JERUSALEM – With a rumble of tanks and armored vehicles, Israel withdrew the last of its troops from Lebanon early Sunday, fulfilling a key condition of the Aug. 14 cease-fire that ended a monthlong war against Hezbollah guerrillas.
The pullout ended a nearly three-month troop presence in Lebanon and cleared the way for the full deployment of an international peacekeeping force that will police the border with the Lebanese army. Israel sent its troops into Lebanon shortly after Hezbollah, a powerful militia backed by Iran and Syria, abducted two Israeli soldiers and killed three others in a July 12 cross-border raid.
The Israeli army "is now redeployed on our international border," government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said after the pullout was completed. "We are now waiting for the Lebanese government to fulfill their part" under the truce agreement — namely, to keep Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon and disarm it, she said.
Officials said Israel reinforced its military presence along the Lebanese border and would continue to conduct surveillance flights over Lebanon.
Israel has been gradually withdrawing troops since the cease-fire went into effect, from a peak of 30,000 during the fighting to several hundred soldiers. The final pullout was swift, taking just hours to complete.
Israeli military officials said the last soldiers returned to Israel on Sunday around 2:30 a.m. (0030 GMT), ahead of the onset of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, at sundown.
Under the cover of darkness, the roar of Israeli tanks and armored vehicles could be heard moving across the Lebanese side of the border during the operation.
An armored column creaked across the border at the Israeli border community of Moshav Avivim, leaving tread marks in the soil and sending a large cloud of dust into the air that was illuminated by the vehicle's headlights. Later, the last soldiers were seen boarding a bus at nearby Moshav Zarit.
During the withdrawal, the military censor imposed an information blackout, citing security concerns, and the army set up roadblocks that blocked reporters from reaching the border.
More than 150 Israelis and 850 Lebanese were killed in 34 days of fighting before a U.N. cease-fire went into effect.
The truce agreement calls for 15,000 peacekeepers to work with an equal number of Lebanese soldiers in southern Lebanon, long a stronghold of the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, to prevent another outbreak of fighting. Some 10,000 Lebanese soldiers and more than 5,000 U.N. troops have already been deployed.
The cease-fire also mandates a full Israeli pullout and requires southern Lebanon to be kept weapons-free except for arms approved by the Lebanese government.
Israeli officials had been reluctant to withdraw the last of their troops, citing disagreements over the deployment and rules of engagement of the Lebanese and U.N. forces.
Israel wants Hezbollah disarmed, but neither the U.N. force nor the Lebanese military is eager to take on the task. Hezbollah says it will not lay down its arms until a strong central government capable of defending Lebanon is in place.
Israel is also concerned about the joint force's ability to prevent Hezbollah, which launched 4,000 rockets into Israel during the fighting, from rearming.
The cease-fire prohibits unauthorized arms transfers to Hezbollah, which has long operated with autonomy in southern Lebanon. Israeli officials, speaking Sunday on condition of anonymity because they were discussing military maneuvers, said Israeli aircraft would continue to fly over Lebanon on the lookout for possible arms smuggling.
The cease-fire also calls for the unconditional release of the soldiers. The United Nations has appointed a mediator to try to win the soldiers' freedom, most likely through a prisoner swap with Israel.
U.N. peacekeepers deployed in southern Lebanon were expected to send patrols Sunday to verify the Israeli withdrawal.
An unspecified number of soldiers remained in the Lebanese section of the divided border town of Ghajar. Military chief Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz told Israel Radio on Sunday that he hoped the alignment of forces there would be settled within the next few days.
If Hezbollah returns to the south and begins rebuilding its infrastructure, "We will act against it," Halutz said, but wouldn't elaborate.