More than a month of heavy fighting between Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants has ended with a U.N.-mediated case-fire in effect in Lebanon. Despite several incidents when Israeli troops and Hezbollah militants exchanged fire, the truce appears to be holding. Israel's prime minister addressed his critics, saying his country's actions have helped reduce the threat of Hezbollah.
Radio's crackled along the Israel-Lebanon border at 8:00 AM local time when Israeli commanders ordered their troops to halt offensive operations in Lebanon. A short while later an Israeli military spokesman said some Israeli troops had begun withdrawing from Lebanon, even though the bulk of the force will remain there until U.N. peacekeepers arrive.
Speaking to lawmakers in Israel's Knesset later in the day, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert staunchly defended the decision to go to war in Lebanon, saying Israel's actions helped eliminate a state within a state run by Hezbollah.
Mr. Olmert says the war changed the strategic balance in the region to Hezbollah's disadvantage, saying its supply of weaponry has been mostly destroyed, and its self-confidence undermined. He also promised to continue to pursue Hezbollah's leaders and to do everything he could to win the release of two Israeli servicemen, whose capture by Hezbollah militants on July 12 sparked the current crisis.
Mr. Olmert also asked for patience from critics who say ending hostilities now means that Israel has failed to achieve its objective of eliminating the threat from Hezbollah.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz says he will name a commission to conduct an investigation into the conduct of the military operation.
Israeli and Lebanese military officers met with the commander of U.N. forces in southern Lebanon to discuss Israel's disengagement from the country. Under the cease-fire agreement, 15,000 international peacekeepers will join the small U.N. force in Lebanon known as UNIFIL to assist Lebanese troops in carrying out the U.N. mandated goal of stopping the flow of weapons to Hezbollah.
U.N. Special Envoy To The Middle East Alvaro de Soto says the peacekeepers should start to arrive within days, and that the enhanced force should have the authority to carry out its mandate.
"UNIFIL has gone through several incarnations. It now has a restricted mandate, it is only composed of 2,000 men. But it will be increased up to 15,000 and it will have a robust capacity to assist the government of Lebanon to carry out its responsibilities. The important point is that it is the government of Lebanon who will be taking on this responsibility and that is an important new step," he said.
Israeli officials say their troops will only withdraw from Lebanon when the peacekeepers and the Lebanese army deploy in the south. Hezbollah leaders say while they have accepted the truce, they say they may continue fighting as long as Israeli troops stay in Lebanon. Israeli officials say under the terms of the U.N. resolution they are allowed to respond if attacked, and they warn they will, with force, if necessary.