Israeli pullout will strand South Lebanon Army allies

Border security force is unpopular with Hezbollah, Lebanese

March 07, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MARJAYOUN, South Lebanon -- These are days of death and dread for the South Lebanon Army, the Christian-founded militia that's been armed, trained, clothed and paid by Israel for more than two decades.

Since the mid-1970s, its members have cast their lot with Israel. Fighting first the Palestine Liberation Organization and more recently Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah guerrillas, they have become pariahs to many of their fellow Lebanese.

Now this joyless collaboration is ending with Israel's announced withdrawal by July from the slim "security zone" it occupies along the Israeli-Lebanese border.

"If Israel leaves us [there will be] big fighting between us and Hezbollah. All the villages will see fighting," said a grizzled Col. Ghazi Aziz Daweh, 59, a deputy brigade commander in the SLA's eastern zone. "We are afraid for our future because we don't know what is our future."

Israel hopes for an agreement with Syria, which controls much of what happens in Lebanon, that would neutralize Hezbollah and allow for an orderly Israeli withdrawal, a peaceful border and lenient treatment for SLA soldiers from Lebanese justice.

But so weary is the Israeli public over the continuing death of its soldiers in Lebanon that the Israeli Cabinet voted unanimously Sunday to withdraw Israel's forces without an agreement.

Israeli officials have pledged to provide security for the SLA, knowing their reputation as allies will be on the line.

"We are strongly committed not only to the SLA soldiers but to the entire population of south Lebanon," said Ephraim Sneh, deputy defense minister. "We are not going to let them down."

But the Israeli government has not said how it will protect the SLA. Yesterday, a court rejected a bid for political asylum by three SLA members. An Israeli security source said recently: "Without an agreement, there is a problem."

This is an understatement, says an SLA brigade commander in the eastern zone, Col. Nabih Abu Rafeh: "Without an agreement, there will be a war. The whole area will become a hell."

Some might argue that south Lebanon already is hell.

Hezbollah killed five SLA soldiers with a bomb attack last week, bringing to 11 the number killed this year, including their deputy commander.

Absorbing a share of hits from Hezbollah is an unspoken part of the SLA's bargain with Israel. Without the SLA, more young Israeli men might be dying here than the seven killed this year.

This unusual pairing of Jewish and Arab fighters grew out of a common purpose in the mid-1970s. Israel wanted the PLO out of southern Lebanon, so it teamed with the Lebanese Christian militia in the south led by a renegade Lebanese army officer, Major Sa'ad Haddad, also fighting to oust the PLO. Haddad died in 1984 and was replaced by Gen. Antoine Lahd.

From Israel's first invasion of Lebanon in 1978, through a later, bigger invasion all the way to Beirut in 1982, the relationship with the SLA survived. When Israel pulled back in Lebanon in 1985, it kept control of a larger buffer zone, running the length of the Israel-Lebanon border.

Since then, its chief enemy has been Hezbollah, which is armed with Iranian-supplied Katyusha rockets capable of raining terror on northern Israel.

The SLA's collaboration spared the Jewish state from becoming enmeshed in the day-to-day running of an occupation zone of the kind that produced so much bitterness among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

"It's not really an occupation. You can't see an Israeli soldier block roads or check IDs," says Brig. Gen. Benny Gantz, Israel's chief liaison officer with the SLA. "You won't see us operating against the local population."

In return, southern Lebanon has benefited from Israel's much larger economy, with SLA soldiers drawing salaries from Israel and getting the privilege of sending family members to jobs in Israel.

"All the money here in this region is from Israel," said the owner of a hardware store in one of the graceful, aged stone buildings surrounding Marjayoun's town square. He asked that his name not be published.

Money isn't the only lure for SLA soldiers. One key officer, who as a 7-year-old watched a Palestinian terrorist shoot his father to death, sees Israel as his only natural ally in the country.

"It's my homeland. I'm defending my village, the people and kids," adds Abu Rafeh.

But so economically attached has the region become to Israel that the SLA's original Christian ranks have expanded to include Muslims and Druze, even among senior officers. Although its leadership remains largely Christian, up to 60 percent of its soldiers are Shiites.

The SLA has plenty of reason to fear for itself if left to the mercy of the Lebanese government.

The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem says hundreds of Lebanese, including some minors, have been detained without due process at the al-Khiam prison, operated by the SLA in south Lebanon.

Rights groups that have taken testimony from former prisoners report "severe" torture during interrogations, sometimes for up to three months.

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