Israel leaves Lebanon outposts before full withdrawal

JERUSALEM — With little fanfare, Israel's army is preparing for withdrawing its troops from southern Lebanon.

The Israel Defense Force this week transferred control of two outposts in the region to Israel's ally, the South Lebanon Army.

With one located along the Mediterranean coast and the other in the center of the security zone, the Rotem and Taibe outposts are considered relatively distant from the main concentration of Israeli positions in the region. Israel created the 9-mile-wide buffer zone in Lebanon to protect its northern communities.

The pullouts appear to reflect a strategy of first dealing with potentially vulnerable and less strategically important positions prior to the main troop withdrawal, which is to take place by July.

The pullbacks from the two outposts were similar. They took place overnight, after most equipment and personnel had already been removed. A brief hand-over ceremony was held with the SLA commander assuming responsibility.

There was no media coverage, with the only footage of the transfers taken by the Israel Defense Force spokesman's office and released afterward.

Although the withdrawals came during a week of heavy Hezbollah barrages of Israeli and SLA positions in the security zone, the two pullbacks were carried out without incident and without drawing any Hezbollah fire.

However, military observers believe that heavy Hezbollah fire may accompany the main withdrawal from the security zone.

As Israel continued preparations this week to fortify the northern border ahead of the troop redeployment, Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced a special budget of nearly $400 million to beef up the defenses of Israel's northern communities.

Barak said the aid package proves that the government supports the communities, which Hezbollah has targeted in cross-border attacks.

Barak reiterated that Israel would retaliate harshly should cross-border attacks continue after the withdrawal.

"The IDF is very strong and will know how to defend the state of Israel and the residents of the north from within the state of Israel's border after the redeployment," Barak said. "I do not recommend that any party, not directly or through an intermediary, try to hurt the residents of the northern communities after we are stationed along the border."

He also said continued Hezbollah attacks will not prevent Israel from withdrawing from Lebanon by July.

His comments Wednesday came hours after Hezbollah gunmen shelled other Israeli outposts in southern Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the United States is considering providing Israel with $50 million to help cover costs of the redeployment from southern Lebanon, say officials at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

The officials said the United States wants the money to come from the $1.8 billion in annual U.S. military aid to Israel and not as part of a new budget request. Israel has not yet requested any additional funds to cover the withdrawal, which has an estimated cost of $300 million.

In a related development, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy warned Hezbollah against attacks following the Israeli withdrawal when he visited the United Nations in New York last week.

"If Hezbollah continues to be a destructive force, the strong arm of the IDF can reach anywhere," Levy was quoted as saying after his U.N. meeting with Secretary-General Kofi Annan last Friday. "But I hope it won't have to do so."