- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2003

HADERA, Israel — Jan Rizk calls it “the betrayal.”

Three years ago, the Southern Lebanon Army veteran was summoned with other SLA officers by their Israeli patrons to a 2 p.m. meeting at the militia’s base in Marjayoun.

For months then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had been talking about a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon by summer, but Israeli army officers assured the Lebanese militiamen that they would be taken care of.

“They were saying that we would stay in our place in our homes and there would be protection. They were saying, ‘Don’t worry, nothing will happen. We’re still here,’” said Mr. Rizk, a 17-year veteran of the militia. “We waited for the meeting, but instead of a meeting there was a withdrawal. Suddenly everyone disappeared. They left us there without any weapons.”

The date was May 23, 2000, and by the end of the afternoon, Israel would begin a hasty overnight retreat, ending its presence of more than two decades in southern Lebanon.

Mr. Rizk and thousands of other SLA fighters believed that staying behind could mean death at the hands of their countrymen, who considered them traitors. Within two hours, Mr. Rizk had collected his wife and three children, and fled to the Israeli border, leaving their life behind except for the clothes on their backs.

As the third anniversary of the pullout approaches, the Rizks are one of about 750 SLA families remaining in Israel. It is a solitary existence for the military refugees, who languish without steady work and rely on piecemeal government assistance. But fearing imprisonment if they return to Lebanon and with no one to take them in elsewhere, they have little choice.

The families abstain from calling home for fear of endangering relatives who stayed behind. Israeli Arabs shun them, and Jews keep their distance. Two months ago, a public rental subsidy package expired without being renewed. And although they have become proficient in Hebrew, the Israeli government has yet to offer them citizenship.

“They’re alone, and the conditions are hard,” said Shimon Halfon, an immigrant-absorption official in the city of Hadera, where five former SLA families live. “The government hasn’t solved their problems as they hoped.”

The alliance dates to the mid-1970s, when Israel and the Christians of southern Lebanon began cooperating against Yasser Arafat’s PLO, which had set up shop in Lebanon after being kicked out of Jordan.

Entire families joined the militia, which trained recruits from the age of 16. Many of the fighters saw more of Israel than of their native country.

Cooperation with the Lebanese Christians was a key part of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon to expel the PLO. When Israel pulled its troops out of the country, leaving behind a strip of occupied land it called a “security zone,” the SLA continued to help defend Israel’s northern border, now fighting Hezbollah guerrillas backed by Syria and Iran.

In the months after Mr. Barak’s decision to pull out of Lebanon without an agreement with its government, the wisdom of the move was questioned, especially after Israeli soldiers were captured from the border in October 2000. Eventually, the debate subsided as the number of casualties on the northern front declined.

Meanwhile, Israel promptly forgot about the thousands of Lebanese Christian families who were initially welcomed in cities throughout northern Israel such as Tiberias, Haifa and Nahariya.

Some relatives soon returned to Lebanon after being denied eligibility for temporary resident status in Israel. For those who could stay, the first months were spent in cramped housing. After a year in a single room at a hostel, Mr. Rizk found his family a home in Hadera vacated by a handicapped SLA vet who despaired of finding employment in Israel and returned to a three-year jail term in Lebanon.

The rent is beyond their means since Mr. Rizk was laid off a month ago from work as a cook at the local soldiers’ benevolent association headquarters.

After running up a bank debt of almost $3,000, the family lives off monthly loans from Mr. Rizk’s army friends. And without government assistance, he’ll have to start looking for a smaller place soon.

With four other families living in the neighborhood, and a brother and a widowed sister living in northern Israel, Mr. Rizk and his family are not alone. Yet reflecting on life in Israel is too painful for his wife, Kamla, who falls silent.

“She would have preferred to die rather than come here,” said Mr. Rizk, 35. “But with my pressure. … You understand.”

Care for the military refugees is administered by the Absorption Ministry, but the policy is dictated by the prime minister’s office. In a written response to questions about government support for the SLA veterans, the prime minister’s office said the veterans are entitled to all the rights and financial subsidies afforded to Jewish immigrants, except automatic citizenship.

Absorption officials say the government has paid for Hebrew lessons and professional training, as well as offering employment counseling. But many Israelis, ever suspicious of Arab neighbors amid a Palestinian uprising, are reluctant to offer jobs to the SLA vets, absorption officials and veterans said.

The training was part of a special aid package approved in August 2002, which expired in March. It included rental assistance, a $200 monthly employment stipend and wage subsidies for employers.

After the militiamen unsuccessfully sued for a better deal, a new aid package is under consideration, the prime minister’s office said.

And although the government says that “no other population group enjoys the same kind of support,” the assistance doesn’t compare to the benefits of retired Israeli career officers.

“They were absorbed in a very bad period in Israel, a situation of intifada and unemployment, and it shows,” said Shlomo Hasson, head of the Absorption Ministry division responsible for the veterans.

“I can’t give them compensation, because in a couple of years the political situation might change and they might go back to Lebanon.”

Mr. Rizk hopes to do just that if there is peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Mr. Rizk, a career fighter, has little optimism about his prospects but hopes to persuade his son, Sharbel, 17, to continue studying after high school. In the family’s financial state, it won’t be easy to talk the boy out of looking for a job.

“You could say that Lebanon is my mother while Israel is my father,” Mr. Rizk said. “So my mother didn’t accept me when I was in Lebanon, and now my father doesn’t want me. What can I do?”

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