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Southern Lebanese face uncertain future with Israel's withdrawal

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By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 18, 2000


One of the real tragedies of Israel's chaotic redeployment from the so-called security zone in southern Lebanon is getting little attention in the American press and elsewhere in the world.

That tragedy is the uncertainty facing the thousands of Lebanese residents who became the Middle East's newest refugees when the Israel Defense Forces pulled out of the region and when the pro-Israeli South Lebanese Army -- the Jewish state's official militia in the security zone -- collapsed and its soldiers fled into northern Israel.

For 18 years, after establishing a 9-mile buffer zone in southern Lebanon, Israel trained and financed the 2,500-strong SLA. Its purpose was to help Israel prevent cross-border attacks by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas.

When Israeli soldiers died, SLA troops often died at their side.

In many ways, the relationship was symbiotic. The Israelis, for example, needed fighters who knew the ways of Hezbollah, or Party of God, and were willing to risk death. Many SLA soldiers joined the militia, of course, for the money. Others, who wanted to preserve their lifestyle and freedom, joined the crusade so as not to live under the rule of Hezbollah guerrillas and Syrians, who are ultra-conservative Muslims.

But for all of their efforts, most SLA soldiers and their families, who are now on the run, believe that Israel betrayed their loyalty with the abrupt pullout. Many Israeli Jews agree. As the IDF redeployed, many SLA militiamen and their families had only a few hours or minutes to pack belongings and try to escape.

"The manner in which the retreat was carried out was unfair and unreasonable," Gen. Antoine Lahad, former commander of the SLA, told the Jerusalem Post from a safe place in Israel. "The IDF was humiliated because it retreated so fast and it gave Hezbollah a victory it never dreamed of. For over 24 years (the SLA and Israel) were together and (Israel) decided within 24 hours to change direction. What do you do now? Go with Hezbollah. Israel destroyed in 24 hours relations which were built over 24 years. We worked hand in hand, but suddenly Israel pulled back its hand and shook us off."

The fate of the other approximately 30,000 Lebanese seeking asylum is uncertain. To its credit, Israel has agreed to absorb as many as possible and has asked friendly nations, such as Australia, Canada, England, France and the United States, to accept others. Thus far, Israel -- already bursting at the seams with Jewish immigrants -- has absorbed more than 10,000 Lebanese. All of them have been photographed and will receive an ID card and register with a health fund and for national insurance.

For fear of retaliation by Hezbollah operatives, few former SLA soldiers and their families have remained in Lebanon. "We cannot go back," Atiya Adeeb, a 29-year-old SLA fighter, told the Financial Times (London). "Anyone who has left home as a traitor will be killed."

In newscasts, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, said that "all Israeli collaborators must leave with the Israelis. . . .I say it is the best guarantee for the future." Hezbollah's deputy leader, Sheikh Naim Qassem, had even harsher words. He went so far as to offer pardons to militiamen who kill one of their officers or an Israeli.

Unfortunately, the Lebanese government has shown no interest in protecting people believed to have been associated with the SLA, former Lebanese ambassador to the United States Simon Karam said during a televised news conference. "These (SLA militiamen) will be left to their fate, and one can see a sad, unforgiving scenario developing, with a harsh and vindictive state punishing people for collaborating with Israel under a 1950s-era law forbidding collaborating with the "enemy,"' Karam said.

As of May 25, according to the Jerusalem Post, about 160 militiamen had been sent to Beirut to be prosecuted for aiding the IDF. Nearly 200 more SLA soldiers reportedly surrendered to Lebanese authorities. Lebanese officials have said that they will imprison ex-SLA troops for one to seven years. Civilians who worked in the Jewish state -- even as farmhands or hospitality employees -- may be sentenced to five to six years. Top SLA brass have been convicted of treason in absentia and given the death penalty.

I spoke with members of two Tampa Bay area Lebanese families whose relatives were in the SLA. One family said they had not heard from their two relatives, one a high-ranking officer, since the redeployment. Members of the other family said they have heard from one relative but not from two others who were stationed in the village of Demesh, deep in the security zone.

Making matters worse for the refugees are comments by Israeli Arab leaders themselves that they do not want members of the new diaspora -- their own people -- living in their towns. Many fear reprisals from Hezbollah and their loyalists.

In addition to Israel's help and that of other nations, a ray of hope for the refugees is coming from major Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee, in the United States, according to Haaretz, a daily newspaper in Israel. Along with spearheading emergency aid for Jews in the northern towns, the groups are mobilizing humanitarian aid for SLA families who escaped to Israel.

"We appreciate all the help," one member of a Tampa Lebanese family said. "But we want to see our homeland again some day. We want to see our relatives who were in the SLA again. We want peace. Who will stop the cycle of revenge?"

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