Al mashriq - The Levant



Mary Bentley Abu-Saba

Essay published in Peace Review 12:1
March, 2000


Mary Bentley Abu-Saba, Ph. D.
Department of Education
American University of Beirut
850 Third Avenue
New York, New York 10022

fax: 011 961 1 351 706




At the entrance of a small village only a few meters from the Israeli occupied zone in South Lebanon, a large banner is strung over the street, "Zawtar, the town that has been hit by the tragedy of Israel, a very unusual event that will stay with us forever. Nabil and Fuad will enter into the Garden of Eden: Heaven." I was on my way to visit the bereaved families of two young college students who were killed three days previously by a guided missile which struck them just meters from their home as they were taking a study break. As I approached the house, I saw the familiar solemn gathering of people dressed in black, in the open courtyard before the low lying concrete house. Another large banner, with Lebanese flags on each end, covered one side of the courtyard. About a dozen men were sitting with a Sheik in the center of their circle, all sipping small cups of coffee; five women were sitting to the right on a separate verandah. I walked up the three steps to the women, and sat down next to the bereaved mother, offering my condolences. About 50 years old, she alternately moaned gently and wept. I took her hand and held it. She leaned into my arms and wailed.

She explained between sobs, that if her son had been fighting anyone, her grief would be different, she would consider it more fair, since he had in fact voluntarily given his life to protect the land and people at the time. His father had run to the two young men when he heard the explosions, and rushed them to the hospital. He had not recognized that one was his son, until he examined a ring on his finger, and realized with horror that it belonged to his son. He collapsed in shock.

On this day the father explained to me "We are so sorry that our children are growing up in this war. They know all about the different kinds of planes, the kinds of guns used, the weapons of all sorts; they know much more about these things than we know. And we think it is poison that they know all of this. But we will not leave our land. We will stay here. We will bury our dead, and we will stay."

Several months after Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak made his pledge that by July of 2000, Israel would leave the so-called "Security zone" in South Lebanon, the possibilities of Israeli withdrawal seem murky. Though "when" a withdrawal will come is of vital concern, a more important question arises, however, when the injuries, humiliations, and loss of basic human rights by those residing in the occupied zone are considered. Israel has a reputation for being a democratic society, yet its treatment of its neighbors has not shown the justice one could expect. Thus, the question is "To what extent can the Lebanese southerners expect some justice from those under whose absolute control they have lived for the past 21 years?" Perhaps a just transition from occupation to liberation of South Lebanon could be furthered if the international community were more aware of the grim reality of this occupation. Unfortunately, this has been not been adequately reported in the international media. Our purpose here is to point to the devastating effects of the occupation for South Lebanon's citizens, and suggest possible ways to achieve justice during the transition period of peace negotiations, and after Israeli withdrawal.

Emerging from a 17-year civil war in which Israel played a heavy hand, Lebanon has doggedly resisted Israel's occupation through non-governmental militias, notably those of the Shi'ite community, the Hizbullah and the Amahl. Due to the constant clashes between the Lebanese fighters, the Israeli surrogate force (the South Lebanon Army), and Israeli troops, and tit-for-tat shelling which sometimes reaches Israel's northern villages, neither Southern Lebanese nor Northern Israelis are able to experience security. Now, while negotiations are under way, accounting for the injustices in this tragic Middle Eastern saga would pave the way for a modicum of peaceful accommodations between the two countries.

The occupied area of South Lebanon is about 40 miles long, 10 miles wide, and comprises about 350 square miles. It is approximately 10% of Lebanon, and includes about 150 small villages and towns in a rich topography flowing from the Mediterranean seashore to Mount Hermon, towering over nine thousand feet. Though the inhabitants are predominantly Shi'ite Moslems, they also include Christians, Suni Moslems, and Druzes. The rich soil yields olives, grapes, figs, pomegranates, cherries, walnuts, wheat, vegetables, and tobacco. When the news broadcasters speak of "Israel's security zone" they mean this Lebanese territory. In fact, since the villagers living in locales surrounding the occupied territories are in constant threat of a fate such as Nabil's and Fuad's, the zone of hostilities is much larger than the occupied zone itself. These unoccupied villages are the ones which get bombed and strafed on a twice weekly, sometimes daily basis, not the occupied areas, which are pacified, for the most part.

There are about 230, 000 - 350,000 people who are actually residents of the occupied area; however, only about 65,000 - 90,000 remain there. The others fled or were expelled, becoming refugees in their own country. The occupants live with a permanent hope that their land will be liberated, but also a permanent fear that it will not be. It would take more than an election of a new Israeli leader and just talk (or "haki", in Arabic) to loosen the grip of fear on the South Lebanese.

The Israelis first invaded Lebanon in 1970, in Arqoub, killing nine Lebanese and wounding 19. These operations were followed by similar ones, until 1978, when Israel moved 20 miles inside Lebanon to the Litani River in pursuit of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon who were fighting to reclaim their homes in Palestine. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was sent in, supposedly for a period of six months, to escort the Israelis out "forthwith," according to UN Resolutions 425 and 426. Neither UNIFIL and Israel have left, and the resolutions go unheeded, a poisonous source of outrage whenever Arabs are told that UN resolutions must be obeyed or the UN lawbreakers would be punished! In 1982 the Israelis invaded Lebanon up into Beirut, and in 1985 withdrew below the Litani river, having increased their territory beyond the boundaries of the 1978 invasion. Israel's adversary in Lebanon now is no longer the Palestinians, who are restricted (about 350,000 of them) in their crowded refugee camps, but rather the Shi'ite Moslems who have been indigenous to the Lebanese land for centuries. They have never had a history of difficulties with the Israelis, until they were occupied by this technologically and militarily superior nation.

Israel controls the occupied zone through their 2,500-man proxy army, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) which have been shrunk to about 1,000 - 1,500 men because of the high number of casualties. In general, IDF soldiers are rarely seen in the occupied areas, preferring now to keep their combatants in underground bunkers, while the officers venture forth at night time, patrolling in low-slung armored Mercedes, or armored tanks. The SLA is comprised of young Christian and Moslem Lebanese men from the occupied area who have not been able to buy their way out of conscription, or find a relative who will receive them in the unoccupied area, or resist the payment for military service. Under the leadership of Lebanese Christian General Lahd, the SLA does the bidding of the Israelis, and interacts with the occupied population to maintain control. Israelis killed in Lebanon by resistance forces since 1982 number about 1,240. One of these included the powerful General Gerstein, killed in 1999 by the resistance forces by one of their ubiquitous and devastatingly accurate roadside bombs. It is no wonder that a strong Israeli citizenry is calling for withdrawal of Israeli soldiers from the Lebanese "killing fields."

When the Israelis first came in 1978, many of the villagers in the south sprinkled them with rose water and rice, welcoming their arrival because they believed that they would help control the Palestinians. Shortly thereafter, the story began to change. Deep in the South in June 1999, I sat with Hajj and his wife Miriam in the village of Kabrikha, about ten miles from the Israeli border, and he explained how the Israelis began to recruit leading citizens to help control the village. If the citizens did not comply, they were threatened with jail. Then, if there were great resistance, their houses were blown up. Israeli practice of blowing up houses as a means of persuasion was a common subject of my interviewees. Hajj said his home had been hit 10 times, and each time he rebuilt it. In 1986 he was taken to a prison for four months, because he would not inform about others in the village. Because of the continued explosions of houses, the threats if the sons did not join the SLA, his two sons decided to work with the resistance. One son was taken to prison in Israel in June 17, 1987, and his wife went there six years ago to see him, through the auspices of the Red Cross. They have not seen him since. Another son died as a resistance fighter. Hajj has 11 remaining children: 6 daughters and 5 sons, who have all moved to southern Beirut where crowding has been tremendous due to the exodus from the south. But he and his wife are determined to stay. They live on a cliff overlooking a valley exactly on the edge of the boundary with the occupied territory, a very dangerous place. "We will stay here. Israel will leave now or later, but in the end they will have to leave. Where will we go? We got our lesson from the Palestinians. The Palestinians left their land and they have been dispersed all over. We don't want this to happen to us Lebanese."

Tragically, the southern Lebanese do not always have a choice of staying. The policy of expulsion of citizens from their homes, and from the occupied area has recently been reported in Human Rights Watch (July 28 , 1999). The report, entitled "Persona Non Grata: The Expulsion of Civilians from Israeli-Occupied Lebanon" documents that the number of expulsions has increased dramatically in 1998 and 1999. Though the exact number is unknown, it could easily rise to the thousands when we see as many as 250 residents were expelled from Arqoub between February 1987, and January 1999. In January 1999, 25 members of one extended family were expelled from Sheba', including 16 children between the ages of nine months and 13 years old. In most cases the citizens are deported without any warning, and are forbidden to take their belongings with them. They leave behind productive agricultural land, livestock, small businesses, their homes, all personal possessions, including clothing, home furnishings, and vehicles. Leaving land they have tilled for generations, and losing everything except the clothes on their backs, they are forced to find a new livelihood in a crowded city unknown to them

The reasons for expulsion are: refusal to cooperate with the occupiers by informing about the activities of the Lebanese; resistance to the occupation; having a member of the family known to join the resistance; having too much influence in a village; or refusal to have a teen-aged son join the SLA.

In Bra'ashiit deep in the south 6 miles from the Israeli border I sat on a concrete patio with a family of four, and the local sheepherder. We looked over at the hills with Israeli gun emplacements looking back at us, about a half mile away. About 10,000 people used to live in the village. Now about 200 stay there permanently, and on Saturday and Sunday many come for the week-end. Israel rockets the area frequently, in its efforts to hit resistance fighters. During these raids, all the villagers remain inside, and farmers are not able to cultivate the land. Frequently, we hear of a farmer or sheepherder being killed from bombing in the fields. According to UN reports, in 1998 Israel and the SLA killed 24 Lebanese civilians, while none were killed in Israel.

Standing on the roof of this Bra'ashiit gentleman's home, we could see the UNIFIL headquarters, where an Irish soldier was killed a few years ago. He had only been there one day on duty. His death was copied just recently in the Jezzine area, when an Irishman was killed, after a bomb was dropped on the UNIFIL camp.

The stories of this family and sheepherder were like the stories of students whom I interviewed at a Shi'ite school in Beirut. Twenty high school students gave reports of houses being bombed, and indicated that this is what made their family leave: they couldn't bear, either financially or emotionally to rebuild again. These students came from the villages of Attiri, Hounien, Kowlien, Bliida, Taybi, Rihaan, Ainata, Houlah, and Khiam, all within or near the occupied zone. They fled without baggage, in cars or taxis, to seek refuge in the overcrowded Beirut fringes.

A young student spoke of going back each summer to visit her relatives in Khiam, the home of the infamous prison. The Khiam prison is run by the SLA, and holds about 200 Lebanese who are not accused of a specific act, nor are they given a trial. Many prisoners have been there for 20 years, others for shorter periods. This student moved to Beirut with her family in 1991 when the village was thoroughly occupied, and the family did not want her 14 year-old brother to be conscripted into the SLA.

A 17-year old girl in Beirut told of being imprisoned in Khiam because she was accused of collaborating with the Lebanese government when she went out for medical treatment to Beirut. She and her fiancé were both imprisoned; she was released after four months, but her fiancé is still in prison. She reports symptoms that are unmistakably agoraphobic, but she has not received treatment, and continues to suffer from her psychological difficulty in leaving her house. A sixteen-year old girl was rushed to a Sidon hospital on the day of this writing, suffering from a concussion after being tortured by the SLA in the No. 17 detention center in Bint Jbeil. She was placed under psychiatric care.

The citizens in both the occupied and unoccupied areas of South Lebanon carry the brunt of the lack of security, but it is felt also all the way north to Beirut. Since coming to teach at the American University of Beirut in 1994, I have witnessed this on two frightful occasions. The first was the so-called Israeli Grapes of Wrath campaign in April, 1996. After my Spring break, I returned to Lebanon which had been under a six day siege of bombing from Israel. The bombing knocked out electricity transformers near the capital, struck at residential areas in the suburbs of Beirut where refugees from southern Lebanon lived; and most dramatic, once again emptied the South of its occupants by bombing, strafing, and dropping flyers commanding their evacuation. The world watched this happen, until the bombing of the UN camp at Qana on April 18 where 105 civilians were massacred. The consequent negative press convinced the Israelis at last that massive force would not achieve the results they sought. The Lebanese government would not restrain what was considered to be a legitimate resistance to an occupying force. A committee was then set up which included representatives of the United States, France, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel to monitor hostilities.

The second occasion for unsettling our sense of security in Beirut was on the night of June 24, 1999. We were reveling in the serenity of a village called Jezzine that had recently been liberated from occupation, but the calm was not long in lasting. At 8:00 p.m. Israel once again bombed the electricity plants serving Beirut , and when the firemen and others rushed to put out the fire, the planes appeared again, killing four firemen. Thirty minutes later, they came and bombed the third time, killing another person. "Murder", said Lebanon's Daily Star editorial the next day. Three bridges were bombed connecting Beirut to Sidon, a copycat operation of the concurrent bridge bombing in Serbia. Three people were killed who happened to be driving across the bridges at that moment. Surrounding areas of Sidon and points south were bombed. And lastly, the planes flew so low and sonic boomed all of Beirut throughout the night, that no one slept. Each boom sounded like a bomb next door, and any possibility of drifting off to sleep when our hearts slowed their racing was exploded with another unexpected boom.

Negotiations to end this situation are complicated, but some thinking could begin now about the principles which could guide a transition to a just reconciliation once the occupation actually ends. On all Lebanese minds is the issue of a just outcome for members of the SLA. When Israel drew back its forces in the Spring of 1999 from Jezzine, a Christian village east of Sidon, rumors were rife that there would be a massacre of the Christian SLA by the Shi'ite resistance. Nothing of the sort happened; the village has been quiet, and the SLA members who deserted the Israeli proxy army, turned themselves in to the Lebanese government as they had been advised to do. Their cases are being tried individually by the Lebanese judicial system, and each person is being punished according to his actions in the SLA. Some have received two to five years in prison, some have received less. There have been no defections of the officers, and it is widely assumed that these will immigrate abroad once the occupation ends. Lebanese are more prone to forgive those soldiers who clearly had very few options open to them, but will not forgive those who became leaders and gave orders to kill their Lebanese brothers.

How can both sides plan for their security needs? Israel has sought mightily for the security of its citizens, but did that through denying the security and welfare of the South Lebanese. However, no reconciliation can take place unless this security is restored for all. Undoubtedly this will have to include the large number of Palestinians in Lebanon, as well as the thousands of South Lebanese who have fled from their homes, or had their houses destroyed, or suffered business and crop losses, or family members killed.

Thus, to assure justice in this transition to post-occupation of Lebanon, there are two underlying principles: acknowledgment of mutual needs for security and welfare, and Israel's contribution to the normalization of life in South Lebanon. Since Israel has the dominant power and has been the occupier in Lebanon, it could be called on to follow a model of the United States' role after World War II, in helping Europe rebuild. Jews have also provided a model in seeking settlements from the Swiss and from the Germans for extreme human rights deprivations that were meted out to them and their families. With the international community ready to prod the Israeli conscience of a similar duty it has toward its neighbors, reparations could be made to help the South Lebanese re-establish themselves in their rightful homes. Lastly, just as there are many NGO's in Lebanon which sprang up during and after the civil war, concentrating on developing environments for tolerance and acceptance of various sects and classes within Lebanon, so there can be NGO's which promote an atmosphere of understanding and tolerance with neighbors sharing borders in Lebanon and Israel, after peace has been established.



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Hirst, David, 1999. "South Lebanon: The War That Never Ends?" Journal of Palestine Studies, (Spring): 5.

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