions for an open-ended occupation of southern Lebanon.
The summer tranquility of this mountain village is shattered daily now by growls of Israeli tractors. They are tearing tons of dirt and rocks from the side of the mountain and loading it into trucks that grind slowly to the top, where an Army observation post is gradually taking shape.
Soon, Israeli soldiers will take up their positions behind the earthen barrier. From here, they will have a commanding view of the narrow, rocky gorge where the Awwali flows, the red-roofed Christian monasteries north of the river and the string of mountains known as the Chouf that runs north until it disappears from sight in the clouds and haze.
There will be several such observation posts along the new Israeli line. There also will be larger Army bases that will supply them and serve as fortified strongholds. Roads are being built to the lookout points, and materiel for the soldiers is being stockpiled nearby. Coming from the north, other Israeli trucks are hauling nonessential equipment from what is now the front line to points behind the new Awwali line.
The Israelis call it their "redeployment," the pullback of their forces from the southern outskirts of Beirut, the Beirut-to-Damascus highway and the Chouf to new positions such as this. According to Army officials, the pullback will cost about $30 million on top of the estimated $1 million a day it is costing Israel to maintain its Army in Lebanon.
The Army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Levy, announced earlier this week that the pullback schedule had been accelerated and that the evacuation of about 370 square miles of territory now held by the Israelis would take place "in a matter of days," not in the fall, as had been planned. The withdrawal is expected to be accomplished before the end of the month, other military officials said.
In the same address to foreign journalists, Levy also said the pullback would occur in a single, swift movement rather than in stages over a period of weeks as was originally planned.
These changes in plans underscored the important political aspects of the pullback. In disclosing them, Levy clearly hoped to prod the Lebanese government into a final effort at reaching an agreement to end the fighting between rival Christian and Druze militias in the Chouf before the Israelis withdraw and leave the problem to the fledgling Lebanese Army.
In the past weeks, Israeli Army officers have escorted dozens of journalists along the new Awwali line, showing them the outposts and bases that are under construction to emphasize that time is running out.
But judging by the comments of Israeli officers, there is little hope for a cease-fire between the Christians and Druze and little faith in the ability of the Lebanese Army to take over for the Israelis. This, they say, explains the decision to push for a rapid withdrawal, with the hope of reducing the risks to Israeli soldiers as they move south.
"There has been no coordination with the Lebanese up to this point, so it was decided to change the approach and prepare for the worst contingency, where we have to withdraw quickly, all in one step," one officer said. "It is not the best redeployment plan, but it is the best one we have."
According to the Israelis, the pullback should take little more than a day. To prepare for it, they already are moving all but the most essential equipment south of the Awwali. They are not planning to leave anything behind when the front-line troops finally move.
"What can be dismantled will be," a military official said. "What can't be will be blown up."
It was clear from a day-long, Army-conducted tour of the Awwali line that the outposts and bases will be far from completed in time if the Israelis stick to the accelerated withdrawal schedule. But military officials said this will not pose a serious problem immediately. The facilities, they say, will be completed by October or November--the original target date for the pullback--before winter weather comes to the Lebanese mountains.
About three miles north of Sidon along the Mediterranean coast, at a point known as Bouxata, a main Israeli base in the Awwali line is taking shape. Across the barren hilltop, the Israelis have placed hundreds of yards of corrugated iron strips in a zigzag pattern.
Nearby, heavy equipment is being used to construct a helicopter landing pad, while at another spot, dozens of large containers carried on flatbed trucks stand ready for use as living quarters, offices and storage facilities.
Bouxata is typical of the Israeli bases and outposts in that it commands the high ground. Viewed from the trench on the hill, Sidon stretches along the coast to the south, and there is a clear line of sight of the bridge where the coastal highway crosses the Awwali River.
The Israelis say Bouxata will also likely be the most troublesome of the Awwali line bases, in part because it overlooks the most heavily traveled north-south crossing point along the new Israeli front. Beneath the base, the rugged landscape is thick with groves of fruit trees, difficult terrain in which to prevent infiltration by guerrillas.
At Bouxata and elsewhere, it will not be enough for the Israelis to sit in their bases and lookout points. They will also have to patrol on foot the narrow river gorge to protect the Israeli "security zone" south of the Awwali.
According to official Army calculations, the coming withdrawal will shorten by less than five miles the line across central Lebanon that the Israelis hold. They will still have a front of more than 60 miles to patrol, leading Israeli officers from Levy on down to warn that the pullback will provide no "miracle" solution to the continuing toll of casualties the Israelis have suffered in Lebanon.
That point was underscored last night when a rocket fired near Marjayun far south of the Awwali line killed one Israeli soldier and wounded three others. But, as Levy also noted this week in his remarks in Tel Aviv, the withdrawal will help to calm the public clamoring in Israel to "do something" because of the casualties, probably the single most important political underpinning of the whole redeployment plan.
It will also take the Israelis out of the Christian-Druze cross fire in the Chouf, which, viewed from the outpost at Dir el Haroub, appears deceptively peaceful.