JERUSALEM (Jun. 26)
Israel is more than mildly embarassed by the recent “kidnapping” of II soldiers of the South Lebanon Army (SLA) which turned out to be a charade colluded in by the soldiers, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the Shiite militia Amal and possibly the SLA itself. Only Israel was unaware of the sham.
The SLA is armed, trained and financed by Israel as its chosen instrument to maintain security and prevent terrorist infiltration of the security belt along Israel’s border with Lebanon. On June 7, II SLA soldiers were allegedly abducted by a Finnish contingent of UNIFIL following a skirmish near Kantara village in south Lebanon. The Finns turned them over to Amal, a bitter foe of the SLA and hostile to Israel.
Israel protested vigorously to UNIFIL and dismissed out of hand suggestions that the II soldiers, all Shiites in the mainly Christian SLA, had deserted. Only a few weeks earlier, 28 SLA men had indeed deserted. But Israel stood by its ally, SLA commander Gen. Antoine Lehad. Israeli diplomats at home and abroad energetically defended the SLA version of the incident.
The Israelis produced logical, if circumstantial evidence that there had been a kidnapping. When Lehad seized 23 Finnish soldiers as hostages for his own men, Israel justified his act though it did not condone it. It fended off the indignation of the Finnish government.
BERRI PLAYED ROLE
Amal leader Nabih Berri entered the scene. Berri, who presently claims he controls the fate of 40 American hostages held by the Shiite extremists who hijacked TWA Flight 847 on June 14, bargained with Israel over the SLA men. He said they would be released if Israel freed 766 Shiite prisoners in the Atlit detention camp. These are the same prisoners the hijackers demand in exchange for the American hostages. Israel rejected the offer.
Foreign journalists invited to the Amal camp, filmed the II SLA soldiers sitting on a floor with the helpless, dejected look of prisoners surrounded by heavily armed Amal guards. But all of this was theater.
SOLDIERS WERE DESERTERS
An internal inquiry into the incident ordered by United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, disclosed that the II SLA soldiers were deserters; that their skirmish with and capture by the Finnish soldiers of UNIFIL was rehearsed — the skirmishers carefully shot over each others heads — and that Amal went along to gain leverage over Israel.
Lehad’s seizure of 23 Finnish soldiers was genuine. They were held for several days at SLA headquarters at Marjayoun and freed after Lehad won a long sought concession — defacto recognition of his militia by UNIFIL.
Israel alone remained abashed. The reliability of its ally was placed in serious doubt and its diplomatic exertions on behalf of that ally made the Israelis appear, to say the least, foolish.