- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2004

For more than 20 years the South Lebanon Army (SLA) fought side by side with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in southern Lebanon, preserving a buffer zone between the Iranian-supported Hezbollah terrorists and Israelis living close to their country’s northern border with Lebanon.

The SLA was composed of Christian Arabs who for a long time had lived in Southern Lebanon. Their defense of the buffer zone served to protect their homes and families from brutal terrorist attacks, and also to protect Israel.

The IDF by fighting alongside the SLA reduced Hezbollah’s ability to use mortars and rockets to harass Israelis living close to the Lebanon border. Over the years, the two armies developed a close relationship based on shared interests and values.

With the election of Ehud Barak as prime minister of Israel, this mutual arrangement came to a tragic end. In his 1999 election campaign, Mr. Barak announced his intention to withdraw the IDF from south Lebanon by July of the year 2000, preferably as part of a peace arrangement with Syria, but unilaterally if there were no agreement. His objectives were to end the casualty-producing war with Hezbollah in south Lebanon and to demonstrate Israel’s peaceful intentions to those who objected to the occupation of the south Lebanon buffer zone. Early in the year 2000, Mr. Barak abruptly advanced the withdrawal date from July to May.

Mr. Barak also entered into an agreement with Hezbollah under which the terrorists would not fire on the IDF as it withdrew from its defensive positions in south Lebanon and retreated across the border into Israel. This was a major defeat for the IDF.

It was originally contemplated that complete control of the south Lebanon security zone would be transferred to the SLA prior to the IDF withdrawal. However, the withdrawal took place without ensuring that the SLA was able to secure the zone on its own. Clearly, the time between May and July to prepare the SLA to defend itself was lost by virtue of the early withdrawal.

The SLA soldiers who did not surrender to Hezbollah had no alternative but to retreat into Israel, taking with them their families and some personal items but abandoning their homes, their cars and most of their possessions. In this tragic process, some 2,500 SLA soldiers and their families became displaced persons in Israel, totally dependent for support on their former allies.

One can well imagine the sadness the former SLA soldiers felt when they looked across the border into Lebanon and saw Hezbollah terrorists living in their homes and using possessions stolen from them.

The first objective of the former SLA fighters was to return to their homes. But those who did so on their own were promptly imprisoned by their Hezbollah enemies.

After the breakdown of the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations at Camp David, Ehud Barak was succeeded in the year 2000 as prime minister by Ariel Sharon. The former SLA forces appealed to the Sharon government to negotiate for the return to their homes in Lebanon under effective guarantees for their safety. However, Lebanon had neither the ability or desire to return the SLA to their homeland, much less to protect them, nor did Syria have any such interest.

Predictably, the international community was uninterested in doing anything. Israel was in no position to reoccupy the south Lebanon buffer zone. The desire of the former SLA fighters to return to their homes was both understandable in human terms — meritorious morally, and yet totally unrealistic.

The former SLA also had more modest objectives of improving its precarious status in Israel. The government support its members received was minimal, yet it could be contended that the former SLA soldiers, in light of their 20 years of service, should receive the same retirement pay and benefits earned by the IDF. They also had a variety of “demands” on the government, not the least that their children have the same opportunities expected for Israeli children.

It is difficult to be a stateless person. The burden falls heavily on people trapped in circumstances beyond their control who feel powerless to protect their legitimate interests of those of their children. Notwithstanding adversity, the former SLA fighters are not bitter or anti-Israel. They appear dignified, composed and resolute; but not about to accept passively a second-class status.

Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has repeatedly promised to help the former SLA, but for political and economic reasons nothing has happened. The former SLA are not universally admired. Detractors include Israeli Arabs who regard the SLA as traitors to the Arab cause, and Israelis of the far left who disapprove of SLA willingness to fight for its own cause, and for Israel, alongside the IDF. Consequently, the political prospects of improved treatment for the former SLA are at the best marginal and at the worst dismal.

With a perspective of more than three years, what does Israel have to show for its unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon and the betrayal of its SLA allies? Virtually nothing. Israel’s position is now, if anything, more precarious than in the year 2000. Hezbollah remains an implacable and dangerous enemy. The Israelis living near the Lebanon border are at greater risk than before the withdrawal. The international press remains hostile. The terrorists became energized by the display of IDF weakness and started a second intifada in the year 2000. Israel is now called upon again to make unilateral concessions to implement a Road Map for peace.

Ironically, Ehud Barak, the most decorated soldier in the history of the IDF, his reputation in tatters, is on the political sidelines.

There are lessons to be learned. Loss without gain is the predictable, not the unexpected, consequence of appeasing mortal enemies and betraying trusted allies. There are also questions still unanswered. What will Israel ultimately do for the remnants of the SLA? What has Israel, and the world, learned from this tragic lesson?

Edgar H. Brenner is co-director of the Inter-University Center for Legal Studies. He recently traveled for a week in Israel and met members of the former South Lebanon Army.

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