Israel's allies fight their own war: Robert Fisk, in Tyre, asks if the 'South Lebanon Army' is intent on sabotaging the peace process

Something strange has happened to the 'South Lebanon Army'. It still exists, supposedly guarding Israel's occupation zone in southern Lebanon: 2,500 Lebanese militiamen, armed, paid and trained by the Israelis, who also have around 1,500 of their own soldiers in the strip of Lebanese territory that runs from the Mediterranean to Mount Hermon. But after a series of bloody incidents over the past three weeks, both the Israelis and the United Nations are wondering whether the rag-tag Christian and Shia Muslim militiamen are any longer obeying Israel's orders.

For months, the SLA's men - many of them blackmailed into working for the Israelis by threats against their families - have been expressing their fear that an Israeli-Lebanese peace would leave them at the mercy of their Hizbollah and Palestinian antagonists. Several have already made private accommodations with Hizbollah leaders - in some cases, their own relatives - to be spared 'execution' on the day the Israelis leave. But a hard core of pro-Israeli militiamen appear determined to stoke their enemies' hatred in the months before peace.

It all started earlier this month when four members of the Marxist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine tried to infiltrate the Israeli-occupied zone in an attempt to cross the Israeli frontier and seize hostages - to be released for Palestinians in Israeli jails. 'Sergeant' Khalil Huran, Shadi Hussein, Ghaled Mustapha and 'Sergeant' Hussein Yassin, loaded down with rifles and anti-tank weapons, were inside the UN's area of operations near the Muslim mountain town of Cheba on 11 March when they became separated in the darkness. Mustapha was captured by SLA men while Yassin got cold feet and surrendered to Norwegian troops of the UN's peace-keeping force in Cheba. Huran and Hussein, however, sought shelter in a cave. By dawn, Huran was dead, apparently shot by the Israelis and SLA. Hussein, 19, was trapped in a graveyard, out of ammunition after a gun battle with SLA agents.

Since the events took place in an area where the occupation zone and the UN's area overlap, there were independent witnesses to what happened next. Surrounded by SLA 'security' men, Hussein stood up, dropped his Kalashnikov rifle, placed his hands on his head and surrendered, shouting out verses from the Koran as he walked towards his captors.

He had only walked a few yards, however, when the senior SLA officer, also a Muslim, raised his own rifle and fired a full clip of ammunition into Hussein's stomach. The Israelis, who were not involved in the murder, privately conceded that something went dreadfully wrong with the operation to capture the Palestinians. The UN force commander in southern Lebanon, a Norwegian general, angrily protested to the Israelis that the SLA 'execution' was a flagrant breach of human rights.

The sheikh of Cheba ordered villagers to abandon the Id al-Fitr feast - held to mark the end of Ramadan - and in his mosque referred to Hussein's killing as a 'massacre'. He was arrested by the Israelis next morning; but in an unprecedented act the parents of the SLA officer who shot Hussein published a communique in the city of Sidon, blaming their son for the murder and disowning him 'for all time.'

Then last week, after an ambush in which two Israeli soldiers were killed, Israeli gun batteries manned by SLA men opened fire on the towns of Sidon and Nabatieh, killing two children, three women and a streetsweeper - in clear breach of an Israeli-Hizbollah ceasefire agreement last July. And suddenly the Israelis in southern Lebanon let it be known that they did not authorise the artillery fire. That same week, two Israeli newspapers carried long articles in which anonymous Israeli 'military sources' described the SLA as 'undisciplined' and 'unprofessional', and arguing that the militia now endangered Israeli security.

The implications of all this were not lost on United Nations officers, who are increasingly fearful that around 100 SLA men may be moving out of Israel's control - and may therefore represent a threat to UN personnel. 'Maybe the Israelis are playing some game with us,' one resident said. 'But it looks as though some of the SLA know they will be accused of collaboration and shot when the Israelis go - and so they are trying to keep the Israelis engaged in Lebanon, sabotaging any peace treaty. Perhaps they hope that they will become so hated that the Israelis will be forced to 'rescue' them and take them to Israel when there's a peace.'