This week marks the 10th anniversary of the withdrawal of Israeli troops from south Lebanon.
Recalling that occupation, this article examines the false promises made to the head of the South Lebanon Army, a former Lebanese militia allied to Israel.
Throughout the 1990s there were two Lebanese militias that remained armed and active, even though the Lebanese civil war had ended in 1990.
One was the Hezbollah movement, which still operates to this day. The other was the South Lebanon Army (SLA).
On November 12, 1993, seven years before Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, I interviewed General Antoine Lahd, the commander of the SLA – a militia that was armed, trained and financed by Israel.
The SLA, along with Israeli troops, controlled what they called the ‘security zone’ in south Lebanon.
To get to the interview, I needed to travel about 100km from Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, to Lahd’s home in Marjeyoun, a town in south Lebanon.
The journey involved crossing what was back then – and at times still is – the most explosive frontline in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The journey took me via Nabatiyeh, just north of the Litani river, and on down the road to the small village of Kfar Tebnit, which was the area’s main entry and exit point to and from the ‘security zone’.
Israel set up the ‘security zone’ in southern Lebanon with the declared aim of using it as a buffer strip to protect Israel’s northern border from attacks by fighters.
The zone ranged from 8km to 20km deep inside Lebanese territory.
It was established in 1985 following the evacuation of Israeli troops from parts of south Lebanon, which Israel had occupied since 1978 when it first invaded the country to strike at the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
Back in 1978, Israel’s target in south Lebanon had been Palestinian fighters.
But by the time the ‘security zone’ was set up, the biggest threat to Israel came from Lebanon’s Shia.
At the village of Kfar Tebnit, I walked 100 metres past the last Lebanese army checkpoint to reach the entry point into the ‘security zone’.
Those 100 metres marked the transition from territory under the control of the Lebanese government to the Israeli-occupied zone.
The border of the ‘security zone’ was marked by earth and concrete ramparts at the crossing point, as well as coils of barbed wire, a mine field and plain-clothed SLA militiamen armed with machine guns.
It was early morning and the border gate had just opened.
A stream of people were already coming and going: a Druze elder, a veiled Shia mother and her children, a Christian family.
All had to present a yellow identification paper, printed in both Arabic and Hebrew, to an SLA official in order to enter or leave the zone.
With my journalist credentials checked, I passed through the security gate and was met by a driver on the other side.
We set off for Marjeyoun, driving along a road that zig-zagged down a mountain-side.
The crusader-built Beaufort Castle could be seen perched high above.
By 1993 this region was the theatre for an ongoing armed operation carried out by Hezbollah against foreign occupation and local collaboration.
Along the road, a sign dated “22nd April 1993” in Hebrew, attested to the effectiveness of their operations.The fighters attacked the Israeli and SLA positions in the ‘security zone’.
Their main aim was to end the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and each year they killed dozens of Israeli soldiers.
The sign had been pitched in the soil embankment beside the road.
The driver explained that it marked the date and the spot where two SLA militiamen had been killed by a roadside bomb detonated by fighters. The sign was intended to keep Israeli patrols alert.
Even back then, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were a deadly form of warfare against occupying forces and their allies.
The same tactic would be used with deadly effect years later against US and British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Arriving in Marjeyoun, life seemed normal enough – despite an Israeli armoured troop carrier rumbling through the high street.
A statue of Saad Haddad, the former Lebanese army officer who had formed the SLA, had pride of place in the town centre.
Haddad had died of cancer in 1984 and Lahd had taken over.
Israel’s ‘sand bags’
The SLA were pejoratively described by most Lebanese as the ‘sand bags of Israel’ – they manned the zone’s most dangerous and exposed outposts and suffered far higher losses than the Israelis over the years.
The SLA also ran the notorious al-Khiam prison, where hundreds of Lebanese prisoners were held in terrible conditions, mostly without charge or trial.
Although Lahd was a Maronite Christian, the militia he commanded was made up mostly of Shia Muslims.
Enrolment in the militia was often mandatory for residents in the area.
As an incentive, it offered a higher-than-average salary with the added benefit of family members being allowed to work in Israel.
Lahd’s home – where I was to meet him – was situated within a compound housing Israel’s military headquarters in south Lebanon.
A star of David flag flew over the bunker-like Israeli HQ.
The compound was a smaller version of the latter-day ‘green zone’ in Iraq – the base of US forces in Iraq and the seat of the Iraqi parliament.
Once we sat down, Lahd, joined by aide Cesar Sakr, began to describe the task of providing security and stability for the 200,000 people living within the ‘security zone’.
Throughout the interview, he stressed the normalcy of life there.
He emphasised this point by drawing my attention to the room we were sitting in – a glass-walled conservatory.
“Which other Lebanese leader can live in a glasshouse?” he asked with a smile.
I refrained from pointing out that his glasshouse had not protected him when several years earlier, in 1988, a young woman named Soha Bechara had gained entry to his house and shot him twice in the chest.
The assassination attempt had left one of his arms paralysed.
Lahd appeared comfortable and self-assured. When asked what would happen to him and his men if, and when, the Israelis withdrew and the ‘security zone’ returned to Beirut’s authority, he smiled in a relaxed way and answered:
“There is an agreement between Israel and the SLA that they [the Israelis] will not withdraw from here before the establishment of peace and a solution has been found for the SLA and the people of the area.”
He continued: “The Israeli prime minister [Yitzak Rabin] stated publicly that among the conditions for peace are the disarmament of Hezbollah, the stopping of all military operations, security on both sides of the border and a solution for the SLA.”
He clarified that this “solution” meant integrating the SLA militiamen into Lebanon’s regular army.
Isolated and abandoned
Lahd seemed confident that the fate of the SLA – viewed by most Lebanese as traitors – would be resolved in a comprehensive peace deal on which the Israelis would insist.
He placed full faith in the Israelis. He had little option, since he enjoyed zero political credibility among most Lebanese and was therefore left isolated and with nowhere to run when he was eventually abandoned by Israel.
During the interview, his calm demeanour betrayed no hint of fear about any such abandonment.
At that time, in 1993, the prospect of an Israeli withdrawal seemed remote.
But in subsequent years, the continuous casualty rate of Israeli soldiers began to sap the support of the Israeli public for the continued occupation of south Lebanon.
In 1999, Ehud Barak was elected prime minister in Israel. He had run on a campaign promise to withdraw Israeli troops from south Lebanon. The following year, he carried out his promise.
In the end, the fate of Lahd and his men was dictated more by the Israeli public than the assurances of Israel’s former leader.
Israel’s withdrawal in May 2000 was swift and sudden. It caught everyone by surprise – including Lahd and his men.
The film A New Dawn for South Lebanon shows how the SLA was given no advance warning of the exact date of the withdrawal.
Lahd was actually abroad on holiday when it began and had to rush back to Lebanon.
One scene in the film shows Lahd being confronted by a group of his officers, furious at the growing realisation that Israel was abandoning them.
Looking stunned and speechless, Lahd had no answers for his men. Retreating into his jeep he is driven off – to Israel where he was to flee.
The bloodbath that many feared would follow an Israeli withdrawal did not materialise.
Hezbollah ordered its fighters and supporters not to engage in any revenge attacks.
Many SLA officers and their families fled to Israel.
Those who remained were arrested and handed over to the Lebanese state.
Most were imprisoned and, over time, released.
The statue of Saad Haddad in Marjeyoun was brought down and dragged through the streets – a symbol of the collapse of the SLA.
Lahd’s current whereabouts is unclear, although there are reports that he opened a restaurant in Tel Aviv.
There has been debate in Lebanon’s parliament in recent years about a general amnesty law for all crimes committed prior to April 27, 2005 – the date marking the final pull-out of Syrian forces from Lebanon.
If passed, the amnesty would include charges of treason against Lahd.
But after years of collaborating with Israel, any amnesty for Lahd may be too much for some Lebanese to accept.
A New Dawn for South Lebanon first aired on Friday, May 21, 2010.