Israel Begins Pulling Some Troops Out of Lebanon as Cease-Fire Begins

Israel has begun withdrawing some troops from Lebanon, shortly after a U.N.-mediated cease-fire - to end more than a month of fighting - went into effect Monday at 0500 UTC. Israeli officials say they will maintain their air and sea blockade of Lebanon until a way is found to stop the threat of weapons smuggling to Hezbollah. At least one clash has taken place in the hours following the implementation of the cease-fire.

Israeli commanders halted offensive operations in Lebanon as the cease-fire took effect at 8:00 a.m. local time. And early Monday, some Israeli troops began withdrawing from Lebanon, although a military spokesman says the bulk of the force will remain in the country until a new United Nations peacekeeping force arrives.

After more than a month of fighting, Israel and Hezbollah have agreed to halt fighting. The next step in the cease-fire process will be the arrival of international peacekeepers being sent to Lebanon to join a small U.N. force already there. The 15,000 strong force will assist Lebanese troops in carrying out the U.N. mandated goal of stopping the flow of weapons to Hezbollah militants.

Alvaro de Soto, the U.N. special envoy to the Middle East, says the peacekeepers should start to arrive within days. The peacekeepers will be under the command of the U.N. force in southern Lebanon known as UNIFIL, which has been widely criticized for being ineffective. De Soto says the enhanced force should have the authority to carry out its mandate.

"UNIFIL has gone through several incarnations. It now has a rather 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," he said. "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."

Israeli officials say their troops will only withdraw from Lebanon when the peacekeepers and the Lebanese army deploy in the south, and that eventually, the cease-fire should lead to the disarming of Hezbollah.

A number of Israeli politicians have expressed skepticism about whether the U.N. plan will meet those goals.

"At the end of the day a resolution is just a piece of paper," said Meir Sheetrit is Israel's Housing and Construction Minister. "The real test of the resolution is its implementation. We had an excellent resolution two years ago in 1559, which demanded exactly the same, that demanded that Hezbollah disarm and that Lebanese forces deploy in southern Lebanon. That did not happen, which exactly why we find ourselves in this very dire situation."

That skepticism is shared by many ordinary Israelis, such as Mordechai Sabok, who spoke from his Haifa hospital bed where he is recovering from wounds he suffered in a Hezbollah Katyusha rocket attack.

"Nothing will change after this cease-fire. That is how I see it," he said. "I hope I am mistaken, but I think nothing will change."

The fighting began after Hezbollah forces entered Israel and captured two Israeli soldiers on July 12. The Israelis responded with massive air strikes that concentrated on the Lebanese south, where Hezbollah forces were firing missiles at Israeli territory. More than 1,100 Lebanese and 150 Israelis have died in the conflict.

Tens of thousands of Israeli troops remain in Lebanon. While Hezbollah leaders say they have accepted the truce, they say they may continue fighting as long as the 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.