Maroun Al Ras, Lebanon: Residents of southern Lebanon expressed relief and claimed victory yesterday after Israel's troop pullout from an area which was devastated by its war on Hezbollah.
"This is a great victory for the Lebanese in the south and for Hezbollah we will organise a great party," said Hamad Faris, a 28-year-old farmer in the border village of Maroun Al Ras.
"I am very happy. I will be able to go back to my fields and cultivate my land," he said, talking amid a crowd of cheerful neighbours who had gathered to discuss the news.
But Faris and his neighbours may have to postpone their party for a while, as the United Nations has said that the Israeli pullout is not yet complete, and, more importantly, because most of the village is in ruins.
Israel's army withdrew from all of south Lebanon except a small border village, as part of a handover to the Lebanese army and UN peacekeepers under a ceasefire deal that ended a war with Hezbollah fighters.
Crossing the frontier without fanfare before sunrise, Israeli troops padlocked the border gate at Zarit, close to where Hezbollah fighters seized two soldiers on July 12 before the conflict with Israel erupted.
Fierce clashes in Maroun Al Ras, which overlooks both northern Israel and southern Lebanon, destroyed most houses and forced nearly all the residents to flee. The village was the first in southern Lebanon to be occupied by Israel after it launched a major offensive on its northern neighbour following the July 12 capture of two Israeli soldiers by the Hezbollah.
It was among the last to be vacated when most Israeli soldiers still in south Lebanon returned early yesterday morning back across the border in line with UN Resolution 1701 which put an end to the war.
At daybreak, residents of Marwaheen border village were relieved to see that the Israeli flag which had flown for weeks on a nearby hilltop was no longer there. The two Merkava tanks which had been stationed at the entrance of the village were also gone.
Marwaheen suffered great devastation and death during the conflict among them 26 civilians killed by an Israeli raid while fleeing the area.
Returning residents rushed to check on their destroyed homes and tobacco fields on the flanks of a nearby hilltop which was now free of Israeli occupation.
"It is magnificent. We won. We are free," said a jubilant Rania Abdullah, 50, who said she now wanted to send her children back to school and tend what is left of her olive trees three quarters of them have been destroyed.
While schools may reopen soon, Abdullah will have to wait until experts from the Lebanese army and Unifil clear her lands of unexploded ordnance dropped by the Israelis before she can get back to her trees.
On the Hamames border hilltop, near the largely destroyed village of Khiam, residents also headed to check on their fields, apparently unconcerned by the possibility of ordnance.
"This is the first time I have come here since the war," said Mohammad Ahmad. "Until yesterday there were Israeli soldiers. Now we are free to come to our land."
A Unifil statement confirmed that Israeli troops had pulled out of all areas in southern Lebanon, except the Ghajar border zone in the east.
The Israeli army had earlier announced that a number of Israeli troops would remain on the Lebanese side of Ghajar, part of which is in Lebanon and the other part is in Syrian territory occupied by Israel.
"This is the first time I have come here since the war. Until yesterday there were Israeli soldiers. Now we are free to come to our land."