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BEHIND THE HEADLINES Lebanese workers in Israel fear a withdrawal of forces

METULLA, Israel, Feb. 16 (JTA) — Every morning before sunrise, Ehud Neustadt, a farmer from this small town at one of Israel’s northernmost points, travels to pick up eight workers at the Lebanese border. The workers, residents of southern Lebanon, are an indispensable part of the operations at Neustadt’s apple orchard. “I am very dependent on them,” the 58-year-old Neustadt told JTA at the end of a recent day’s work. “It will be difficult to replace them.” There is good reason why Neustadt has to consider the possibility of finding replacements: In the 14 years since Israel created the security zone in southern Lebanon, discussion within Israeli society about a possible withdrawal has reached a fever pitch. Neustadt is concerned about maintaining his farm. But the debate within Israel has his workers gravely concerned about their future. The workers on Neustadt’s farm, like so many of those who live within the security zone but who work in Israel, consider themselves proud citizens of Lebanon. Just the same, the last thing they want to see is an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. “Israel has been there for me ever since I can remember,” said one of Neustadt’s workers, who like most of the Lebanese interviewed preferred to remain anonymous. “I cannot imagine a situation without Israel.” These worked know full well that in the event of a withdrawal, they may have to pay a very painful price. Having linked their fate to the Israeli enemy, they are considered traitors by many of their fellow Lebanese. Indeed the workers’ views contrast strongly with the official view of the Lebanese government, which has called for an unconditional Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. The Iranian-backed militant Hezbollah has gone further, launching a war of attrition against Israeli targets in the region. The latest fighting occurred this week, with Hezbollah gunmen attacking an Israeli outpost. The Israelis responded with a series of air strikes against a suspected Hezbollah base. Some 2,500 Lebanese make their living in Israel, about 1,000 of them in Metulla and the neighboring Israeli settlements in the Upper Galilee. Without work in Israel, they say, they will starve. As a result, they ignore the warnings from Beirut not to cooperate with the Israelis. The talk of survival seems completely incongruous here in Metulla, one of the most beautiful spots in Israel. The picturesque town lies on a hill overlooking Lebanon to the north and Israel’s fertile Hula Valley and the Sea of Galilee to the south. The town has two main streets and a few sides streets — all of which are reminiscent of villages in Russia and Poland before World War II. A mixture of antiquated homes and modern villas, the town is surrounded by fertile fields and orchards. The town also has tourist attractions — a huge sports arena, with an ice-skating rink and an Olympic swimming pool that was contributed by Canada’s Jewish community. Indeed, Metulla is a peaceful town — except for the Israeli army trucks and soldiers that occasionally make their way through here to what is Israel’s last active battlefront. Residents like Neustadt, who was born and raised here, are concerned that an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon may turn this lovely spot into a fortified border town. But he is also concerned for the fate of his workers and their families. “I hate to think what will happen to them if we withdraw. It will be a second Sabra and Shatilla,” he said, referring to the two refugee camps in Beirut that were the target of a massacre by Christian militias during Israel’s war in Lebanon. Israel created the nine-mile-wide security zone in southern Lebanon in 1985, when most Israeli troops withdrew at the end of that three-year war. Some 55 percent of the buffer zone’s 200,000 residents are Shi’ite Muslims, 25 percent Christians and 10 percent Druse, a sect that is an offshoot of Islam. Israel has gotten the majority of its support from the Christian population, which forms the backbone of the South Lebanon Army, the Jewish state’s militia ally in the region. The security zone was created to protect Israel’s northern communities from attacks by Hezbollah gunmen. But the continually rising death toll of Israeli soldiers, coupled with periodic Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israeli communities, has repeatedly prompted the question of whether — and how — to end Israel’s involvement in Lebanon. Intimately linked to this debate is the question of how to deal with Syria, which, with tens of thousands of soldiers in Lebanon, is the undisputed power broker there. In 1998 alone, more than 20 Israeli soldiers were killed in Lebanon — most of them by Hezbollah’s latest weapon of choice, the roadside bomb. Among the most vocal opponents of the present policy in Lebanon is an organization called the Four Mothers, a grass-roots group of mothers of Israeli soldiers serving in the security zone. Among Israeli politicians, support for — and opposition to — the policy in Lebanon cuts across party lines. Last year, Israel approved in principle Security Council Resolution 425, which calls for an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Lebanon to enter negotiations over the withdrawal, an offer the Lebanese rejected outright. As the internal Israeli debate rages, the Lebanese workers continue to worry. “I am very concerned about the future,” said a woman from the Christian village of Kleiah, a few miles north of the Israeli-Lebanese border. “Nothing can happen without the approval of Syria. I can only hope for peace with Syria.” The woman, who has worked for the past 12 years as a maid in a Metulla home, has no doubt about what she wants to do if Israeli soldiers leave the region. “If the Israelis decide on withdrawal, we go out with the soldiers,” she said. Labor Knesset member Yossi Beilin, perhaps the most outspoken champion of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal, has suggested that Israel give safe haven to the members of the South Lebanon Army until a full peace is reached between the two countries. Beilin is aware that Israel will have to care for many in southern Lebanon’s general population. “The most moral thing I can say is to let them stay with us,” said Beilin. “But it is certainly immoral for us to continue staying there because of them.” Neustadt’s orchard worker says he would certainly seek to cross the border with withdrawing Israeli troops. He said he dreams of marrying a Druse woman from an Arab town near Haifa and becoming an Israeli citizen. He doesn’t want to contemplate the fate that may await him in his native land in the aftermath of an Israeli withdrawal. He just wants to live.

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