Sat, 01 Apr 2000

SLA prepares for postpullout Lebanon

By Salim Yassine

MARJAYOUN, Lebanon (AFP): The South Lebanon Army (SLA) militia, which for more than 20 years has cooperated with Israel in the occupied border strip, is bracing itself to deal with the new situation it will face in July, when all Israeli troops are to be withdrawn.

It is announcing promotions, continuing to enroll new members, fortifying its positions and opening new military roads, in short, carrying on officially as if business will continue as usual.

"It is true that we abandoned some positions a few months after our withdrawal from the Jezzin area (last June), but we have established others and shall establish more before the summer. We shall do everything we have to in order to succeed in our mission," an SLA officer told AFP, asking not to be named.

"We are acting as if our army was to continue to exist until peace is restored," he added.

The SLA second in command, Col. Nabil Abu Rafeh, said earlier this month that the militia had taken up arms "to prevent foreigners from entering our land."

Some of the SLA's redoubts have now got the same defenses that Israeli positions have recently introduced -- protective netting and concrete blocks to intercept the wire-guided missiles that the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah guerrillas, who spearhead attacks against them, now possess.

The road linking the SLA's most exposed positions in the central sector of the border zone, Aaramta and Rihan, has been altered to pass just below them, in order to make it more difficult for Hezbollah commandos to set bombs.

The SLA's determination to behave as if nothing was about to change looks like an elementary morale-boosting exercise to reassure its 2,600 members and the civilians who work with it, whose future is anything but certain.

But it has failed to convince them all.

"We are the pariahs of the settlement, rejected both by Israel, which doesn't want us, and by the Lebanese government which regards us as traitors," said a civilian who gave his name as Georges.

He has already been sentenced in absentia to seven years in jail by a Beirut court for, he said, having served three years in the SLA.

The Beirut government insists that all SLA members and other residents of the border zone accused of "collaboration with the enemy" will be prosecuted, and although the Israeli cabinet has promised to guarantee their safety, it has given no details.

Israel's Supreme Court March 6 turned down a request for political asylum submitted by three SLA members, only the day after the cabinet confirmed the July pullback date.

The message was driven home a few days later by Deputy Defence Minister Efraim Sneh.

"Bringing the members of the SLA and their families to Israel and transforming them into refugees is no solution either for those who come here or for those who stay in Lebanon," said Sneh, who is a key confidant of Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

"A lot of families are frightened and want to emigrate, and their fears rub off on their children," said a teacher of French at the Sacred Heart Convent School in Marjayoun, attended by about 1,000 pupils from all over the occupied zone.

"When I ask them to make sentences using the conditional, I get examples like 'If Daddy went to Beirut, he would be sent to prison,' while others say there is no point in studying because by July they will be living with relatives in Canada," she said.

The Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot on Thursday published details of a plan worked out by the defence ministry to offer asylum to SLA men and their families, which looks to house them in the northern coastal town of Nahariyya, in kibbutzim -- farming collectives -- in Upper Galilee, and in Israeli Druze villages.