Israel's army pulled out of southern Lebanon without fanfare yesterday to complete a handover to the Lebanese army and UN peacekeepers under a ceasefire deal that ended a costly war with Hezbollah guerrillas.
Crossing the frontier before sunrise, Israeli troops padlocked the border gate at Zarit, close to where Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters seized two soldiers on July 12 before the conflict with US ally Israel erupted.
The UN confirmed that Israeli troops had pulled out of all areas in southern Lebanon, except the Ghajar border zone in the east, a statement said.
"The Israeli Defense Forces [IDF] have withdrawn their troops from south Lebanon today, except from the general area of Ghajar north of the Blue Line [borders], which is still under IDF control," the UN statement said.
The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) "is also in close contact with the IDF to facilitate a speedy withdrawal from the area of Ghajar," it added.
Villagers in southern Lebanon were delighted to see the Israelis leave, but with most preoccupied with rebuilding their battered villages and shattered lives, there were few signs of celebrations.
"They had the Israeli flag on my roof. When I arrived, I put up the Lebanese flag," Saleh Mohammad, 50, told reporters at his house in Marwaheen that had been occupied by Israeli soldiers.
No clear victor emerged in 34 days of fighting in which Hezbollah, challenging the Middle East's mightiest army, fired nearly 4,000 rockets into the Jewish state and Israel hit the group's strongholds, bombing Beirut neighborhoods and villages in southern Lebanon.
Around 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and 157 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed in the hostilities -- the worst since Israel's 1982 invasion.
Israel sent 10,000 troops into Lebanon before a truce took hold on Aug. 14. A few dozen remained by the weekend and Israel wanted them out before Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, which started at dusk yesterday.
Although the war in Lebanon had widespread support in Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's popularity ratings have since tumbled because of the army's failure to crush Hezbollah.
Lieutenant-General Dan Halutz, chief of staff of the Israeli military, aimed unusual criticism at his own troops, saying on Israel Radio: "The result in Lebanon is mediocre."
An Israeli government-appointed commission has begun an investigation into the way Olmert, the Cabinet and the military conducted the war.