Israeli purge of families accelerates

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YOU CANNOT call it "ethnic cleansing" - not quite - but Israel's campaign of family expulsions from its occupation zone in southern Lebanon is now so rapid that even human rights groups cannot keep pace with it.

Last week, it was 35-year-old Wafa Melhem and her baby daughter, Norma. In January, 24 civilians living in the mountain town of Chebaa were driven from their homes by the Israelis. Hundreds of people - including a baby a few months old and a man of 99 - have been thrown off their land in the past 10 years. No wonder yesterday's excoriating Human Rights Watch report on expulsions - released simultaneously in Beirut and Jerusalem - was out of date before it was published.

Wafa Melhem's husband had been one of Israel's proxy "South Lebanon Army" (SLA) militiamen, who had himself been thrown out of his home five months ago; like so many of the Israeli-paid, Israeli-uniformed and Israeli-armed militia, he was no longer trusted.

The people of Chebaa were dispossessed - without trial or hearing - after the murder of a local pro-Israeli militia commander who was involved in tobacco smuggling. Indeed, so many of the expellees in the Human Rights Watch report are related to defecting SLA men - or to local civilians who refuse to serve in Israel's cruel little militia - that the document is as much an account of the disintegration of the SLA as it is of expulsion.

In one area of Lebanon alone - the Arkoub in the southern Bekaa Valley - 250 residents are believed to have been driven from their homes and forced outside Israel's occupation zone in 12 years.

But according to Lebanese government sources, the total figure could be well over a thousand in a decade. In some documented cases, homes were looted, burned and dynamited Serb-style after their occupants were dispossessed by Israel's forces. Yesterday's report includes pitiful evidence of elderly couples ordered from their homes by Israel's surrogates at five-minutes' notice, and refused permission to take away any of their belongings.

On 2 October 1998, for example, 80-year old Mahmoud Ward and his 70-year old wife, Zahr, were ordered from their home in Hasbaya after their 37- year-old Druze son, Raja - a high-ranking SLA intelligence officer - turned himself in to the Lebanese authorities.

A year earlier, a married couple and their son and daughter were expelled from the village of Markaba because another son had deserted the SLA and refused to return to the occupation zone. A 64-year-old woman and her 57-year-old husband were deported from Chebaa by Israel in 1998 after their son - who lived outside the occupation zone - joined Hizbollah. A woman whose husband fled the village of Ramieh last year when he was about to be interrogated at an SLA intelligence office was forced to stay in her home for two years, ostracised by her neighbours on SLA orders. Then she, too, was driven out.

If the living are expelled, the dead have been prevented from returning home. When Israel visits "collective punishments" on villages after anti- Israeli attacks, SLA militiamen have prevented the bodies of elderly residents being brought back from Beirut to their homes for burial. The remains of 90-year- old Safiya Fouani were turned back by SLA militiamen at Beit Yahoun when her funeral cortege tried to reach the village of Houla.

The human rights group points out that the expulsions are against international humanitarian law and constitute clear breaches of the Geneva Convention. The groupsays the new Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, must end the dispossession of Lebanese civilians at once.