JERUSALEM (Nov. 26)
Amin, formerly a senior officer in the now-defunct South Lebanon Army, finally met with Israel’s defense minister last month.
“I told” Benjamin Ben-Eliezer “of our suffering,” Amin, not his real name, told JTA this week. “The minister listened and told me: You have a case. Let me discuss it with the prime minister.”
Two days later Ben-Eliezer resigned, breaking up Israel’s national unity government. Some 1,200 Lebanese citizens living in Israel, former soldiers in the Israeli-controlled South Lebanese Army, missed another opportunity to improve their lot.
Two and a half years after Israel withdrew from its security zone in southern Lebanon, the SLA veterans who took refuge in Israel remain people caught between states, with nowhere to go.
It is the ugly result of a seemingly unique alliance: Many of the refugees have been Israel’s partners in southern Lebanon for the past 25 years, fighting to protect their villages — and Israel’s northern Galilee — from the Shi’ite Muslim militias of Hezbollah and Amal.
When Prime Minister Ehud Barak resolved to pull the Israel Defense Force out of Lebanon even without a peace agreement, the SLA fighters knew that Hezbollah, as well as the central government in Beirut, would settle accounts with them.
By the end of the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000, more than 6,000 Lebanese — SLA soldiers and their families — had fled their homeland.
Today, they are nowhere at home: In Lebanon they are considered traitors, yet they also feel unwanted in Israel.
Israeli Arabs have refused to allow SLA veterans to settle in their villages and towns: Though the SLA was Israel’s ally, many Israeli Arabs see the SLA as traitors to the Arab cause. Only the Druse community, as well as a few Christian families in Nazareth, have welcomed them.
The Israeli government has been largely indifferent to their plight, the SLA men maintain.
Many have returned to Lebanon to face trial, long prison sentences and harassment by Hezbollah. Only 1,200 of the original refugees — some 770 families — remain, dispersed throughout northern Israel.
A relatively large community of 115 families lives in Kiryat Shmona, receiving support from a private welfare organization known as Yedid.
Thanks to contributions from San Francisco’s Jewish federation, Yedid has provided needy SLA families with food, clothing, afternoon programs for school children and multicultural programs that bring together Lebanese and Israeli children.
“Representatives of the San Francisco community visited us several times,” Roni Hainebach, director of the Yedid Citizen Rights Center in Kiryat Shmona, told JTA. “They appreciate the fact that we need to help the SLA soldiers.”
However, Yedid cannot provide much more than basic assistance. Other groups that have aided the SLA refugees include Israeli army officers and security officials who worked with the SLA during Israel’s years in southern Lebanon.
The mayors of northern cities such as Nahariya, Ma’alot, Carmiel and Kiryat Shmona also have been active on behalf of the SLA refugees, and prominent lawyer Avigdor Feldman — who represented the refugees in a case in the Israeli courts — did so on a pro bono basis.
Those who have jobs pay the same health care deduction as native Israelis, and receive the same services. Those who are unemployed and have no income face more serious problems.
But while the SLA refugees complain that the government employment service is of little avail in finding a job, the problem is shared by native Israelis suffering through the nation’s worst economic crisis in years, which has sent unemployment skyrocketing.
Even basic needs such as places of worship have caused problems. Last Friday, Rabbi Tzefania Drori of Kiryat Shmona prevented Maronite Christian worshippers from holding prayers in the local youth center.
Yedid protested on behalf of the SLA families, noting that they have been praying there for the past year and a half and have not caused disturbances. The dispute is ongoing.
Most of the SLA refugees say they would like to leave, but don’t know where to go. In Lebanon they face punitive measures — some 5,000 former SLA soldiers are serving prison sentences in Lebanon, and 25 of those living in Israel have been sentenced to death in absentia — and other countries are reluctant to help.
“I am not angry at the State” of Israel, Gen. Antoine Lahad, the SLA’s former commander, told JTA this week. “I am angry at the individuals who would not come through and help when we needed their help,” without specifying who he meant.
Amin, the SLA officer, fled southern Lebanon on May 23, 2000, during the IDF’s withdrawal from Lebanon. He brought his wife and three young children, but left four grown-up children in Lebanon.
“At that time, we all had great hopes that we would all live peacefully together in Israel,” he said. “Some of my best friends are senior officers in the IDF. Their pictures fill up my photo album. I was sure they would come through and give us a hand.”
A few did, on a personal level. But the refugees’ problems will need governmental attention to be resolved, and relations with the state have turned ugly.
SLA veterans recently staged a sit-in strike in Haifa, which produced no gains. They also demonstrated in front of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, and are planning a sit-in next week in front of the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem.
The Knesset Absorption Committee devoted a session to the SLA veterans last month, at the initiative of Labor legislator Colette Avital. Other legislators who have become advocates for the SLA men are Zvi Hendel of the National Religious Party and Ayoub Kara of the Likud, but none of the efforts has led to any kind of breakthrough.
The refugees’ problem boils down to dignity and money. Israel offers every Lebanese family that is willing to leave a subsidy of $27,500, but the refugees say it’s not enough.
“This is hardly enough to cover the legal costs involved in our return,” Amin said. The veterans are demanding at least $50,000 per family.
At the beginning of the year, the government decided that 520 of the SLA families would receive the same benefits as new immigrants.
A select group of officers, some 242 families, were offered the same benefits as retired IDF officers, which entails a relatively high income for the rest of their lives.
The SLA veterans protested the distinction, but the government refused to give in. The message was, accept the conditions of new immigrants or receive nothing, the SLA refugees say. Most refused to sign any such agreement.
“We did not come here of free choice, like the immigrants,” Amin said. “We were forced to leave behind everything we had. If we sign, it will be as if we have given up on our 25 years of service with the IDF.”
The issue may end up in Israel’s High Court of Justice, observers say.
Avigdor Yitzhaki, director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, said at last month’s Absorption Committee meeting that — given the number of needy groups in Israel — the absorption of SLA refugees had been relatively successful.
The decision to differentiate between senior officers and lower-ranking soldiers “was the recommendation of experts, and we accepted their recommendation,” he said. But he agreed that it was wrong.
“It is a terrible tragedy to leave a home, and there must be a correlation between” what the SLA veterans receive “and what the Israeli citizen receives in the end,” Yitzhaki said.
Yet he counseled patience.
“At the end of the day, we don’t want SLA refugees for ever. We want them to become citizens in the State of Israel,” he said. “No group, no matter what, has been absorbed in Israel in a matter of two days. These things take time.”
Lahad, the former SLA commander, said the government had erred in differentiating by rank and in not being more decisive regarding the SLA men.
Once the most powerful man in southern Lebanon, Lahad now sits in a Tel Aviv hotel, secluded from the outside world.
His wife and daughters live in Paris, but France refused to grant Lahad political asylum. He does not dream of returning to Lebanon.
“I have three death sentences awaiting me there,” Lahad told JTA.
Doesn’t he believe that political changes in Lebanon may one day allow him to return?
“Just as I believe in change in the entire Middle East,” he said sarcastically.