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Lebanese Seek Refuge in Israel

May 23, 2000

FATIMA GATE, Israeli-Lebanese Border (AP) _ At daybreak, relieved Israeli soldiers drove home through this border crossing after a final tour in Lebanon; in the afternoon, Lebanese refugees on the run from Hezbollah guerrillas rushed to the crossing to request asylum in Israel; at sundown, Lebanese gunmen fired across the gate from new positions on Israel’s doorstep.

In one turbulent day Tuesday, Fatima Gate and other border points witnessed confusion, fear and celebration triggered by Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon.

An Israeli soldier fell to his knees, kissing the soil of his homeland. A Lebanese girl wept as she waited with her mother to step through Fatima Gate into Israel and an uncertain future. In view of Israeli troops, a Lebanese villager stole a rifle and a dark jacket from a car left by a fleeing Israeli-allied militiaman. And two Israeli soldiers crouching behind a car at the gate fired long volleys at a Lebanese sniper’s nest in an unfinished high-rise building.

Since 1985, Israel and its allied militia, the South Lebanon Army, had occupied a buffer zone in south Lebanon set up to guard nearby northern Israel from guerrilla attacks. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had pledged to withdraw from Lebanon by July 7, and the withdrawal got under way in recent weeks.

But Israel was unprepared for the rapid disintegration of its ally, the SLA, which in a space of three days _ from Sunday to Tuesday _ abandoned all its positions in the buffer zone.

By sundown Tuesday, Israeli troops were left behind in only eight outposts in Lebanon. Barak said it would be just days before the pullout, originally not scheduled to begin until next week, is complete.

A truckload of Israeli soldiers leaving Bint Jbeil, the second-largest Israeli command post in Lebanon, before daybreak Tuesday waved guns in the air in joy, and one exuberant young man shouted: ``Mom, I’m coming home for good!″

Barak, trying to fend off widespread criticism that he mishandled the withdrawal, said bringing the boys home was what mattered.

However, some soldiers were bitter. One complained that the Israeli flag had been pulled down from Bint Jbeil without ceremony, adding to the sense of shame many in Israel felt at the sight of the retreat. ``A day of humiliation,″ read the banner headline in Yediot Ahronot newspaper.

Others said that despite the painful images, Israel was on the right path. Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, one of the first proponents of a unilateral withdrawal, said Israel was finally ending a ``march of folly″ it began with its 1982 invasion.

The helter-skelter withdrawal let Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim Hezbollah guerrillas advance almost to the Israeli border, sending Israeli border residents into underground bunkers and turning some front-line communities into ghost towns. In the largest town, Kiryat Shemona, about 15,000 residents _ two-thirds of the population _ fled south out of guerrilla rocket range.

Kiryat Shemona resident Ilana Aderi, 58, came above ground briefly for bread and milk. She said she was tired of living in fear.

``This whole city should be evacuated and turned into an army base,″ she said angrily.

Barak tried to steady Israeli nerves, sending tanks and troop reinforcements to the frontier. Just north of the border town of Metulla, a phalanx of tanks deployed in a field, guns aimed north.

At the same time, thousands of panicked SLA militiamen and their relatives streamed south, trying to stay ahead of the guerrillas. Facing the prospect of retribution from countrymen who consider them traitors, they abandoned their cars at Fatima Gate and other crossings, grabbed hastily packed suitcases and marched to the border.

Israel kept the gate closed for fear of losing control, and the refugees stepped one by one through the metal rods of the barrier after handing over weapons that were unloaded by Israeli soldiers.

Zaida Salameh, 43, said escape from Lebanon was the only choice. ``We just don’t want to die. Nothing else is important,″ said Salameh.

She said Israeli soldiers told her she had half an hour to pack and bring her family to safety. She grabbed a few clothes and pictures from her husband’s service in the SLA.

``He’s very proud of his service,″ she said, adding that he joined them later.

Just before sundown, the stream of refugees came to a standstill when gunmen opened fire on Israeli troops from a high-rise building in Kfar Kila. Refugees ducked behind parked cars. At one point about a dozen sprinted toward the Israeli side as bullets flew above.

By nightfall, about 3,000 Lebanese refugees had settled in a temporary tent camp on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and in hotels along the border.

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