Israel's Lebanese Allies Waver Between Desertion and Defiance
As the steady rhythm of desertions continues ahead of the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, members of Israel's proxy South Lebanon Army (SLA) militia are warning the Lebanese authorities of the consequences if they do not grant them a peaceful solution.
"Beware of our terrible anger if we are pushed into the corner, because we will be like a wild beast with nothing to lose," said an SLA officer who identified himself as Sami, looking furtively from under an olive tree as his men patrolled a village in the Israeli-occupied border zone.
"All we want is to be allowed to live in peace. We want peace and security for our families and our region," said the officer, wearing the military fatigues of all SLA militiamen.
Sami was voicing mixed feelings of anger and fear shared by all SLA men, who are close to losing the military presence of their patron, Israel, which has started preparations to end its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon by July 7.
"It is true that Israel is pulling out, but this does not mean that it is the end of us," said Sami, a Christian Maronite. "Some have decided to desert, but we are staying. We all continue to defend ourselves, our families and our region even if we have to die for that."
As the date for the Israeli pullout approaches and resistance guerrilla operations, mainly by the Shiite Muslim Hizbollah, have become bolder and deadlier, desertions among the 2,500-strong militia's ranks have sharply increased, including 24 since Monday.
The deserters flee the border zone through ravines and hand themselves over to Hizbollah or Amal, another Shiite guerrilla group fighting the Israeli occupation.
Many SLA soldiers have also managed to emigrate, mainly to Canada, while reports say that Druze residents from the Hasbaya region have formed an armed force to protect themselves, as fears grow of a security vacuum after the Israeli withdrawal.
On Friday, Lebanese Interior Minister Michel Murr said the Lebanese army intelligence services will contact Amal and Hizbollah to take the deserters and hand them over to judicial authorities.
"We first carried arms in the 1970s to protect ourselves from the Palestinian guerrillas who came to fight Israel from here, but tried to control our region when there was no real government presence," explained Mikhael, another Christian SLA officer.
"Now, we want to defend our region against those who want to murder us in our beds," he said, referring to Hizbollah’s pledge to kill all SLA militiamen who do not surrender or "repent" by killing an Israeli or SLA officer.
Lebanon, which rejected an SLA demand for amnesty similar to those granted to militias after the end of the country's 1975-1990 civil war, insists on prosecuting SLA members for "treason and collaboration with the enemy."
"How can you ask us to trust our state, if it remains idle when people encourage savage killings among our own citizens?" Mikhael said. "How can Hizbollah behave like there is no government authority in Lebanon?
"This is a real shame because we are true Lebanese and we refuse to be treated as traitors. The Lebanese state should thank us for having protected our region against foreigners, not jail us and prosecute us."
Most SLA members also fear that Syria, in Lebanon where it maintains 35,000 troops, will fuel controversies about the SLA's fate, along with other border disputes, to maintain the armed resistance card in its hand and secure a better chance of regaining the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967.
If the SLA militia was born in a Christian milieu, today most of its soldiers are Shiite.
"It is not true that we, the Muslims of the region, are not scared for our fate and we are also ready to fight till the end because we do not want Hizbollah to dictate to us what to do or to control our region," said Hassan, a Shiite SLA officer carrying an assault rifle.
"It is true that we collaborated with Israel, but we, both Muslims and Christians, were forced to do that in the absence of state sovereignty back then," he said. "We would have accepted the help of any other neighboring country, even if it used us for its own interests."
The notion of treason provokes strong resentment among SLA members.
"We are not traitors," said Mohammed, another SLA officer. "Even when we used to train in Israel, we used to hoist the Lebanese flag in our camp on Israeli soil and we used to sing the Lebanese national anthem every morning.
"Everyone knows that many Lebanese militias collaborated and received arms from Israel during the civil war, so why didn't they prosecute them? Why are we treated differently? We are Lebanese, too." -- MARJAYOUN, Lebanon, (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)