France offers sanctuary to Lebanon army

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AT THE Ottoman-built Residence des Pins embassy, in central Beirut, a visa for France awaits the young woman whom Israel released from its notorious Khiam prison in southern Lebanon last week.

Soha Beshara, a Communist activist who 10 years ago tried to murder General Antoine Lahd, leader of Israel's proxy "South Lebanon Army" militia, emerged from captivity as determined and angry as she was when seized after her murder attempt. "To abandon the resistance would be to surrender myself," she shouted to journalists, making victory signs with both hands.

So why is France inviting Ms Beshara to visit Paris, or, as some say, to study at a French university? And why is the French President, Jacques Chirac, also prepared, according to Lebanese press reports, to offer French passports to the man she tried to kill with his most senior officers?

The answer, it seems, is that President Chirac wants to play an ever greater role in the Middle East and, through French generosity, to disentangle Israel from its occupation of Lebanon.

If all this stuns the Lebanese, they should re-read the history of France's war in Algeria, when, on the eve of independence, President Charles de Gaulle allowed thousands of harkis - Algerians who had fought in the French army against their fellow Muslims - to settle in France.

One of Israel's conditions for abandoning its occupation of southern Lebanon is immunity for its Lebanese collaborators and the integration of General Lahd and his men into the Lebanese army. Lebanon, which does not wish to have Israeli intelligence agents in its army's ranks, has refused.

So step forward President Chirac, who may have already given General Lahd and a few of his men the French passports that would allow them to flee Lebanon when Israel eventually decides to end its occupation.

In France, it should be remembered, there also lives the exiled Lebanese rebel General Michel Aoun, who was given asylum there almost a decade ago after his hopeless war against Syria collapsed. The French are not too keen on Middle East immigrants, but General Aoun, who used to compare himself to De Gaulle, appeals to France's Jacobin sentiments, while Soha Beshara - a Communist opponent of Israel, rather than an Islamist - will be acceptable to the French left. And France's Israeli lobby will have no objections to asylum for General Lahd and the boys if it gets Israeli troops out of Lebanon.

All very neat. Except that Soha Beshara seems in no hurry to use her French passport. She said she was tortured with electricity when first taken to prison- almost certainly true, since nearly every other prisoner endured the same treatment after incarceration - and has no intention of abandoning the guerrilla movement. She denounced General Lahd, whom she seriously wounded after befriending his family, as "a Zionist Jew" rather than a Lebanese.

"She was like a member of our family - a charming, intelligent girl," General Lahd told me while recovering from his wounds. "She had the run of our home." He still suffers from a gunshot wound to the chest, but had freed the 30-year-old woman - a heroine to thousands of Lebanese - for "humanitarian reasons". In reality, the French visa rids General Lahd of his most popular prisoner.

But what of his other comrades, the lowly gunmen who have fought for Israel for money, or because they were blackmailed into Israel's ramshackle SLA militia? When the Israelis ended their occupation of Sidon in 1985, they promised protection to all their collaborators and then abandoned most of them to be butchered by their guerrilla enemies.

Those same enemies, the Hizbollah movement, which has been fighting Israeli occupation for 16 years, say they will give no quarter to any other SLA men still loyal to Israel after a withdrawal.

And the French harkis? Many were indeed given asylum in France, where they languish to this day in poverty. Many more were not treated so generously. Tricked into disarming by their French officers, they were left for the Algerian FLN to massacre. Most were forced to dig their own graves then dispatched with a butcher's knife across the throat.

Will France be any more generous with General's Lahd's lesser comrades? If President Chirac can secure an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, the United States will be forced to deal with Paris in the event (admittedly distant) of a Middle East peace. France has a seat on the 1996 South Lebanon ceasefire committee and - thanks to a carefully planned state visit by President Hafez al-Assad last July - excellent relations with Syria. France's pretensions to great-power status are making themselves felt here. Whether they will embrace the rest of General Lahd's harkis remains to be seen.