South Lebanon Army soldiers fought alongside IDF troops in their country and followed them south when Israel withdrew. Now they’re waiting for a chance to go home.
Standing outside of his Galilee home, Fadi, once a high-ranking officer of the South Lebanon Army, remarks on how close he still lives to Lebanon. He gestures to the low-slung mountains as though he is trying to sweep them from the horizon. The small village he was born and raised in isn’t far off. “If that hill wasn’t there, we could see Tsfat,” he says. “And after that, Lebanon.”
Fadi, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, was a young boy when Lebanon’s multifaceted and shifting civil war began. He joined the SLA as a teenager. Like South Lebanon, his childhood was overrun with Syrian troops and Palestinian fighters. “There was no choice,” he says. “We joined the army to guard our homes, to guard our parents.”
While the SLA was predominantly Christian, both Shiite and Druze were represented in its ranks, which numbered over 3,000. Established from a fragment of the Lebanese Army, the militia was first headed by Saad Haddad. After Haddad’s death in 1984, Antoine Lahad took the helm. But Israel, ultimately, controlled both men.
SLA forces did the grunt work, protecting IDF troops on the ground in South Lebanon. Some feel that they were exploited. And the common sentiment among former SLA militiamen and Israelis alike is that the Jewish state remains indebted to the Lebanese who saved Israeli lives.
To the SLA, fighting alongside Israel, an enemy state, seemed like a way out, a shot at peace. They also joined because they felt trapped. War kept them in South Lebanon, Fadi says, and poverty kept them in the country.
But when Israeli forces withdrew in May of 2000, ending their 22-year occupation of Lebanon and causing the collapse of the SLA, Fadi was left, again, without choices. He fled south.
There was no time to pack or say goodbye, he says. Israel was retreating, Hezbollah advancing. Fadi and his wife tucked their two children in the car. When they reached the border, they crossed on foot along with 7,000 other Lebanese.
Since the withdrawal, most SLA militiamen and their families have emigrated to the United States, Canada, and Europe. Some have returned to Lebanon. Fadi and his family are among the 2,500 who remain in Israel. Stuck in the north, they wait. When the political landscape changes, they’ll go home.
“Our dream is that we’ll have peace and the gate will be open,” says Marlen Abu Raad, the wife of a former SLA officer. The small shop she owns in Tarshiha is just a few miles from the border. But the Lebanese chocolates she uses in her custom-made gift baskets must pass through Jordan first.
Why not use something local, something cheaper?
Abu Raad doesn’t answer. She hands me a candy, wrapped in golden foil. But her feelings are more complicated than her sweet tooth suggests. “We’re part of the land,” Abu Raad says. That includes Israel.
After a decade, the family has found an uneasy home here. Abu Raad’s four children—who range in age from 13 to 20—speak fluent Hebrew and have Jewish friends. They are “Lebanese-Israeli,” she says.
Still, Abu Raad’s oldest son opted out of army duty, choosing to work instead. The next in line, her 18-year-old boy, would like to serve but may not be able to because of health problems. Her 15-year-old daughter isn’t sure about the IDF, but she wants to be an ambassador for both countries.
Abu Raad is less comfortable negotiating the two cultures. “To the Jews, we’re Arabs. But to the Arabs, we’re traitors,” she says. This is one reason many Christian Lebanese, Abu Raad included, have had a hard time finding work in Israel.
The state has done little to help. While Israel gave citizenship to all who stayed, it divided the Lebanese according to their position in the SLA. The higher-ranking group enjoyed a generous payout from the Defense Ministry. The rest, classified as new immigrants, were passed along to the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. They received a meager monthly stipend, and their fees for Hebrew lessons were waived. The payment was “barely the rent,” Abu Raad says, “and they stopped it after a year.”
“We don’t want to steal from the state,” she adds. “We want to survive.” She feels Israel should cover the basics, like rent. Why? Abu Raad points to the high price the SLA paid for both the alliance and withdrawal. “We lost our homes. We lost our families.”
“The Israeli attitude is that they were collaborators, opportunists, a potential fifth column,” says Eyal Zisser, Director of Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. “The idea was to encourage them to go back.”
According to Zisser, it is safe for most to return to Lebanon. Still, he says, the state should take responsibility for those who stay in Israel. “[The IDF] encouraged them to join their ranks,” he says. He also points out that the SLA didn’t just work alongside the IDF. They were used to protect Israeli troops.
“Regardless of the fact that they served their own interests in Lebanon, we have to say something about the society and state that created the situation,” Zisser says. But Israel seems to have given its Lebanese allies little thought. Mordechai Nisan, a lecturer at Hebrew University, calls the 2000 withdrawal “an insult by Barak.”
In the months before the retreat, Nisan explains, it was becoming clearer to the SLA that “yes, the withdrawal was coming. But the assumption was—and it turned out to be naïve—that it would be done in a way in which the SLA could decide its own fate.”
Instead, Israel did not consult or even inform its allies. Too weak to stand on its own, the SLA fell apart as Israeli forces left.
“At the minimum, Israel should have spoken with the SLA and asked what they would have liked to happen and discussed their options,” Nisan says, adding that the SLA wanted to stay in Lebanon and “coordinate with the government in Beirut.”
Nisan points out that though they were forced to flee, the SLA and their families haven’t been forced to stay in Israel. “Those that are here are choosing, commendably, not to go elsewhere,” he says. “Their being here is very positive.” Their presence indicates a belief in the peace process. For the SLA it’s not a question of if they’re going home, Nisan explains. It’s “when and how it’s going to happen.”
Spending time with Fadi in Galilee, it would be easy to forget we’re in Israel, except that we’re speaking Hebrew. We discuss Lebanese politics as Fadi, holding the remote control, flips from one Lebanese station to another. Next to the TV is a print of the Virgin Mary, a wooden rosary hanging from a corner of the frame. Fadi’s wife sets a plate of homemade sesame cookies on the coffee table. The recipe comes from Lebanon.
But they can only make so much. And they can’t recreate the loved ones they haven’t seen in 10 years.
“That’s the hardest thing for us,” Fadi says. “Our kids are growing up without family, without grandparents, without aunts and uncles, without earth, without anything.” Phoning home is risky as Lebanese law forbids contact with Israelis. A call from here often means an interrogation there. Fadi says Lebanese authorities don’t understand phone calls to say hello to parents.
Fadi thinks of moving his wife and children home, but he doesn’t have enough faith in the Lebanese system to do so. “If there was a state with justice and law, I would return and not be worried,” he says. When the civil war started, Fadi’s family was attacked and left unprotected.
While some SLA militiamen still harbor resentment toward the Palestinians and Syrians whose involvement aggravated the conflict, Fadi does not. “I don’t blame them,” he says. He points the lack of government in Lebanon and to the Palestinians’ refugee status as major factors in the war and then comments that Palestinian rights remain an urgent issue.
Fadi envisions a two-state solution with a “Jerusalem for everyone.” Europe gives him hope. “There were so many wars there and now everything is open,” he says. But he isn’t optimistic about the immediate future. “Israel doesn’t want peace. Syria doesn’t want peace,” he says. “The people in control don’t want peace because they’ll lose power.” Because of this, Fadi predicts that Lebanon will find itself caught in the crossfire again.
Now that they live on the other side of the border, Fadi and his wife worry about both sides. During the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, “we were afraid for our children here and our family there,” he says. The war was difficult, he adds, but it wasn’t surprising. “We were waiting all the time for a situation like this. We knew it would happen even before the withdrawal.”
Although the retreat is 10 years behind them, neither Fadi nor Abu Raad can put words to the atrocities all sides committed during the civil war and occupation. Abu Raad, who was born and raised in Beirut, remembers living near another border—the Green Line that divided Muslims and Christians. “Going from one side of the city to the other was like going from one country to another,” she says. “That’s what we grew up in.”
She pauses, then says, “The blood, the bodies, the things we saw with our eyes.”
Fadi simply says this: “In the end, there will be no victory in Lebanon. There will be no power in Lebanon. No one will win—not Hezbollah, not Iran, not Syria, not Israel.”
Mya Guarnieri is a Tel Aviv-based journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera English, The National in Abu Dhabi, The Jerusalem Post, The Huffington Post, Maan News Agency, and elsewhere.
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