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In Lebanon, Israel sees itself as victim


I was sitting alone drinking coffee in one of the cafeterias at Tel-Aviv University, when former Prime Minister Shimon Peres followed by a few bodyguards suddenly walked up to my table. It was a few weeks before the 1992 national elections, and Peres was trying to muster votes for the Labor party.

“Will you be voting for us?” he inquired.

Shaking his hand, I asked him about Labor’s accomplishments during the period it was in government.

“In 1985, when I was prime minister, the military withdrew from Lebanon,” Peres casually exclaimed, and went on to list some of his other achievements. But I had stopped listening. His words were spinning in my head.

The military had indeed withdrawn several kilometers in 1985, but even after the redeployment, Israel continued to occupy about 10 percent of Lebanese soil. I knew because I had been serving in Lebanon in 1985; I was there in 1986 as well. It was a lethal period -- hospitals, friends returning home in coffins, parents’ lives ruined.

I looked up -- Peres was still talking. “You are lying,” I said. “You are lying.”

He seemed taken aback. After a minute, he turned and approached a new group of students.

Eighteen years have passed since Israel invaded Lebanon, and today it appears that the government is finally contemplating a military withdrawal. Most Israelis under the age of 30 have little or no recollection of the relationship between the two countries prior to the invasion, and countless others consider the occupation of Lebanon to be completely normal, a natural part of the landscape. During the late 1980s and early ’90s, the occupation rarely made it into the media, and it seemed that Peres’ tale had actually been internalized.

It didn’t take long, however, for the Hezbollah to expose the deception. With the support of Syria and Iran, the fundamentalist resistance group mounted a guerrilla war against Israel, making sure that every month Israeli soldiers were sent back from Lebanon in body bags. Since the early ’90s, about 25 soldiers have been killed in Lebanon each year, rendering it extremely difficult for the Israeli government to conceal the occupation.

Over the years, the government has used these deaths to convince the Israeli public that Israel, rather than Lebanon, is the victim in this relationship.

In order to understand the current developments, it is important to keep in mind that advocates of withdrawal have never challenged the “victim syndrome” propagated by the Israeli government. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the current debate within Israel eschews the question concerning the legitimacy of occupying a foreign land or the destruction that Israel has wrought inside Lebanon.

Jumping out of bed at 2 or 3 in the morning in order to fire a few mortar bombs was routine in 1986, the last time I was in Lebanon. From time to time we also conducted “deliberately designed operations,” raiding houses or villages that, according to Israeli intelligence, were hiding arms or “terrorists.” The work I was involved in has not changed much over the years.

Israeli soldiers continue to control the region, patrolling the roads day and night and carrying out ambushes. Civilian life is constantly disrupted inside the “buffer zone” as the population is subject to the whims and regulations of the occupying power, and outside the zone, because hardly a week passes by without the Israeli airforce bombing targets.

ýAn essential element of the occupation is Israel’s mercenary forces Ñ the South Lebanese Army -- that function as the governing power in the “buffer zone.” On the margins of the existing debate regarding Israel’s withdrawal is the critical question concerning the army’s future.

The South Lebanese Army was founded sometime in the late 1970s, well before the 1982 invasion. The details of how much Israel spends on arming the army is a state secret, and the exact character of its relationship with it has always been presented in vague terms. Yet, an experience I had in Lebanon sheds some light on how the South Lebanese Army was established.

One day I was told by my commander to serve as a bodyguard for a man who I now believe was an Israeli secret service agent. Driving a Mercedes that had been confiscated from a local resident, we traveled through villages in South Lebanon. Toward the middle of the day, we stopped in a small village, and the man I was guarding met with the elders. They drank coffee and had what seemed to be a very cordial conversation. Not knowing Arabic I didn’t understand the discussion, so when we returned to the car I asked the man about what had transpired.

“I told them that I need three additional men for the SLA,” he said, adding that in return he had offered them construction material for a new mosque. During the ride back to the base, I learned from him that most villages within the buffer zone needed to fill a quota in order to remain in good standing with the Israeli military. The village we had visited had yet to provide the goods, the man said, but he was sure that the situation would be remedied.

According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, about 1,500 fighters for the South Lebanese Army are currently registered employees of the Israeli military. Their direct income for service ranges from $500 to $900 a month. In addition, about 2,500 Lebanese laborers enter Israel each day to work for Israeli farmers or industrialists. In order to cross the international border, these low-wage laborers require entry permits, which they can receive only from the army. Its soldiers, in turn, receive remuneration for each laborer who works inside Israel. Ha’aretz estimates that 20,000 Lebanese make their livelihood directly or indirectly through Israel’s presence in Lebanon.

These people’s fate is tied to their southern neighbor not only because they are dependant on Israel for their livelihood, but also because they collaborated with the occupying power and committed atrocities in its name. Amnesty International reports that no warrants, court hearings or sentences are used in South Lebanon, indicating that the prisoners are held in jail outside of any legal framework. Different torture methods are employed, including electric shock, suspension from an electricity pole, painful postures, beating with an electric cable and sleep deprivation. Torture, Amnesty claims, has, on occasion, resulted in the death of detainees.

Recently, a number of Israeli human rights organizations have petitioned the High Court of Justice demanding the release of the estimated 160 detainees. They claim that Israel, and not the South Lebanese Army, is ultimately responsible for the prison compound. Although the rights organizations seem to have a case, it is unlikely that the Lebanese people, most prominently the Hezbollah, will exonerate the army. Thus it is to be expected that soldiers and their families will be in danger following Israel’s withdrawal.

Gen. Lahad, head of the South Lebanese Army, recently organized a news conference within Israel. He notified the press that he and his men intend to remain in Lebanon and are not thinking of moving to Israel. This statement contradicts the declarations of other low-ranking Lebanese soldiers who were previously interviewed by the Israeli press, some of whom even petitioned the Supreme Court in order to obtain Israeli citizenship.

Considering that Lahad receives his paycheck from Israel and that Israeli military generals must attain permission before they talk to the press, it is likely that Lahad had coordinated his statement with Israeli officials. Lahad’s statement is both revealing and alarming. Could it be that Israel intends to withdraw its troops but leave its mercenary army intact?

This sinister scheme is likely to be supported by the majority of Israelis, who are worried about Israeli troops and the northern settlements but have little to say about the brutal occupation. What these Israelis ignore is that the South Lebanese Army is a tool of the occupying power, and that neither the Lebanese nor the Hezbollah guerrillas will consider Israel’s withdrawal complete without the full disbanding of its mercenary army.

Neve Gordon, a former Israeli paratrooper, teaches in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University in Beer-Sheva.

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2000