By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
"People are more relaxed and stay out later," he said.
But others expressed only bitterness that so little had changed in the 40 days since Jezzine’s return to Lebanon’s fold. Many noted that the national government had yet to lift travel restrictions into Jezzine, limiting the influx of tourists and the chance of economic recovery. Others accused the government of leaving Jezzine vulnerable to Hezbollah control by not deploying the Lebanese army in the region. The government argues that sending troops would signal cooperation with the Israelis, who have long insisted that Lebanon assert control over its border region.
People were most upset, however, about the status of 200 area residents who had worked for the SLA and gave themselves up to Lebanese authorities, rather than retreat with their colleagues. Mainly soldiers for the SLA, the men, ranging in age from their 20s through their 70s, are now facing trial in Beirut on charges of collaborating with the enemy. Despite their lawyers’ calls for amnesty, some already have received prison sentences ranging from three months to two years.
Edmond Rizk, a former member of parliament from Jezzine, who is representing some of the men, said they were victims of circumstance, not collaborators.
"Many were taken by the SLA and forced to join," he said, referring to the SLA’s policy of recruiting a son from each family. "Others joined for economic reasons"; in economically depressed southern Lebanon, the militia’s $500-a-month salaries were hard to match.
As one walks through the Jezzine area, it’s not hard to find residents with brothers, fathers or sons who served with the SLA. Their stories highlight the anguish and uncertainty of lives caught in the middle of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
At a grocery store in the nearby village of Roum, both the store owner and his customer said they had family members in prison awaiting trial on collaboration charges.
"We ran a hair salon," said a tearful Fahimi Assouf, referring to her husband. "But the SLA took him 16 years ago; he had no alternative but to serve . . . He had to survive."
Seated at a nearby gas station, elderly Boulos Akouri, a former gatekeeper for the SLA, expressed anger and disgust toward the Lebanese government for accusing his 25-year-old son of treason.
"We’re Lebanese here, our sympathies are not with Israel. We always believed the SLA was a Lebanese army," said Akouri. "We were abandoned by the Lebanese government all these years, so what right does the government now have to prosecute my son?"
Despite a clear ideological gulf between the Hezbollah militants and the SLA soldiers, these erstwhile enemies also have a few things in common.
Long considered a Christian militia, the SLA is in fact predominantly Shiite today, its soldiers culled from the poor Muslim families inhabiting south Lebanon. This has made the SLA particularly susceptible to infiltration by the Shiite Hezbollah, which over the years has developed numerous informers among the client army’s ranks.
Hezbollah has also been effective in encouraging defections among SLA foot soldiers, promising them protection and assistance. In 1997, Hezbollah unsuccessfully sought to pass a bill in Lebanon’s parliament granting amnesty to all SLA defectors with the exception of officers.
"The Islamic resistance has pledged that we want to dismantle the SLA," said Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim Mussawi, "because they serve as Israel’s sandbags in the south."
Following the Jezzine pullout, recent SLA defectors have reported the militia to be demoralized and on the verge of collapse. Rumors are circulating that General Antoine Lahad sought to resign and retire to France, but was prevented from doing so by the Israelis. The Israeli army has since been left with little option but to bolster its own forces in south Lebanon. Just four days after the SLA retreat, Israel declared that earlier plans to reduce its troop numbers were being postponed, in part to prevent the complete implosion of the SLA.
Mussawi says efforts to force the collapse of the SLA have been part of a larger Hezbollah strategy.
"We want to remove the SLA so the Israelis will feel the pain directly," said Mussawi.
And the pain these days has become more than most Israelis are willing to bear. It has not been easy policing an occupation zone that at its deepest point is 10 miles wide and runs for 50 miles along Israel’s shared border with Lebanon.
According to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), 72 Israeli soldiers have been killed in south Lebanon in the last two years alone. In February, Israel’s highest-ranking commander in the region, Brigadier General Erez Gerstein, died in a roadside blast, along with three other Israelis. His loss re-ignited Israel’s internal debate about the wisdom of remaining involved in what many call Israel’s Vietnam, and no doubt helped strengthen Barak’s pledge to remove troops within the next year.
While other Lebanese and Palestinian groups have fought to oust Israel over the years, Hezbollah gets most of the credit for undermining Israel’s resolve to stay in Lebanon.
"There are many criticisms of Hezbollah’s behavior," said American University of Beirut political science professor Farid el-Khazen, "but no one can say Hezbollah is not engaged in a real war with Israel, a war that has produced some results."