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Israel: Public Prompted Withdrawal

May 18, 2000

JERUSALEM (AP) _ As Israel steps up its pullback from southern Lebanon under guerrilla fire, a top aide to Prime Minister Ehud Barak acknowledged that the withdrawal is being driven by public pressure to end Israeli casualties there.

Three Israeli soldiers and a soldier of the Israeli-allied South Lebanon Army were injured in strikes overnight and early today by Shiite Muslim guerrillas against outposts in southern Lebanon, several of which have been handed over to the SLA in recent weeks. Israel responded with airstrikes on suspected guerrilla areas today.

A 34-year-old woman and her two daughters, aged 6 and 8, were wounded by shrapnel when a shell fired from an SLA outpost landed near their house in Mansouri village, Lebanese security officials said.

A Fijian soldier serving with the U.N. peacekeeping force suffered shrapnel wounds in the same village when another shell hit a U.N. post, a U.N. officer said, speaking on condition of%mark_on(%) anonymity%mark_off(%).

Also today, U.N. peacekeeping forces stopped their movements between Naqoura, where the U.N. headquarters is located, and southern Lebanon after an SLA commander threatened to open fire on all U.N. vehicles. The reason for the threat was not immediately known, the U.N. officer said.

The 4,500 U.N. peacekeepers have been in Lebanon since the 1978 Israeli invasion, which led to the Israeli occupation of a swath of south Lebanon with the help of the SLA. Israel called the occupied area a security zone, so named in 1985. Its aim was to protect northern Israeli towns from border attacks.

Barak was elected a year ago on a pledge to pull out of Lebanon by this summer. Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh acknowledged for the first time today that the decision to leave Lebanon was based largely on growing public opposition to casualties in the security zone.

``We are leaving because of problems with the ability of the Israeli public to stand firm,″ Sneh told army radio. ``That is the whole truth. There is no point in pretending.″

Hezbollah is ``working on Israeli public opinion by means of the dead,″ Sneh added.

Residents in northern Israel opened bomb shelters today for fear Hezbollah attacks would spread to civilian areas. Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of %mark_on(%)anonymity%mark_off(%), said that no order was given to take any security precautions.

The commander of Israel’s army, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, warned that Israel plans more retaliation for the strikes. But he told Israel radio that Israel will ``act cautiously″ and not be dragged into fighting dictated by Hezbollah.

SLA spokesman Raymond Abu Morad said today that the guerrillas are increasing attacks on SLA and Israeli army positions in advance of the withdrawal to create the appearance they were forcing Israel out.

``Hezbollah would like to escalate the situation to destroy everything, but I don’t think they will be able to,″ Morad said.

Israel, which has been under pressure to disarm the SLA, has told U.N. officials that it will take the heavy military equipment out of Lebanon so it doesn’t fall into guerrilla hands, the Yediot Aharonoth newspaper reported today. But Israel will permit the SLA to keep all light weapons for self-defense, the paper said.

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