So close, yet so far away

International | Can south Lebanese refugees find a home in Israel when their real home is just over the border?

Issue: "Untouchable?," April 7, 2001

in Israel-Zhair Khalil Shouqair is like many other Lebanese who, over the last year, have found refuge in Israel by the Sea of Galilee. He is taking advantage of joblessness and rootlessness to get his teeth fixed and to take care of other necessities. Mr. Shouqair, his wife, and five children were forced to flee their home in south Lebanon when Israeli troops pulled out of a security zone last May ("Casualty of peace," WORLD, March 24). For months the family lived in a refugee camp. Recently they were able to relocate to a cramped high-rise apartment in the seaside city of Tiberias. There, he can take advantage of a dental clinic set up for the refugees. His children-who range in age from 5 to 13-can return to school. Just as he was leaving the dentist's office last month, a court in Beirut sentenced Mr. Shouqair to 15 years in prison. Barely 80 miles away from Lebanon's capital, Mr. Shouqair did not know he was on trial. Even if he had, he would not have been allowed to present a defense. The verdict, handed down by a military court, cannot be appealed. Since June of last year this tribunal has sentenced at least 2,000 people who, like Mr. Shouqair, have been members of the South Lebanon Army. But the verdict was no surprise to him. Absentia sentences have become commonplace for the former soldiers, even though the Lebanese government originally endorsed the army in the mid-1970s. Middle East politics are nothing if not predictably hard to predict. Lebanon welcomed the South Lebanon Army, or SLA, when it desperately needed a militia to counter Yasser Arafat, who set up camp with his Palestinian Liberation Organization in southern Lebanon two decades ago. Now Mr. Arafat is a terrorist has-been, and Lebanon has a cozy relationship with Syria. This explains its tacit acceptance of Syria's terrorist surrogate, Hizbollah. The SLA kept fighting terrorists, including Hizbollah, which is why it is now at odds with the Lebanese government. Hizbollah has moved in where Israel and the SLA left off last May. Since then, the military court has been posting sentences on SLA fighters at a steady clip. On the same day Mr. Shouqair's sentence appeared on the courtroom bulletin board, 29 others, nearly all former SLA members, were sentenced for collaborating with Israel. One fellow soldier, Hassan Kassem Atwi, was sentenced to execution for leading an ambush against Hizbollah. The other sentences ranged from three weeks to life imprisonment. The threat of jail time is one of the reasons Israel has acquired thousands of Lebanese refugees. Of the 7,000 who poured across Israel's northern border from Lebanon last May, most were SLA officers, soldiers, and their families. The former soldiers WORLD interviewed say that 4,000 of their number are in prison in Lebanon. The U.S. State Department reports 2,400 SLA members "held incommunicado." At least 15 have been killed or have died of health complications in prison. Other SLA members are being held by Hizbollah. Mr. Shouqair joined the South Lebanese Army in 1978 to fight the PLO, and he became one of its top officers. Several years ago he was seriously wounded when a bomb exploded outside his home. Witnesses believe it was planted by Hizbollah and that he was specifically targeted. By far the threat of terrorism from Hizbollah is the main reason the refugees fled their homes. Too many parents know of children like Zelpha Shleila, who lost all her hair-including her eyebrows and lashes-from the trauma of witnessing a car bomb explosion. In Israel she is receiving treatment that may restore her hair and security. But there are other reasons south Lebanese have found Israel a hospitable place. Despite the headline-grabbing tension played out in the Palestinian territories, Israel by and large has a stable economy and respects individual rights. That means that newly resettled refugees have a chance to get ahead and more freedom than before. The refugees are nearly evenly divided as Christians, Muslims, and Druze (a Muslim sect). Over half of the SLA soldiers, like Mr. Shouqair, are Muslim. Yet they say that Israel has been tolerant of their religion. As part of its swift pullout, Israel also agreed to make provision for the refugees. It is providing housing and some other daily necessities. Israel set up schools for the Lebanese children (they speak Arabic and French, as opposed to Hebrew and English taught in Israeli schools). Israel also is providing medical coverage similar to that received by its own citizens. Other necessities, like clothing, furnishings, even food, must come from private donations. Public support has been uneven, however, and has not covered all refugees equally well. "The government prepared 300 houses but when we came we are 1,400 families," said Saeed Ghattas, a former SLA officer and Christian (also sentenced to 15 years in prison in Lebanon). In Tiberias Mr. Ghattas receives a $320 monthly housing allowance from Israel to cover his family of four. Rentals typically run about $500 per month, so he is finding odd work to make up the difference. Some refugees like Mr. Ghattas live in nice neighborhoods with garbage pickup and Sea of Galilee views; others remain in cramped hotel rooms, apartments, or group lodging. Refugees from the Christian village of Dibel in Lebanon have been resettled at a deserted lakeside holiday resort camp called Nirvana. Last May they waited together at the border all night to cross into Israel. Together they slept on the beach until they could find shelter, together they pressed their families into Nirvana's thin-walled cabanas, and together they are taking meals in a seaside dining room. Now Israel is moving them, family by family, into homes scattered across northern Israel. Most are very reluctant to be parted from lifelong neighbors, especially in a strange land. Some are already coping with stressful separations. One mother left behind her children, 9 and 11 years old, to be cared for by her mother-in-law. She believed they would be safer and wanted them to stay in school. Now she is not sure it was the right decision. Another mother left behind a 4-year-old. The child had been hospitalized in Beirut at the time of the Israeli withdrawal, and she had relatives there to care for her. "We had only 10 minutes to decide what was best," the mother said. "The village is our life, our home, everything," said Dibel exile Guita Nassif. Dibel refugees say they have visited local Arab Christian churches in Galilee, but the reception they received was mixed. Two evangelical pastors in Haifa are trying to incorporate Lebanese Christians into their fellowships, but that is challenging with so many scattered in temporary shelters. Some hold to evangelical beliefs, others more traditional Maronite teaching. To outsiders, Maronite Christianity looks like a Catholic offshoot. But the church actually is a branch from the Eastern church and gets its name from an early patriarch, St. Maroon. Very few of the refugees view Israel as their new home. Dibel residents worry about Lebanon's dwindling Christian population, and want to restart churches as well as communities. Long allied with Israel, they view the current Palestinian intifada as a threat against them, too. Israel confiscated nearly all cars belonging to the refugees. Many of them wait in rows at a military base near the Golan Heights for paperwork and processing. Those who have managed to gain back their cars are reluctant to use them. Their red-on-white license plates brand them as south Lebanese. They would not be welcome in Nazareth, for example, or other areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Ghattas said, "We fight 25 years to live in our village. Many of our men are dead or handicapped. They sacrificed so we could stay, not come here." Most also dismiss the idea of moving to a third country, like Canada or the United States. Those countries likely will not take them, anyway. Elinor Caplan of Canada's Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration says the refugees' cases would only be considered as part of "the ongoing evolution of the overall Middle East peace process." State Department spokesman David Staples said the U.S. embassy in Beirut would not issue visas without "concurrence" from Washington. Accepting former SLA members as refugees could be a charged issue in light of tensions among Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and the radical Islamic factions. A few exiles have discovered that in some northern sections of Israel, they can still make contact with friends and relatives who remained behind using their old cell phones. For them, moving farther away when they are so close would be unthinkable.

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