Mordechai Nisan

Did Israel Betray Its Lebanese Allies?

With its national survival so immediately and persistently at stake, Israel has occasionally adopted unsparing measures, such as a nuclear program and the pursuit of terrorists on foreign soil, that recognize the requirements of the country’s national welfare in a predatory Middle Eastern environment. At the same time, morality plays a special role in Israel’s foreign policy for Israel seeks to behave in a manner that behooves the Jewish people and that is true to its heritage of Judaic values.

Israeli policy in Lebanon has been a complex combination of strategic, political, and moral considerations, involving Israel's military posture and strategic image, the defense of the northern Galilee population, and Israel's relationship with allies in south Lebanon. We focus here on this last aspect, and specifically on Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s decision to withdraw the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) from southern Lebanon in May 2000. Presented as a life-saving policy from Israel's point of view, the retreat raised questions about the morality of Israel’s behavior toward its Lebanese allies.

Background

The relationship between Israel and Lebanon, a relationship of friendship and frustration, has its roots in pre-1948 contacts between Zionist Jews on the one hand and Lebanese, Maronite Christians especially, on the other. The Jewish and Lebanese peoples have recognized in general terms that theirs is a common struggle in a Muslim-Arab Syrian-dominated area; circumstances have occasionally presented them with the opportunity for consolidating ties. The persistent Palestinian terrorist campaign against Israel, which began in the late 1960s and continued through the 1970s, combined with the period of rampant war in Lebanon that erupted in the spring of 1975, was the catalyst for Israel's policy activism in southern Lebanon. Meanwhile, in that area, Lebanese Christians in the villages of Klaya, Marj Ayoun, Ayn Ebel, and Rumeish, were exposed to the Palestinians’ gangster-like presence without the benefit of protection from the national Lebanese Army. Consequently, these Christians turned to Israel for help. This transformed what were Israel's incursions into southern Lebanon in response to PLO insurgency warfare into an enduring alliance of interests with southern Lebanese residents.

In 1975, as part of Israel’s security policy against the Palestinians, a young IDF intelligence officer named Ya’ir Ravid organized a militia force that was first called the Free Lebanese Army, then renamed the South Lebanon Army (SLA) in 1984. Over time, the SLA added Druze and Shi‘ite elements to the Maronite Christians who constituted its ideological pillar. At first, Israeli assistance comprised basic military training courses and the provision of small personal weapons, but later the assistance came to include armed personnel carriers and artillery pieces. Intense intelligence coordination characterized the IDF-SLA relationship, and trust was the undeniable human foundation. The practical basis for this relationship during the 1980s and 1990s was defined as defending south Lebanon and northern Israel, initially from Palestinian terrorism but later from Iranian-inspired and Syrian-supported Shi`i terrorism—that is, a Hizbullah war against the Israeli occupation of Lebanese land.

This Israeli-Lebanese alliance began to unravel in the Israeli public mind. The loss of approximately twenty to thirty soldiers per year in south Lebanese warfare was the backdrop to a popular campaign for withdrawal. To this campaign was added, over the months, a broadening spectrum of parliamentary sentiment. As a result, during the Israeli election campaign in mid-1999, Ehud Barak promised that as prime minister he would "bring the boys home from Lebanon." The IDF was not winning the war and Hizbullah, the primary adversary, demonstrated that it had the religious conviction and tactical capabilities to continue its adamant resistance against Israel. Barak having won at the polls, a formal decision was taken on March 5, 2000, announcing that the withdrawal was slated for not later than July 2000.

The prime minister's pledge, which enjoyed much popularity among the Israeli public, seized the south Lebanese in general and members of the SLA in particular with uncertainty and insecurity, if not panic. Israeli political leaders, military commanders, and other officials never stated clearly what the future might hold for the SLA. The result within the ranks of the SLA and the south generally was demoralization and trepidation that they might be abandoned at the last moment.

The Events of May 2000

In the months preceding May, the IDF left some of its forward military outposts, including Seujud and Aramta, in the south. In early May, the Livna outpost was abandoned as IDF operations from there ceased and operations at Ulash, Parag, and Tziporin were to be relocated on the international border facing the Manara and Misgav-Am kibbutzim. Meanwhile, the SLA was in control of fourteen outposts, though its ability to maintain them was unclear. Moreover, with IDF backing, the SLA was still in possession of all its arms and equipment, and the 2,500-man force remained intact. Yet ambiguity prevailed, for accompanying the upcoming Israeli withdrawal were conflicting reports concerning the military preparedness of the SLA: some observers said it was receiving additional weapons for the days ahead, others denied this.

For Israeli and SLA personnel, officers and soldiers alike, the events of late May unfolded without prior preparation, notice, or warning.

On Sunday, May 21, the SLA, in somewhat unclear circumstances, withdrew from the military outpost at Taibe, situated five kilometers from Kibbutz Misgav-Am. Israeli officers then announced that "Hizbullah is coming" and an air of danger filled the south. The SLA's Shi‘i brigade 70 collapsed, and many of its soldiers turned themselves over to Hizbullah. (They would subsequently be sent to Beirut for trial.) On Monday, May 22, Israeli officers told SLA secret-intelligence-services personnel in south Lebanon to leave. On Tuesday, May 23, Colonel Faris Qasis, the commander of the western brigade stationed at Bint Jbail, was ordered to leave with his troops for the gates on the Israeli border. That same day, a domino-like collapse encompassed both the western and eastern sectors of south Lebanon; the Druze brigade under the command of Colonel Nabih Abu-Rafi‘a fell by the early afternoon. The central sector— dominated by Marj Ayoun, which served as the SLA headquarters and the Israeli-Lebanese liaison unit—was abandoned later in the day.

The gates on the Israeli-Lebanese border, from Rosh Hanikra in the west to Metulla in the east, were opened to allow the southerners to flee to safety in Israel. The full disarray and end of the SLA followed inevitably. SLA heavy weapons were ordered brought to Majidiye on the Israeli border. All SLA personnel in the central sector opposite the Fatma gate were told to run to Israel, and thousands fled for their lives.

A soldier named Roni, with six years experience in the SLA, related that on "Monday night at eleven o'clock we got a call from the Israelis telling us that Hizbullah is approaching and telling us to leave." Another soldier said, "We could have stopped them with our weapons," but the IDF did not shoot and would not allow the SLA to shoot either. A couple from the village of Kawkaba fled with their two children, leaving behind their two-story house, shoe store, and car. Another man from Klay'a, whose family members had been working with Israel in military and economic affairs since 1975, fled leaving behind extensive personal property and assets. All together, about 6,500 dispossessed Lebanese fled into Israel, which was unprepared for such large numbers of refugees. Apparently, Israeli authorities had expected only 500-plus Lebanese senior intelligence personnel and officers, and their families, to end up in Israel.

Thus did the decision for an IDF withdrawal cause the SLA to disintegrate and create havoc among its forces. Southerners feared being massacred immediately by Hizbullah or being tried and tortured as "enemies of the state" by the Beirut authorities.

The decision for an IDF withdrawal cause the SLA to disintegrate

During this time of crisis, SLA commander General Antoine Lahad was in Paris, leaving his troops leaderless. A man in his seventies, lacking charisma, suspected of corrupt financial practices in the south, and a virtual underling of the Israeli military and political apparatus, he had failed to instill his troops with a dynamic fighting spirit. It appears that Tel Aviv maintained him in his post as SLA commander because he could be manipulated to fit Israel's policy objectives.

Selling Out the SLA

In effect, the Israeli government abandoned an SLA that very much wanted to stay in existence. This clearly was not what the SLA desired. Over 600 of its men had lost their lives in the many years of warfare but its fighters showed no inclination to leave their country. Colonel Abu Rafi‘a declared in March that the SLA will not necessarily disband after Israel's withdrawal. Colonel Faris Qasis, who replaced ‘Aql Hashim after his assassination in early January as commander of the western front, spoke of renewed southern determination to fight following the murder of his legendary predecessor. There was no sign that SLA soldiers were interested in extricating themselves from the quagmire of uncertainty by emigrating abroad. A few defections from SLA ranks contrasted with the loyalty of the overwhelming majority of troops. Intermittent reports about Israeli authorities arranging apartments for them in the northern Galilee aroused no response.

The Israeli government abandoned an SLA that very much wanted to stay in existence.

But even such determination was not indestructible. To begin with, the IDF in no way coordinated its impending withdrawal from southern Lebanon with the SLA. The result was that confusion grew in south Lebanon and in the ranks of the SLA. Prime Minister Barak spoke about an IDF withdrawal based on an agreement with Lebanon or coordinated with the United Nations, implying perhaps that Israel would assure the needs and rights of her SLA allies. But, again, nothing explicit was forthcoming from responsible Israeli government or military officials regarding the fate of the SLA. While some IDF officers supported strengthening the SLA, ultimately Prime Minister Barak rejected this approach.

Two meetings that I attended with senior Israeli officials prior to the withdrawal confirmed the government's ambiguous intentions toward the SLA. From Reserve General Menachem Einan, appointed by Barak to conduct peace negotiations with the Lebanese government, I learned in March that there was no Israeli inclination to strengthen the SLA as the sole and credible military alternative to the IDF in south Lebanon.

In another meeting that I attended in April, Etienne Sakr (Abu Arz), chairman of the Lebanese Guardians of the Cedars party, described in dire terms to Amnon Shahak, former IDF chief-of-staff and now minister of tourism, the distressing situation in Syrian-occupied Lebanon, but also informed him of the willingness and capability of the SLA to persevere against Hizbullah and defeat it. Abu Arz added that the Lebanese friends of Israel, like himself, and those who had fought for their country's freedom from the mid-1970s against foreign invasion, were in a politically weak condition, while those Lebanese who had chosen to collaborate with Syria had won personal gains. Shahak responded that Israel would not abandon the SLA, but that opaque remark left unclear whether, as one participant in the meeting later wondered, Israel would provide air-cover for south Lebanese military operations, or offer SLA members and their families refugee status in Israel.

The SLA and the southern population generally became increasingly demoralized by these developments. The Christian town of Jezzine, in the hands of the SLA at the northern extremity of the IDF security zone, had been abandoned by Lahad in 1998; thereafter, and prior to the May mayhem, the IDF and the SLA pulled out from a number of outposts. The tide of withdrawal bore ill for the future of the core zone across Israel's border. Lahad, himself a virtual non-entity for the Israeli public, was evidently prevented in early May by the prime minister's office from meeting with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual mentor of the large Shas party, and from addressing a Likud party bureau meeting in Tel Aviv. The Israeli government and the major media outlets consistently blocked efforts to evoke public sympathy or support for the SLA.

Meanwhile, Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah of Hizbullah injected his own menacing dose of demoralization into the ranks of the south by declaring that his Shi‘i warriors would kill all SLA "collaborators with Israel" and not even leave their dead bodies in Lebanon. For the SLA to have stayed and fought, they would have needed encouragement and a reliable ally. They had neither. Hizbullah's psychological warfare strained their nerves, and the Beirut government's accusations delegitimized their struggle. Syria's hegemonic and demonic presence cast a shadow over the south.

For the SLA to have stayed and fought, they would have needed encouragement and a reliable ally. They had neither.

Nevertheless, many SLA fighters later felt that their army had been strong enough to sustain the war. After the SLA had been exiled to Israel, therefore, the sad refrain was repeated: "Israel betrayed us. The IDF and SLA were one . . . and we thought it was possible to befriend Israel. We helped them in our land. For twenty-five years we were with her." The nephew of ‘Aql Hashim, himself an SLA soldier, commented on the connection with Israeli soldiers in Lebanon: "We ate with you together, we fought with you together, we went to funerals with you together. We were your allies."

The vacuum created by the flight of the IDF and the SLA from south Lebanon exposed the remaining Christians to harassment and the violence of Islamist fanaticism. Churches were burned, houses plundered, and a Christian man from Rumeish was killed in cold blood by Hizbullah on May 27.

Thus began what some have termed a "soft ethnic cleansing." The destruction of the means of livelihood and local institutions, such as schools, could lead to a reduction in the Christian population as well as Druze and Shiite elements. In addition, anyone who served in the ranks of the SLA or the Israeli-run civil administration, or had any connection with Israel, is liable to be arrested and sent to Beirut for trial by the Syrian-dominated authorities there. Amnesty International reported that by June 23, about 2,200 southerners had been arrested. By mid-September, more than one thousand had been summarily tried and convicted of "collaboration with Israel." Some have been tortured to death, like Gerios Shafiq Sa`id, a 70-year-old man from Klay'a who died on June 27. Hanna al-Alam, 35-years-old from Rumeish, was beaten in detention. Court proceedings are quick and unconstitutional. Sentences are meted out after seven-minute presentations supervised by the presiding military judge Mahir Safi ad-Din. A number of those convicted have been denied needed medicines. Sentences have ranged from one week, to a few months, a year, and fifteen years. Some death sentences have been pronounced though not carried out.

No Choice or . . .

Participants and analysts have debated exactly how to evaluate the events of May: Was Israel’s withdrawal and abandonment of the SLA a reasonable, if regrettable, exercise in national security? Did Israel’s leaders effectively have no choice but to do what they did? Or were there other courses of action that might have been taken? Several arguments have been advanced to justify Israel’s actions vis-à-vis the SLA; we present these and then the counter-arguments.

* Israel had to dismantle the SLA if it wanted to comply with United Nations Resolution 425 from March 1978, which called upon Israel to withdraw its forces from all Lebanese territory. Fulfilling the Resolution was, in turn, necessary if Israel wished the United Nations special force (UNIFIL) to assume responsibility in the "security zone" that Israel was leaving. Because it is a general Israeli goal to satisfy United Nations expectations, especially if they do not seem to endanger Israeli national interests, this explanation would be reasonable if dismantling the SLA were necessary to fulfill Resolution 425. But Israel had already implemented Resolution 425 by withdrawing from south Lebanon after Operation Litani in March 1978. How could this resolution, fulfilled by Israel in 1978, act as a basis for Israel's withdrawal in 2000? For the U.N., Israel's IDF withdrawal would not be complete if its SLA ally remained intact in the south. Yet, it could be argued that it would have seemed far more reasonable both politically and internationally to call for the implementation of U.N. Resolution 520 from September 1982, which expressed the hope for "the withdrawal of all non-Lebanese forces [including Syrian] from Lebanon."

In any case, even when the Israeli withdrawal was undertaken to fulfill Resolution 425 as a conscious policy decision that had already been articulated during the period of the Netanyahu government, Jerusalem stated on May 24 that it "is morally and politically committed to the safety and security of the soldiers of the South Lebanon Army (SLA) and the civil administration officials who worked alongside Israel for many years to protect the southern Lebanese population from the encroachment of terrorist organizations." How this commitment was to be reconciled with Syria's continued presence in Lebanon after Israel's withdrawal was not explained.

* Hizbullah would overwhelm the SLA and murder its Christian and Shi‘ite elements. This fear might have been prompted by memories of events in 1982 at Sabra and Shatilla, but there was no basis for a comparison. The first was a case of indigenous Lebanese Christians wreaking revenge against Palestinians, whom they viewed as aliens; in contrast, all the rival forces in south Lebanon were native to the area and the country. Moreover, Israel’s presence just across the border would preclude the possibility of a massacre.

* Alternatively, if the SLA put up a fight, its warfare with Hizbullah would complicate the IDF’s withdrawal, perhaps even necessitating Israel’s return to Lebanon to assist its former allies. Following the IDF withdrawal, however, Israel would no longer direct or orchestrate SLA activities. The war in the south would, if it then continued, be more or less a civil war among native communities.

*The SLA would, under changed circumstances, turn against Israel with Israeli weapons in its hands. The long and very natural friendship and impressive record of collaboration between the two sides obviates the credibility of this thesis.

* Israel saw the sacrifice of the SLA as necessary to ensure that Hizbullah not interfere with Israel’s withdrawal from the south. Rumors in June hinted that Israeli Minister of Justice Yossi Beilin had conducted indirect contacts with Hizbullah through a Swedish intermediary. In the end, IDF Commander General Shaul Mofaz proudly said that not one Israeli soldier was even scratched, let alone injured, during the rapid pullback of May 22–23. It is yet unknown whether this fortunate circumstance was due to luck and military caution, or rather, a political deal with the enemy.

The national security arguments, in brief, do not stand up to scrutiny. Israel left south Lebanon to be dominated by Hizbullah fanaticism, and destined to become a Syrian protectorate or an Iranian powder-keg. The SLA’s role as a barrier for Metulla and Manara was destroyed. Within days of the pullback, Shi‘ites began to throw rocks at Israeli soldiers across the fence of the Lebanese-Israeli border. The Lebanese army did not come to the south to assume responsibility for order and security, and there were reports of new Iranian missiles coming into the area. A tactical Israeli withdrawal could in the end be exposed as a disastrous strategic blunder in the long-term.

. . . A Bad Decision?

A different assessment is possible: that the Barak government did have alternative ways of treating the SLA and that those alternative courses of action were morally and politically superior to the course undertaken. This viewpoint holds that Israeli decision-makers could have taken one of several steps:

* Bolstering the SLA as an independent force. In preparation for the IDF withdrawal from south Lebanon, Israel could have provided the SLA with more modern weaponry, tanks for example, and could have liberated it to conduct more effective tactical warfare against Hizbullah unencumbered by Israel's self-imposed restrictions like those from the "Grapes of Wrath" agreement in spring 1996. That understanding, accepted by the Israeli government of Shimon Peres, gave Hizbullah a free hand in fighting the IDF in south Lebanon while limiting Israel's ability to fight Hizbullah ensconced in civilian villages. According to Israeli Reserve General Rafi Noy, who had first-hand military experience in Lebanon, the IDF could have equipped the SLA with superior quality weaponry and facilitated its becoming a fully autonomous fighting force.

The Israeli military agreed that the SLA functioned effectively and that its loyalty to Israel, though subjected to the threats and temptations emanating from the extremist Shi‘i circles, was very sound. Moreover, the SLA force was larger than that of Hizbullah’s force. In all, a change of command and strategy would have enabled the SLA to defeat Hizbullah in battle. In the event of the SLA’s remaining in the field, the U.N. would no doubt have decried the IDF withdrawal as incomplete and Resolution 425 as unfulfilled. It would then be a question of the weight of diplomacy confronting the military realities on the ground in south Lebanon.

*Disarming both the SLA and Hizbullah. In a spirit of helping the national reconciliation of Lebanon, the IDF could have disarmed both the SLA and Hizbullah under U.N. auspices and with U.S. support. It would certainly have required a major diplomatic effort on the part of Israel to effect such an arrangement, but the effort would have enjoyed the blessings of the 1989 Ta’if accord (which called for the disarmament of all Lebanese militias) and the reasonableness of a balanced political resolution in south Lebanon. About two weeks before the SLA collapse, south Lebanese civilians presented a memorandum with this recommendation to the United Nations office at Nakura in southern Lebanon. Among its recommendations was having the national Lebanese Army assume responsibility in the south after Hizbullah would be disarmed.

* Calling upon Syrian forces to withdraw simultaneously with the IDF retreat. The apparent reason that this did not happen was Barak's efforts to entice the Syrian government to arrive at a peace agreement with Israel on the issue of the Golan Heights. Indeed Barak was willing to allow Damascus to recover the entire Golan Heights and also to maintain its control over Lebanon.

Any of these courses of action would have been morally superior to the one adopted. Any of them would also have better served Israel’s broad national and regional security interests, buttressing her image as a reliable ally, while forging a deeper alliance with nationalist Lebanese forces. Instead, the withdrawal is seen as a victory for Islamic forces and a precedent for warfare by Palestinian forces which are armed and ready for a Hizbullah-style war. Moreover, the IDF has stopped its aerial surveillance flights over Lebanon, apparently capitulating to a U.N.-Beirut ultimatum, thereby reducing its intelligence on the tens of thousands of Syrian troops stationed in that country.

The withdrawal is seen as a victory for Islamic forces and a precedent for warfare by Palestinian forces which are armed and ready for a Hizbullah-style war.

 

Conclusion

Appearing before a parliamentary lobby on behalf of the SLA in Israel, Abu Arz declared that the government of Israel had betrayed its allies. In a different vein, Uri Lubrani, the coordinator of Israeli activities in Lebanon and a key official in shaping policy vis-à-vis the SLA, maintained that Israel had not abandoned the SLA because its members were allowed into Israel. Which side is right?

Opening the gates on Israel's northern border may have provided testimony to Israeli humanitarianism but, given the deep quality of the Israeli-Lebanese connection, it alone cannot absolve Israel of its actions. The Israeli authorities had a responsibility for the SLA, derived primarily from their decision to make the organization their own creature and allow it no independence. They exercised unilateral and full control of its "security zone" in Lebanon through the political authority of the prime minister and defense minister, the coordinator of Israeli activities in Lebanon located in the Ministry of Defense, and the IDF’s northern command and the Lebanon liaison unit. At no time after 1984 did Israel permit the southern Lebanese population, and the leading personalities among them, to engage in a campaign of popular mobilization and national liberation with the requisite political, media, and military resources. Moreover, throughout the period, Israel’s backing of Lahad typified the ways in which it prevented the SLA from adopting an activist military posture against Hizbullah. Under these circumstances, the manner of Israel’s departure from southern Lebanon constituted an act of disloyalty toward its ally, for it left SLA fighters no chance to acquire their long-denied ability and desire to fight as free men and patriots for their homes and their lives against foreign-supported terrorism.

The manner of Israel’s departure from southern Lebanon constituted an act of disloyalty toward its ally.

The decision to abandon SLA personnel to Hizbullah and the puppet Beirut government, or impose upon southerners the indignity and turmoil of refugee condition in Israel, was a violation of trust. It also involved deception, as the Israeli authorities concealed their true intentions toward the SLA and the future of south Lebanon. There is no evidence that they ever consulted with their south Lebanese allies, let alone coordinated, what was planned for them. Expressions of general Israeli concern and responsibility for her allies in the end served as an elusive formulation that culminated in betrayal.

Mordechai Nisan teaches at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is author of The Christian Decline in Lebanon (Ariel Center for Policy Research, 1999).

Photo 1: Some SLA soldiers fled to Israel and then boarded a bus to their eventual destinations, often accompanied by their families.

 

Photo 2: Other SLA soldiers, mostly Shi`is, gave themselves up to Hizbullah.

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