Israeli soldiers killed six Hezbollah fighters in four skirmishes in Lebanon after the U.N.-imposed cease-fire took effect Monday, the army said. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he took sole responsibility for the offensive, and acknowledged “deficiencies” in the way the war was conducted.
The developments came as Lebanese civilians defied an Israeli travel ban and streamed back to their homes in war-ravaged areas.
In an address to parliament, Olmert said the cease-fire agreement eliminated the “state within a state” run by Hezbollah and restored Lebanon’s sovereignty in the south. And Defense minister Amir Peretz said the war opened a window for negotiations with Lebanon and renewed talks with Palestinians.
But many Israelis were upset by the high casualties during 34 days of fighting, and Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the opposition Likud Party, told lawmakers there were many failures in the war.
Olmert said: “We will have to review ourselves in all the battles,” Olmert said. “We won’t sweep things under the carpet.”
Anticipating that another war with Hezbollah may come in the future, he said Israel will learn the lessons of this war and “do better.”
For the first time in a month, no rockets were fired into northern Israel, but few Israelis who fled the war were seen returning, and Israel’s government advised them to stay away for now to see whether the truce held.
Officials said four Hezbollah guerrillas were killed in two clashes near the town of Hadatha when armed men approached Israeli troops three hours after the cease-fire began, at 8 a.m. local time (1 a.m. EDT). Later clashes occurred near the towns of Farun and Shama, with one guerrilla killed in each, officials said.
“They were very close, they were armed, and they did pose a danger to the troops,” said Capt. Jacob Dallal, a military spokesman. “We’re going to shoot anybody who poses an imminent threat to the troops.”
Dallal said the Israeli army was urging Lebanese civilians to stay out of the south until Lebanese troops and U.N. peacekeepers moved in to oversee the cease-fire.
“There are lots of Israeli troops and Hezbollah fighters. For their own safety, we advise them (civilians) not to go,” Dallal said.
But Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said at midafternoon that aside from the isolated skirmishes with Hezbollah, the cease-fire was holding and could have implications for future relations with Israel’s neighbors.
Lebanese, Israeli and U.N. officers met on the border to discuss the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon and the deployment of the Lebanese army in the region, U.N. spokesman Milos Strugar said.
The meeting, the first involving a Lebanese army officer and a counterpart from the Israeli army since Israeli forces withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, marks the first step in the process of military disengagement as demanded by a U.N. Security Council resolution.
The next step in the peace effort — sending in a peacekeeping mission — appeared days away. The head of the existing U.N. force in Lebanon said Monday he wants reinforcements “as soon as possible,” and warned that situation remains fragile.
French Maj. Gen. Alain Pellegrini, who leads the 2,000-member UNIFIL force in southern Lebanon, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that the region is “not safe from a provocation, or a stray act, that could undermine everything.”
The fighting persisted until the last minutes before the cease-fire took effect Monday morning, with Israel destroying an antenna for Hezbollah’s TV station and Hezbollah guerrillas clashing with Israeli forces near the southern city of Tyre and the border village of Kfar Kila.
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.
After the cease-fire took effect, lines of cars — some loaded with mattresses and luggage — snaked slowly around bomb craters and ruined bridges as residents began heading south to find out what is left of their homes and businesses.
Israel has not lifted its threat to destroy any vehicle on the roads of most of south Lebanon. But Peretz said Monday afternoon that aside from isolated skirmishes with Hezbollah, the cease-fire was holding and could have implications for future relations with Israel’s neighbors.
In some places in the south, the rubble was still smoldering from a barrage of Israeli airstrikes just before the cease-fire took effect at 8 a.m. (1 a.m. EDT).
“I just want to find my home,” said Ahmad Maana, who went back to Kafra, about five miles from the Israeli border, where whole sections of the town were flattened.
In Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, people wrapped their faces with scarves as wind kicked up dust from the wreckage left by Israeli bombardments. Ahmed al-Zein poked through the ruins of his shop.
“This was the most beautiful street in the neighborhood,” he said. “Now it’s like an earthquake zone.”
There were no reports of Israeli strikes on cars Monday — a sign Israel did not want to risk rekindling the conflict. But at least one child was killed and 15 people were wounded by ordnance that detonated as they returned to their homes in the south, security officials said.
The rush to return came despite a standoff that threatened to keep the cease-fire from taking root. Israeli forces remain in Lebanon, and Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said the militia would consider them legitimate targets until they leave.
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 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 Lebanese Communications Minister Marwan Hamade.
A United Nations force that now has 2,000 troops in south Lebanon is due to be boosted to 15,000 soldiers, and together with a 15,000-man Lebanese army contingent is to take control of the border area.
France and Italy, along with predominantly Muslim Turkey and Malaysia, signaled willingness to contribute troops to the peacekeeping force, but consultations are 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 now. Some exhausted soldiers left Lebanon early Monday and were being replaced by fresh troops.
Israel also would maintain its air and sea blockade of Lebanon to prevent arms from reaching Hezbollah guerrillas, Israeli army officials said.
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.
Just three hours after the cease-fire, Israeli troops fired on a group of Hezbollah militiamen approaching “in a threatening way,” the army said. One Hezbollah fighter was hit, but it was not known if he was killed or wounded.
Israeli troops later shot a Hezbollah fighter aiming his rifle at them near the village of Ghanduriya. The army did not say if the man was killed.
No fighting was reported elsewhere.
In Bint Jbail, a border town that was the scene of heavy ground battles between guerrillas and Israeli soldiers, an entire swath of the town center was flattened and rows of cars sat incinerated in the streets. An Israeli tank was parked on the road outside the town.
In Beirut, street life cautiously returned. Traffic was heavier and some stores reopened.
Thousands of vehicles, meanwhile, crept south along bomb-blasted highways. At a key 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 wave of refugees headed north to escape the fighting.
Similar scenes took place in northern Israel, which had been hit by more than 4,000 Hezbollah rockets that forced people to flee or huddle in bomb shelters. Some Israelis cautiously tried to sample small bits of normal life: shopping for groceries or taking a stroll in the sun after weeks in shelters.
In Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city and a frequent Hezbollah target, stores that had been closed for weeks began to reopen, and a few people returned to the beaches.
However, in Kiryat Shemona, where more than half the 22,000 residents fled some 700 Hezbollah rocket attacks, the streets were mostly empty. Residents stirred from their bomb shelters, but there was no influx of returning refugees.
“People are still scared,” said Haim Biton, 42, predicting that things would not get back to normal soon. “You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“The city is still in a coma,” said Shoshi Bar-Sheshet, the deputy manager of a mortgage bank. Getting back to normal, she said, “doesn’t happen overnight.”
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.
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.
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.
Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon in Bint Jbail, Lebanon; Arthur Max in Jerusalem; and Zeina Karam in Beirut, Lebanon, contributed to this report.
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