Israel halted its offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas as a U.N.-imposed cease-fire went into effect Monday after a month of warfare that killed more than 900 people, devastated much of south Lebanon and forced hundreds of thousands of Israelis into bomb shelters.
A half hour after the cease-fire took hold, Israeli warplanes — a regular fixture in Lebanese skies during the monthlong war — were absent across huge swaths of the country, including the Bekaa Valley, where airstrikes hit about an hour before.
Thousands of cars packed with luggage and some with mattresses strapped to the roof jammed the bombed-out Zahrani highway linking the southern cities of Nabatiyeh, Tyre and Sidon, as Lebanese troops scrambled to repair roads in time for the deluge of refugees returning home.
Hundreds of refugees camped out in a Beirut park packed up their belongings to return to the city’s southern suburbs.
There were no immediate reports of Hezbollah rockets being fired into Israel, a day after it fired more than 250 rockets, the worst daily barrage since fighting started July 12.
Some exhausted Israeli forces pulled out of southern Lebanon early Monday, but were being replaced by fresh troops, and the army said there will be no immediate withdrawal from positions seized in the last few days.
The army said in a statement the military was told not to initiate any action after 8 a.m. (1 a.m. EST) Monday, but “the forces will do everything to prevent being hit.”
In the final hours before the truce, however, 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.
The airstrikes continued until 15 minutes before the truce went into force, destroying an antenna for Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television southeast of Beirut.
The cease-fire was passed by the U.N. Security Council on Friday and approved by the Israeli and Lebanese governments. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah also signaled his acceptance.
But 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.
Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres also said Israel was uncertain the truce would hold. “I believe that it has a chance. I can’t say for certain,” he said moments before it took effect.
Implementation of the hard-won agreement already was in question Sunday night when the Lebanese Cabinet indefinitely postponed a crucial meeting dealing with plans to send 15,000 soldiers to police Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Lebanon.
Lebanese media reported that the Cabinet, which approved the cease-fire plan unanimously Saturday, was sharply divided over demands that Hezbollah surrender its weapons in the south. That disagreement was believed to have led to the cancellation of Sunday’s meeting.
Lebanese leaders made no public comments.
The deployment of the Lebanese army along Israel’s border, with an equal number of U.N. peacekeepers, was a cornerstone of the cease-fire resolution passed Friday by the U.N. Security Council. The forces are supposed to keep Hezbollah fighters out of an 18-mile-wide zone between the border and Lebanon’s Litani River.
Officials said Israeli troops would begin leaving southern Lebanon as soon as the Lebanese army and the international force started to deploy in the area. But the military will maintain its air and sea blockade of Lebanon to prevent arms from reaching Hezbollah guerrillas, a military official said.
France and Italy, along with predominantly Muslim Turkey and Malaysia, signaled willingness Saturday to contribute troops to the peacekeeping force, but consultations are still needed to hammer out the force’s makeup and mandate and it was uncertain when it would be in place.
Earlier Monday before the cease-fire, Israeli warplanes attacked a village in eastern Lebanon and the edge of a Palestinian refugee camp, leaving two people dead and nine wounded, security officials said.
One of the raids hit an office of the pro-Syrian Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General-Command just outside a refugee camp in the southern city of Sidon. One person was killed and three civilians who live near the office were wounded, security officials said.
Israeli missiles also slammed into a minibus on the outskirts of the Hezbollah stronghold of Baalbek, killing one policeman and wounding six Lebanese soldiers, security officials said.
The Israeli military also dropped leaflets on central Beirut early Monday, warning it would retaliate for any attack launched against it from Lebanon.
One leaflet said Hezbollah serves the interests of its Iranian and Syrian patrons and has “brought destruction, Lebanon against the State of Israel.” Addressed to Lebanon’s citizens, it said, “Will you be able to pay this price again?”
Some of the 30,000 Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon fought fierce battles with guerrillas Sunday before the cease-fire went into effect. Israel’s army said seven soldiers were killed, a day after 24 died in the highest single-day death toll for the army since the conflict began.
Hezbollah reported one of its fighters killed, but did not say when.
Israeli jets pounded a Hezbollah stronghold in south Beirut with at least 23 missiles, most coming in a two-minute period Sunday.
An Associated Press photographer who reached the area saw the body of a child being removed from the wreckage. TV pictures showed heavy damage appearing to stretch for several hundred yards in all directions in the neighborhood of medium-rise apartment buildings.
Jets also attacked gas stations in the southern port city of Tyre on Sunday, killing at least 15 people, Lebanese officials said.
Two Israeli air raids on houses in the eastern village of Brital killed at least eight people and wounded nearly two dozen, civil defense official Ali Shukur said. More people were feared trapped under the rubble, he said.
Hezbollah fired 250 rockets Sunday, killing an Israeli man and wounding 53 people, rescue officials said. Cars were set afire in the northern city of Haifa.
Israeli officials appealed to residents of the north who fled the rockets not to return before the government determined the situation was safe.
As the fighting persisted, Israel’s Cabinet held a stormy debate on the cease-fire, with minister Ophir Pines-Paz criticizing the government’s decision to expand its ground offensive ahead of the truce. The Cabinet eventually approved the agreement 24-0, with one abstention.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the cease-fire agreement would ensure that “Hezbollah won’t continue to exist as a state within a state.”
In addition to authorizing the beefed-up international force in southern Lebanon, the Security Council resolution calls for the Lebanese government to be the only armed force in the country, meaning Hezbollah would have to be disarmed.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said the agreement, if implemented, “will lead to a significant change in the rules of the game in Lebanon.”
“I’m not naive. … I live in the Middle East, and I know that sometimes not every decision is implemented. I’m aware of the difficulties. Yet with this I say with full confidence that the Security Council decision is good for Israel,” she said.
Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, said Saturday that his guerrillas would abide by the cease-fire resolution, but warned it was “our natural right” to fight any Israeli troops remaining in Lebanon.
The fighting erupted July 12 when Hezbollah guerrillas attacked an army patrol inside Israel, killing three soldiers and capturing two others. Five more Israelis were killed later in the day trying to rescue their comrades.
Israel then launched an air and ground offensive, and 4 1/2 weeks of combat has killed at least 789 people in Lebanon — mostly civilians_ and 154 Israelis, including 115 soldiers.
Among the dead soldiers this weekend was Staff Sgt. Uri Grossman, the 20-year-old son of renowned Israeli novelist and peace activist David Grossman. He was killed by an anti-tank missile Saturday, the army said Sunday.
Livni said Israel would not stop trying to win the captured soldiers’ release, but would not accept a link between their freedom and Hezbollah’s demands that Israel free Lebanese prisoners.
Associated Press writers Ravi Nessman in Jerusalem and Joseph Panossian in Beirut, Lebanon, contributed to this report.
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