Cover Story

Casualty of 'peace'

One year ago, southern Lebanon was a secure place for Lebanese Christians to raise families and a well-traveled thoroughfare between Lebanon and Israel. Then the region became a pawn in the Middle East peace process, and life there has never been the same

Issue: "Casualty of 'peace'," March 24, 2001

at the border between Israel and Lebanon-When it is quiet at Israel's northern border with Lebanon, it is very quiet. Birds trill and a brisk wind ruffles down from Mount Hermon. Orchards stand silent as sentinels along a newly electrified fence demarcating the closed border between these two countries. A clothing factory that thrived until last spring is idle. Above the checkpoint manned by Israeli Defense Forces, the blue-and-white Star of David whips back and forth noiselessly. Just to its west, someone has defiantly raised the pale yellow flag of Hizbollah. And so it is not always this quiet. Asked if there are cross-border clashes with the Islamic militants, a wary Israeli soldier at the checkpoint replies, "All the time." Some hours later, a volley of Katyusha rockets from Hizbollah posts in Lebanon prompts Israel's border forces to respond in kind. The mortar rounds they hurl back across the border ricochet like thunder as far as the Sea of Galilee, one hour's drive south. Only one year ago, Lebanese were crossing the border to go to jobs in Israel. There were few rocket attacks, no closed factories, no vacant villages. But in less than one day, Israeli Defense Forces abandoned a 15-year-old security zone in southern Lebanon, Hizbollah moved in, and life changed dramatically. Why? A year ago, peace negotiations involving Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Syria were churning perilously close to deadline. At Camp David, then-President Bill Clinton was pressing Israel to make concessions to its Arab counterparts. Tiny Lebanon, for decades under the control of Syria, figured only as a footnote, and so Israel agreed to pull out. The outside world has heard little about the results: the resurgence of Hizbollah guerrillas in the region, the retaliation meted to Lebanese who cooperated with Israel, or the thousands of Lebanese who have lost their homes and jobs since the Israeli pullout. Now, almost a year and over 500 casualties later, new administrations in both Israel and the United States have promised a new look at the peace process. But the Bush administration has already indicated that review will not include another look at Lebanon. Secretary of State Colin Powell needs Syria's support to maintain international sanctions on Iraq. And he is willing to overlook 35,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon and a resurgent Hizbollah in order to get them. First provoked by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which occupied southern Lebanon in the 1970s and '80s, then by Hizbollah, Israel entered Lebanon 20 years ago and eventually established a buffer zone across the rugged 60-mile border. The occupation intensified Israel's reputation as Middle East bully. The security zone runs right up to the Golan Heights, contested territory that Israel seized from Syria in 1967. International condemnation of the occupation festered persistently, and the United Nations passed a resolution demanding that Israel withdraw to its own border. The UN also resolved that Lebanon's main army should patrol the region instead of Hizbollah, and sent in a peacekeeping force until Lebanon could do so. Inside the security zone, residents saw things differently. The area is traditionally Christian, with a moderate Muslim minority. Civilians seeking escape from the radical Islamic militias over the years found refuge in the Israeli-occupied border zone. At one point villagers handed over a 14-year-old girl, shot and wounded, through the border to Israeli soldiers because no medical facilities were available in south Lebanon. When the soldiers took her to a hospital in Israel, and returned her fully recovered, a border crossing-the Good Fence-was born. "South Lebanese understood that the occupation was meant for security purposes," said Beverley Timgren, a dental hygienist from Canada who worked in the region (see sidebar). "Israel never intended to take over the land." In time this crossing near the Israeli town of Metulla became a well-traveled thoroughfare in an otherwise closed border. Lebanon and Israel are technically at war with each other. Here, however, Lebanese with a permit could pass through the Good Fence to jobs on the other side-on farms, in factories, or at hospitals. In northern Israel, residents gained security from Hizbollah rocket attacks because the Israeli forces pushed the terrorists out of range of Israeli targets. In Lebanon, residents near the border gained not only physical security but also economic improvement. Back home in their villages, new jobs translated into sustained development. Israel's government renovated a hospital in southern Lebanon and made other improvements to its war-battered infrastructure. That ended last May 23. The day began almost routinely for Saeed Ghattas, an officer in the South Lebanese Army. Known as the SLA, the militia formed 25 years ago to fight the PLO and other hard-line Muslim factions, and in recent years was allied with Israeli forces. Mr. Ghattas caught a few hours of sleep after a late-night patrol, had breakfast with his family, and was able to see his 8-year-old son off to school as usual. By mid-morning, his routine was unraveling. In the security zone's central sector, Muslims from one village and a healthy contingent of Hizbollah began to taunt Mr. Ghattas and his soldiers. The crowd grew, Mr. Ghattas recalls, and he was surprised to see Muslims who once sided with the SLA joining the Hizbollah. Surprised, too, that calls for reinforcements went unanswered. Then an Israeli commander ordered him and his men to the western sector, to a Christian and Druze village that, upon arrival, showed no signs of trouble at all. By then Mr. Ghattas realized what was going on. "Our border position was being abandoned by Israel," he said. Israeli forces had begun to withdraw in the center of the security zone, where Hizbollah potential was strongest, allowing the eastern and western sectors to collapse without a middle. Israeli Defense Forces commanders, whom Mr. Ghattas had worked with for over 20 years, told him they had no knowledge of a planned withdrawal. Mr. Ghattas had no idea that once begun, it would be over so quickly. In a matter of hours the central sector, largely populated by Muslims and left to Hizbollah, gave way. The two sectors east and west, mostly Christian villages, would not be able to hold. By May 24, Israel had pulled all its forces from southern Lebanon. SLA soldiers, faced with Hizbollah's strengthened position and no time to reorganize, were encouraged to get out, too. SLA officers now believe that the hasty pullout was a deliberate move by Israel to force the collapse of the SLA and to eliminate any possibility of casualties among Israeli troops. They contend that Mr. Barak made a desperate bargain, believing he could reach peace with Syria and his Palestinian foes in exchange for southern Lebanon. Without protection, Lebanese families jammed the border and made passage into Israel by nightfall. As they took flight, Hizbollah forces advanced to the border, shooting and killing some of those fleeing. It was the final hours for the Good Fence. Ehud Barak, Israel's prime minister at the time, had hinted at a unilateral withdrawal. But no one believed it would happen without soldiers on the ground knowing ahead of time. A gradual, planned pullback would have allowed a smaller, more confined force to continue to patrol the border. "By leaving in this way," said Mr. Ghattas, "it strengthened Hizbollah and encouraged Palestinian extremists to stand up to Israel." Israeli social workers knew an eventual withdrawal could lead to several hundred refugees; the overnight exodus resulted in 7,000. The government plainly did not have a plan to handle them, aid workers say. Refugees were bused to various locations in northern Israel. They ended up scattered in hotels and youth hostels. Some spent a few nights sleeping on the beach. Over 1,000 eventually returned to their homes in Lebanon. Another 400 could resettle in other countries. Israel has provided several hundred of the remaining refugees a housing allowance in order to rent their own homes, but most are still in temporary shelters. Israel is also providing health care and schooling for Lebanese children. Food aid came for awhile, but has dwindled. In spite of Israel's withdrawal, Lebanon has not complied with its side of the UN resolution. The Lebanese army is supposed to take over the security zone vacated by Israel. Nor is anyone talking about expelling Syrian troops. Instead, Hizbollah appears to be the strongest force in south Lebanon. Hizbollah ("Party of God") has close ties to the Palestinian Authority. Formed in Iran and trained with Syrian sponsorship in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, the militia brought Islamic militancy to Lebanon, a nation once dominated by Maronite Christians. Hizbollah is widely believed to have masterminded the suicide truck bombs in the 1980s that destroyed the U.S. embassy in Beirut and a U.S. Marine barracks, killing 241 American servicemen. Hizbollah was behind another truck bomb attack in 1997 that killed 19 U.S. servicemen in Saudi Arabia. In recent years Hizbollah has been elevated from outlaw militia to political faction-largely by framing itself as a resistance force to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. The organization even holds seats in Lebanon's parliament. By contrast, the South Lebanese Army has slid from a government-endorsed militia to traitor status: The military court in Lebanon has convicted over 2,000 SLA soldiers of collaboration with Israel since the withdrawal. Sentences range from 15 years in prison to execution. Appeals of those convictions are not permissible. Many of those convicted are in Israel and were tried in absentia, but SLA officers claim that 4,000 of their soldiers are in prison and 15 are dead, either from execution or torture or medical complications. The turn of events has not apparently changed U.S. policies toward Lebanon. Under the Clinton administration, and now under Mr. Bush, the United States is increasingly reliant upon Syria to prop up support in the Arab world for sanctions against Iraq. So much so that when Lebanon's leading church official visited Washington earlier this month, both Mr. Bush and Mr. Powell refused to meet with him. Nasrallah Sfeir, head of the Maronite church, last visited the United States in 1988, and met with then-President Ronald Reagan. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, a Lebanese-American, pushed for a high-level meeting again. Mr. Sfeir is an outspoken critic of Syrian troops in Lebanon and has pushed for independence from all its neighbors. The withdrawal, so far, bought neither side a peaceful border. Hizbollah supporters and Palestinians in Lebanon have hurled rocks and petrol bombs into Israeli territory. Hizbollah has positioned rocket launchers in villages half-emptied by the withdrawal. Israeli retaliation for rocket attacks from those sites threatens the Lebanese who are left. Many believe Israel will have to escalate the fighting once again in order to defend its northern border. The next time, it will do so without friends on the other side.

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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