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ISRAELI HARD-LINERS REASSURE MILITIA

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The election of hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised concern across the Arab world. But in this part of Lebanon, there is relief.

"We are very happy that Netanyahu won," said Maj. Samir Shoufi, the head of operations for the South Lebanon Army. The militia, based in this mostly Christian town, helps Israel police the 600-square-mile buffer zone Israel has occupied since 1985.Like many here, Shoufi feared the previous, more moderate Israeli government was preparing to withdraw from the area as part of a peace deal with Lebanon and its Syrian patron.

That might have left the strip's 200,000 residents - and especially its 2,500 SLA members - vulnerable to retribution by those who consider them traitors.

SLA fighters seemed gratified Tuesday after a reassuring visit from Yitzhak Mordechai, Israel's new defense minister.

"We shall stay on in this area as long as security conditions require our presence," Mordechai said.

Netanyahu's government appears less likely to reach a deal with Syria because it opposes returning the Golan Heights, which Israel seized in 1967. That may preclude a deal with Lebanon as well.

Netanyahu said in an interview published Wednesday that Israel would mobilize the world against Syria for serving as a base for "terrorism."

But Mordechai, who wore civilian clothes and carried an M-16 rifle, hinted a pullout is still possible if Lebanese authorities disband the Hezbollah - the Iranian-backed Shiite militia that has fought the Israelis for over a decade.

"It is in our interest that there be strong Israeli control over the area," Shoufi said.

Israel has controlled parts of south Lebanon for almost two decades, using its own troops and proxies like the SLA. In 1985, it carved out this buffer zone while ending a three-year occupation of the southern half of Lebanon after an invasion that succeeded in driving the PLO out of the country.

Israel's rationale for holding onto the territory has been to prevent border infiltrations by Hez-bol-lah.

Although Hezbollah officials generally claim they want only to drive Israel out of Lebanon, Israeli intelligence officials maintain the fundamentalist group is also opposed to the very existence of the Jewish state and would likely continue attacks.