By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Photo by Kate Seelye
A larger-than-life statue of the Virgin Mary, arms outstretched, stands on a hill overlooking the entrance to the Lebanese Christian village of Jezzine, welcoming visitors into this picturesque mountain town.
For more than two decades, during Lebanon’s 16-year civil war and since its conclusion in 1990, this particular icon has presided over incessant strife among warring Middle East factions. Last June 3, however, Jezzine residents awoke to an unexpected lull in the violence. After occupying their town for the past 14 years, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), a proxy militia for Israel comprised of Lebanese conscripts, withdrew from the region. In its wake, long-besieged Jezzine dared to hope peace may finally be at hand.
Conflict dies hard in the Middle East, however. As they pulled back to the safety of Israel’s nine-mile-wide occupation zone in southern Lebanon, the 200 SLA soldiers faced a familiar inferno. Hezbollah guerrillas detonated roadside bombs along their path, blowing up tanks and armored personnel carriers, killing two SLA militiamen.
The humiliating retreat looked a lot like the beginning of the end for Israel’s surrogate army in the south. It also looked to many like the first sign of Israel’s impending withdrawal from Lebanon after a costly 21-year occupation that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has promised to end.
Just outside of Jezzine, longtime resident Joseph Auon pointed to a rocky hill overlooking the SLA’s escape route, still littered with charred Israeli tanks.
"That’s Hezbollah’s hill — where they launched their attacks," said Aoun matter-of-factly, summing up in a single sentence everything that has been going wrong for Israel and its allies in south Lebanon.
Born in response to Israel’s invasion of Beirut in 1982, Hezbollah has transformed itself from a radical organization, suspected of playing a role in the bombing of the U.S. Marines’ barrack in Beirut in ‘83 and the kidnapping of Western hostages, into a potent resistance force. In their fight to end Israel’s occupation of Lebanon, Hezbollah guerrillas have become increasingly effective in slipping into Israel’s buffer zone and ambushing the 1,500-strong Israeli army and the 2,500 SLA troops that help patrol its occupation. The Hezbollah-launched Katyusha rocket attacks, which have long terrorized northern Israel, have only served to underscore the limitations of Israel’s self-proclaimed "security zone" inside Lebanese borders.
More even than the Israeli military, the SLA has served as Hezbollah’s favorite target. The SLA had emerged in the 1970s under the leadership of the late renegade Lebanese army officer Major Saad Haddad, whose militia-for-hire served as a shield between the Jewish state and the Palestinians then controlling south Lebanon.
Funded and armed by Israel, SLA troops assisted Israel during its 1978 occupation of south Lebanon, its invasion of Beirut in 1982, and later its establishment in 1985 of Israel’s current buffer zone.
That same year, SLA leader General Antoine Lahad, a Christian, occupied Jezzine, claiming the need to protect the area’s largely Christian population against feared massacres. Israel gave its okay, viewing the Jezzine enclave — a finger that juts just north of the declared occupation zone — as a useful tactical appendage. Ever since, Jezzine has been cut off from the rest of Lebanon, controlled by a client army and relinquished by a national government that has become little more than a tool for neighboring Syria’s regional designs.
With 35,000 troops in Lebanon, Syria pretty much calls the shots, fomenting continuing tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border. That translates into constant harassment of Israel’s occupation, which Syria can distance itself from, but can also promise to quell in return for Israeli concessions in peace talks.
Hezbollah helps serve that agenda by hitting hard at the SLA. This past spring, the commander of the SLA’s Jezzine regiment was badly injured in a roadside bomb explosion; his deputy was killed in a similar attack a week later. Unable to find a replacement and faced with growing casualties and army desertions, the SLA’s Lahad called his militia’s presence in Jezzine "untenable" and ordered a pullback.
For Jezzine’s 3,000 residents — down from an original 30,000 — the sudden withdrawal, after 14 years of isolation and war, has given rise to mixed emotions.
Fareed Aoun sat in the corner of his shop along Jezzine’s quiet main street, carefully crafting the ebony-and-bone handles of the cutlery for which Jezzine is famous. He once employed 15 workers to help him make the exquisitely sculpted forks and knives that tourists drove two hours from Beirut to buy. Now he works by himself.
He said the last few years have been marked by weekly bombings and explosions as the SLA and Hezbollah did battle. Many civilians were killed in the crossfire, while others fled to Beirut for safety. Because of his store, said Aoun, he had no choice but to stay.
"I would go from home to work to home again, only," he said, describing life under siege. "Always we were afraid."
Now, said Aoun, there’s peace and quiet. "With the war over, I just hope that Jezzine will become a tourist center once again."
Nineteen-year-old Shadi Helou agreed that life has improved in the wake of the SLA pullout. The town, he said, no longer has to worry about Hezbollah attacks.