May/June 2000

The Day After

Withdrawal Israeli soldiers on a huge army earth mover watch as tanks and armored personnel carriers cross the border into Israel as the sun rises (AP/ Jim Hollander, Reuters)
(May 25) - Among Israelis, three emotions are swirling around the closing of a chapter of the saga of Lebanon: relief, fear, and shame. By dawn yesterday, a thousand families could breathe freely, knowing that their soldier sons had finally come safely home. The withdrawal itself, though under fire, went off without a hitch. But the elation of being out of Lebanon is tinged with less pleasant symptoms of the day after: the fear of the future along the northern border and shame over the suffering of our Lebanese allies.

The gamble inherent in Israel's withdrawal is that the Lebanese border can be made as quiet as the Syrian, Jordanian, and Egyptian borders. The latter two nations have peace treaties with Israel, but Syria does not - and yet does not allow a single border incident. The difference is that, when a sovereign government is accountable for security, that government has a strong incentive to keep the border quiet. The lack of sovereign control in south Lebanon has allowed Syria and Iran, through Hizbullah, to attack Israel while escaping responsibility for those attacks.

The next shoe to fall is whether the Lebanese security forces move south and exercise sovereign control. UNIFIL spokesman Timur Goksel told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday that the UN forces were expecting Lebanese police stations and other forms of official presence to "arrive quickly in the South." Lebanese authorities were probably, like nearly everyone, surprised by the speed of Israel's withdrawal and the collapse of the South Lebanese Army (SLA).

Israel was not fully ready for its own withdrawal; it is not surprising that the Lebanese government was not entirely prepared. The question remains, however, as asked by an editorial in the Lebanese newspaper Al-Nahar: "Government of Lebanon, Where are You?" The first priority of the United States, France, and the UN should be to assist (and insist that) the Lebanese government deploy itself fully in south Lebanon. That deployment must not only be as observers while Hizbullah actually holds power. Rather, Lebanon must insure that Hizbullah ceases to exist as a military force, just as other independent militias were disbanded.

The utter collapse of the SLA, according to the wishes of Lebanon and the UN, removes whatever excuse the Lebanese government might have had for not applying the same rules to Hizbullah. The SLA's collapse also raises the Lebanese government's responsibility for the safety of its citizens, regardless of its labeling of the SLA until now as traitors. Rather than fanning the flames of retribution, the Lebanese government should be expected to ease the return of its citizens to their homes and restore order to the area.

Israel, for its part, must do more than open its doors to the SLA and their families. If there is a direct and immediate casualty of Israel's withdrawal, it is our Lebanese allies. Israel did not betray the SLA by withdrawing from Lebanon; the idea that Israel could or should stay there forever was never on the table. Moreover, acceleration of Israel's withdrawal was driven by the abandonment by the SLA of outposts entrusted to them by Israel.

Regardless of who is to blame for the SLA's swift collapse and lack of preparation for it, the fact remains that thousands have fled to Israel, and thousands more of Israel's allies may be in danger in Lebanon. As OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi pointed out, Israeli soldiers came home, while SLA soldiers have been forced to abandon their homeland. Israel cannot treat the SLA only as refugees who should be grateful for being gathered in makeshift camps; they are brothers who risked and lost their lives with us and deserve our best treatment in return.

The people of Israel, not just the government, have a role helping provide for families who have lost everything but their lives because of their connection to us. Humanitarian organizations should rush to their relief, adequate housing should be provided, and they should feel they are welcomed with gratitude, not treated "like dogs," as one SLA soldier bitterly told the Post.

The IDF and the government have said all the right things concerning Israel's debt to the SLA and the moral obligations this imposes. These sentiments have been reflected in the openness of Israel's border to the SLA families. Prime Minister Ehud Barak should visit the temporary camp at Amnun Beach in order to emphasize Israel's gratitude and commitment to help them. The real test will come in how far Israel will go beyond saving lives toward helping rebuild them.

©Jerusalem Post 2000

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