Life Returns to Battered Israeli Town

KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel (AP) — Life slowly returned to the battered Israeli town of Kiryat Shemona on Tuesday, as residents emerged from grimy bomb shelters and began cleaning up the wreckage caused by more than a month of Hezbollah rocket attacks.

The streets in this border town, empty for weeks, filled up with cars. Long-closed stores opened their doors. Buses shuttled through the newly reopened central bus station, many heading south with soldiers allowed home for the first time in weeks.

Kiryat Shemona was the hardest hit of Israel’s cities, with more than 1,000 rockets slamming into its streets and surrounding hills. Half its population of 22,000 fled during the war.

Though the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas took effect Monday morning, many people here, fearing a last spasm of violence, did not begin venturing out until a day later.

“There is still tension in the air, but I am glad to see our soldiers back here again,” said Edna Peretz, 45, who opened her kiosk at the bus station for the first time since July 13.

Merchants swept shattered glass from storefonts; the center of town was relatively busy as people visited banks, restaurants and stores.

“We’re trying to get back to normal. It’s strange to adjust to the quiet after hearing booms for a month,” said Avi Tal, who welcomed regulars back to his coffee shop on Tuesday.

With the fighting over, at least for now, Israel began thinning out its troops in southern Lebanon.

An Associated Press photographer witnessed about 500 Israeli soldiers on foot cross back into Israel near the Israeli border town of Malkiya. Some of them smiled broadly. Others wept.

One unit marched carrying a billowing Israeli flag. Two soldiers carried a wounded comrade. Several tanks headed back over the border, including one that had been damaged and was being towed behind a military bulldozer.

The army plans to withdraw a large contingent of its troops from Lebanon on Wednesday and hand over the territory to the Lebanese army under the auspices of the commander of a U.N. force there, according to senior Israeli military officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details of the pullback.

Under the U.N. cease-fire deal, Israeli troops are due to be replaced by 15,000 Lebanese soldiers supported by up to 15,000 troops under the blue flag of the United Nations.

Israel hopes to complete the evacuation of its forces by next week, ending the military operation that began July 12 when Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers, the army said.

But Israel had no intentions of waiting for the arrival of the beefed-up international force, which it did not expect to begin moving into south Lebanon until next week in a deployment that would take a month to complete, the military officials said.

By the end of the week, the Israelis planned to release many of the thousands of reserve troops called up for the conflict, signaling an end to the largest mobilization in many years.

“We are making every effort to thin the ranks of reservists, and to return as many civilians as possible to their homes,” the deputy chief of the northern command, Brig. Gen. Shuki Shihrur, told Army Radio.

The army said the U.N.-drafted cease-fire that began early Monday was generally holding, and survived its first 24 hours with only a few infractions.

Five mortar shells were fired overnight, but landed in vacant land in south Lebanon, the army said. No rockets have been fired at northern Israel since Sunday. Israeli troops shot five armed men who approached them in two separate incidents in south Lebanon on Tuesday, the army said. It said it did not know whether the men were killed.

On Monday, Israel said its troops killed at least six Hezbollah guerrillas.

Israel is due to gradually evacuate southern Lebanon upon the arrival of the Lebanese army supported by up to 15,000 troops under the blue flag of the United Nations. News reports said the handover could begin within a day or two, but the army said it depended on how fast the U.N. could muster forces into the region.

Since the fighting began, 157 Israelis were killed, including 39 civilians and 118 soldiers. Lebanese officials reported 794 people killed. Hezbollah said 68 of its fighters were killed in battle, but Israel said its forces killed nearly 500 of the guerrillas.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, acknowledging shortcomings in the war preparations and its conduct, began grappling with the political fallout as critics abandoned their wartime unity to attack him for either hitting Lebanon too hard or not hard enough.

Opposition politicians demanded a commission of inquiry into all aspects of the war.

“There were many failures, failures in identifying the threat, failures in preparing to meet the threat, failures in the management of the war, failures in the management of the home front,” Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the opposition Likud Party, told parliament Monday.

“Without a doubt we shall need later on to learn the lessons and fix the mistakes,” Netanyahu said.

Some critics said Israel should have sent in massive ground forces earlier. Others criticized Israel’s final military surge — launched hours before the passage of the U.N. cease-fire deal Friday — that killed 33 soldiers.

Olmert also came under fire for failing to win the release of the two captured Israeli soldiers.