The last Israeli convoy to leave Sidon today consisted of 38 vehicles, about 300 soldiers and two dogs. The dogs were named Vodka and Esther.
Shortly after 2 p.m., about three hours after they began moving out of Sidon, the convoy passed this point about six miles east of the Lebanese port city, picking up mud as the heavy vehicles lumbered along a rain-swept mountain road. From a nearby hillside, employes of the Hariri Medical Center, a huge, modern complex that looks out of place in the mountain countryside, watched silently as the last of the Israeli soldiers left.
With that, Israel's 2 1/2-year occupation of Sidon and the surrounding countryside came to an end. The final hours passed quietly, except for the growl of the engines of 25 armored personnel carriers, five jeeps, five trucks and three tanks that moved in procession through mist and low-hanging clouds.
The pullback from Sidon was the start of a planned three-stage withdrawal from southern Lebanon that the Israeli Cabinet approved on Jan. 14. The timing of the second and third stages has not been set, but today Israel rid itself of policing the largest city in southern Lebanon with a population of about 100,000.
Israeli military officials said the first stage of the pullback was accomplished without incident. Israeli officials had said earlier that they had information that Lebanese Shiite Moslem militias were planning to disrupt the pullback.
In an apparent attempt to surprise the local militias, the Israelis pulled out of Sidon two days earlier than scheduled and on the Jewish Sabbath. They may have also benefited from the weather, which shrouded the mountains east of Sidon in mist, rain and fog.
"From our point of view, everything goes well," Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said here a few minutes before the convoy rumbled by. "What happens in Sidon will be the sole responsibility of the Lebanese government."
Rabin said the sight of the Israeli soldiers leaving here should convince skeptical Lebanese who have questioned Israel's withdrawal intentions that "when the government of Israel decides something, it has to be taken seriously."
Rabin also complained, as he and other Israeli officials have been complaining for weeks, that the Lebanese government refused to cooperate with Israel for an "orderly transfer" of the area that was evacuated today. Despite that obstacle, he said, Israel "found ways to cooperate with the Lebanese Army on a local level," suggesting that Israel played a role in the immediate entry of Lebanese Army units into Sidon after the Israeli pullback.
Today's withdrawal from the Sidon area was the second major Israeli Army pullback in Lebanon since its June 1982 invasion. The first, the abrupt September 1983 withdrawal from the Chouf Mountains southeast of Beirut, was followed by an immediate outbreak of bloody clashes between rival Lebanese Christian and Druze militias.
Following the first pullback, the Israelis were accused widely of exacerbating the Chouf conflict by their sudden departure. Determined to avoid similar charges this time, the Israelis gave five weeks' notice of their intention to withdraw from this area and said repeatedly that they would not be held responsible for what happens after they leave.
Nevertheless, when the time for the final move came, it happened quickly. Israeli bases in the area had been dismantled weeks ago, and all heavy equipment was moved south, leaving only a relatively sparse number of combat units to patrol the roads and villages.
These last soldiers received the order to prepare for the final withdrawal at about 8 a.m. today. Two hours earlier, the Israelis had notified U.N. officials in southern Lebanon, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and the Lebanese government that the pullout would take place this morning.
Late this morning, Rabin and the Israeli Army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Levy, flew by helicopter to Buxata, a large Israeli base that overlooks the Awwali River bridge on the Lebanese coastal highway just north of Sidon. It was from Buxata that most of the soldiers in the last convoy, preceded by Rabin and Levy, left the area.
Speaking to reporters, neither Rabin nor Levy would speculate on when the next stage of the Israeli withdrawal, from positions in eastern Lebanon, will take place. But both men said they realized that this initial pullback would not lessen the number of attacks on Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon, which recently have become most intense in the areas south of here that will not be evacuated until the final stage of the withdrawal.
"The area is infested with terrorists and terrorism," Rabin said. "There will be an increased number of terrorist attempts."
The long-awaited withdrawal from the Sidon area meant different things to different people. Abdullah Dimshkesh, a pharmacist at the Hariri Medical Center, said he hoped next week to see his wife and three children in Beirut. They have been separated for more than a year, a casualty of the division of Lebanon into different occupied zones.
Another man, Ali, who did not give his last name, said, "We don't want the Israelis here. We are happy to see them go."
The Israeli soldiers shared his feeling, if for different reasons. Subdued as the last convoy traversed a curve in the road beneath the medical center, they shed their reserve as they reached Mashnaqa, site of a dismantled Israeli base where the convoy vehicles were loaded onto flatbed trucks for the trip back to Israel.
The soldiers embraced each other, laughed, lit cigarettes. The lucky few grabbed one of the three telephones in Mashnaqa that were connected to lines in Israel to call home.
Vodka and Esther, the dogs the soldiers had adopted at Buxata, scampered among the rows of parked armored personnel carriers. They, too, were going to Israel, one of the soldiers said.
Levy, speaking as the head of the Army, told reporters, "I feel good. I feel good that we are leaving Sidon. I don't feel at all defeated."
An unnamed soldier, in a brief interview with Israeli radio tonight, said much the same thing in his own words.
"It's a great moment, a great feeling that we are leaving this country, and I hope we won't come back," he said.