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Israel Remains on Alert During Cease-Fire

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're going next to northern Israel and the town of Qiryat Shemona, which has been hit by Hezbollah rockets practically every day since the fighting started five weeks ago.

NPR's Eric Westervelt is nearby and joins us now. And Eric, what was the start of the cease-fire like there?

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Well Steve, there was heavy outgoing Israeli artillery and rocket fire throughout last night and it kept going right up until about five minutes eight, local time, when the cease-fire took effect. But since then, Steve, so far it's been eerily quiet. No more warning sirens telling people to take shelter from incoming fire; no more sirens from ambulances and firefighters rushing to the scene of Katyusha strikes, as they have just about every day for the last month. The hills and the fields around here and the northern border areas are not on fire, as they have been most days; and the constant boom of outgoing artillery, for now anyway, is over.

INSKEEP: Are people jumping at the chance to return home, the way that they're returning home in Lebanon, apparently?

WESTERVELT: No, people are not yet returning home in droves, to their homes or farms, up here. The Israeli government has not changed its, sort of, alert status for citizens, and they've not told people yet that it's safe in the north to return to their homes. But I will say, people I've talked to on the streets desperately want this truce to hold. Many people, you know, have had friends or family members, or neighbors, who were wounded or killed. Others have businesses or homes directly affected. Towns were deserted, businesses badly damaged.

This weekend saw intense fighting, 31 Israeli soldiers killed. Yesterday, Hezbollah fired 250 short-range rockets into Israel - a single day record -killed one person and wounded two dozen others. So people are very ready to see this fighting end, and they hope this truth is a lasting one, Steve. But, they're also really skeptical and taking a wait and see approach.

INSKEEP: We're talking to NPR's Eric Westervelt, he is near the town of Qiryat Shemona, in northern Israel, where a cease-fire taken effect. And as we speak, anyway, it's quiet. Eric thanks. let's talk about the next steps here.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Okay, we'll come back to NPR's Eric Westervelt as soon as we can.

Let me just tell you that the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah is holding, giving refugees in south Lebanon, as we heard, a chance to return home.

Israel says it will not immediately withdraw from positions that its troops seized in the last few days. Thirty-four days of warfare have devastated much of south Lebanon and left northern Israel in shambles. About 900 people have been killed.

Now, in the final hours before this truce, Israeli warplanes struck a Hezbollah stronghold in eastern Lebanon and a Palestinian refugee camp in the south, killing two people. Israeli artillery pounded targets across the border through the night.

Now, on the Israeli side, now, the highway leading to southern Lebanon is jammed with refugees returning to their homes. That's in answer to the question we just put to Eric Westervelt. Now that that cease-fire is under way - this is according to the Associated Press - Lebanese troops are scrambling to repair bombed out roads. Many people don't know if they still have a home or not. That's one of the things they're finding out today. And there's also a notable absence of Israeli warplanes. And we're going to learn more now from NPR's Eric Westervelt. We've got him back on the phone.

And, Eric, I was asking if people are returning. It appears that some people are.

WESTERVELT: Some people are, Steve, but it's fragile so far. Not that many people have returned. The Israeli government has not told people it's safe to return, they haven't changed their alert status. They haven't told people yet in the north that it's safe to leave their shelters.

But I was just driving around downtown Qiryat Shmona, and there were more people visible on the streets. The atmosphere has changed. There aren't fires burning all around from Katyusha fires, like normal; people have taken off their flak jackets, police have. There was a change in atmosphere, but people are not returning in droves like they are yet in Lebanon.

INSKEEP: Now one of the key next steps is what Israeli forces do across the border. What are you hearing from Israeli military and political leaders about what their plans are?

WESTERVELT: Well, there will be a phased withdrawal, in theory, along with the deployment of U.N. forces and Lebanese army forces. But that's days, if not weeks away, Steve, and until then Israel says they will stay put.

We saw some troops leaving this morning, coming out, but we're told that that's part of a normal rotation of forces in and out. And I've walked by some artillery batteries this morning. People were more relaxed, cleaning their equipment and lounging around, but they certainly have few illusions that the fighting is necessarily all over. There were - there was one clash this morning, according to Israeli Army Radio, where a Hezbollah fighter opened fire on Israeli forces, the army says, and was shot and killed up near the Litani River this morning. And whether there'll be more clashes, it remains to be seen.

INSKEEP: You said a withdrawal in theory. Does that mean Israelis haven't made it entirely clear that they do intend to withdraw once there's an international force?

WESTERVELT: No, they do intend to withdraw in phases, but they say they will not pull back until there is a U.N. force on the ground, a Lebanese army force, and they want to make sure that Hezbollah gunmen are disarmed.

INSKEEP: Okay, Eric, thanks very much.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: We're talking to NPR's Eric Westervelt in northern Israel. We also heard from NPR's Ivan Watson in Lebanon on this day when a cease-fire, at least for the moment, appears to have taken effect in the war between Israel and Hezbollah.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.