The Israeli Army withdrew from the southern Lebanese city of Nabatiyeh and six nearby villages today in what Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin described as a "limited step" toward Israel's rapidly approaching goal of a complete withdrawal from Lebanon.
The relatively small-scale pullback was from a hilly region of about 190 square miles north of the Litani River that has been the scene of numerous attacks on Israeli forces, including two rocket attacks in the area only hours before today's evacuation.
There were no casualties in these attacks, but an Israeli soldier was killed and another was wounded in a mine explosion in southern Lebanon today east of the area that was evacuated.
As smoke rose from piles of refuse being burned by the departing soldiers, Israeli Army helicopters flew over Nabatiyeh and dropped leaflets warning residents that there would be strong Israeli retaliation if the guerrilla attacks continued.
"We are delighted to be leaving, delighted," an Israeli Army commander in the area told reporters.
Reporters who visited the area said the Israelis withdrew to lines at Kfar Tibnit, about 2 1/2 miles south of Nabatiyeh, but held positions north of the Litani River and at the Crusaders' Beaufort Castle.
Most of the residents of Nabatiyeh, home to the largest concentration of Shiite Moslems in southern Lebanon, reportedly fled the city in the past several days in anticipation of the Israeli pullback and a possible outbreak of fighting among local militias.
Cars covered with Lebanese flags and carrying cheering women lined the streets leading into Nabatiyeh after the Israelis left, but village elders met in the town's religious meeting hall to decide on how best to spare the population further bloodshed.
The leader of the Shiite movement Amal, Nabih Berri, welcomed the withdrawal, according to reports from Beirut.
He issued orders to Amal branches in southern Lebanon forbidding militiamen from parading in military attire, the opening of offices and the carrying of arms in the area the Israelis were leaving.
"We should not allow Israel to commit massacres under the pretext of fighting terrorism," an Amal statement said.
It called the Israeli pullback "a booby-trapped withdrawal," saying the Israelis' partial redeployment left their lines in the shape of a horseshoe that would enable Israeli soldiers to strike quickly.
Before the June 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Nabatiyeh was a stronghold of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Today's pullback meant that for the first time since then some northern Israel settlements would be back in range of rockets fired from southern Lebanon.
According to Israeli Army figures, the area that was evacuated today has a population of 60,000 to 70,000, including 30,000 to 40,000 in Nabatiyeh. More than 95 percent of the population is Shiite Moslems, the majority southern Lebanese religious group whose members have been responsible for most of the attacks on Israeli forces.
The pullback still left Israel in control of 19 percent of Lebanon's territory, including the port city of Tyre and nearby mountain villages to the east that have been even more troublesome to the Israelis than the "Nabatiyeh triangle" that was evacuated today.
The Israelis also continue to maintain control of a corridor running northeast of Nabatiyeh through the Christian town of Jezzin to the mountains north and east of there.
The main, second stage in Israel's planned three-stage withdrawal from Lebanon is expected to take place later this month with a pullback from positions in the eastern mountains. Informed sources here said earlier that the final stage could be completed by mid-May. Rabin has said that he hopes the Army will be out of Lebanon entirely by June 6, the third anniversary of the invasion and at least three months before Israel originally had planned to complete the withdrawal.
Rabin flew by helicopter to Nabatiyeh to witness today's pullback. In a radio interview there, he sought to dispel doubts about whether Israel intends to maintain a military presence in a security zone it plans to establish in southern Lebanon.
"We will have a security zone that will be backed by Israel but will be built on the local Lebanese people on two levels -- the civilian guard of every village and the Israeli-supported South Lebanon Army, which will be the mobile force," he said.
Rabin said Israel will "maintain freedom of action to do whatever is needed to back these local forces," including, if necessary, military strikes north of the security zone, the dimensions of which Israeli officials have never defined.
Asked what he expected to happen in the area following the pullback, Rabin said, "We hope for the best, and we are prepared for the worst." He also repeated his frequent warning to residents of southern Lebanon that if they attack targets in Israel "they will get hurt."
Israel set the stage for today's pullback earlier this week when it closed its prison camp at Ansar, a few miles west of Nabatiyeh. The Israelis transferred more than 1,000 Lebanese prisoners to a detention facility inside Israel and released another 752 prisoners.
Military officials said earlier today that 30 of the prisoners who had been brought to Israel were released and returned to Lebanon this morning. They said more prisoner releases were expected soon as the Israeli Army continued its withdrawal.