No mercy for Israel's allies in South Lebanon

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The Independent Online

Waiting for the Israelis to leave occupied southern Leb-anon is a fearful business. As the sun burns the long grass around the big artillery batteries, Israel's "South Lebanon Army" (SLA) militia are on the run.

In droves, they are defecting to the Hizbollah or the Lebanese army - nine ran through a minefield to give themselves up at Shaqra in just one month - and the Hizbollah guerrillas have made an offer they hope the militiaman cannot refuse: face liquidation or kill one of your own officers.

An SLA officer. An Israeli soldier. Either will do. Otherwise the SLA can expect no mercy. Even the United Nations fears that the Hizbollah are going to chase the Israelis all the way to their border when they stage their last retreat from Lebanon. And the UN will not move south to the frontier when they do. First, the 4,500 army of peace-keepers - note that word for future use - will demand verification that every Israeli soldier has withdrawn behind the international border. And then confirmation that the SLA has been deprived of all its tanks and artillery pieces and is not being resupplied by the Israelis.

So who would want to be an SLA man now? On a hilltop at Khirbe, they have their own war memorial to the 652 pro-Israeli militiamen and collaborators who have been shot dead or blown to pieces in this vicious guerrilla war. It is a sleek place with landscaped gardens, the chiselled name of every "martyr" for Israel's occupation cause and a cross and crescent for Christian and Muslim on the concrete walls. Among the latest names is 35-year old Abbas Tormas, who died on an anti-bomb patrol, a father of four who boasted of his own survival until one of the Hizbollah bombs he was looking for exploded 60 feet away. "Nice enough guy," a UN man said. "He loved his kids." Too late.

It is the same all over Israel's occupation zone. The SLA men are mostly local but can no longer go to their homes at night, no longer run over the border into Israel for cover, no longer trust each other. In Taibe village, the breeze bangs the wooden doors of long-abandoned houses, two old men play backgammon by a fetid pond. Tank tracks have torn up the little square. "AnIsraeli drove his tank in yesterday and went round the town taking photographs," a middle-aged villager muttered. "I guess he wanted some tourist snaps before he left."

Everyone knows they are leaving. SLA men from Taibe already have five dead and they will no longer patrol the village. Only one of the villagers still works in Israel - the so-called "Good Fence" is closing on them and the Lebanese who worked on construction projects and olive picking inside Israel have been fired from their jobs. The Israelis are promising severance pay to their collaborators, last payments to the men who have secured their occupation over almost one-quarter of a century.

The "important" men, the killers and torturers, are expected to receive visas to Europe and the United States since they will be murdered or executed if they stay behind. "It's an irony," a villager told me bitterly, "that the worst guys are going to end up in the United States or France or England but the little men will be left to their fate."

In Sidon in 1985, the Israelis left most of their collaborators behind. I remember watching them being collared by resistance fighters or bundled into the trunks of cars for execution. The leader of the collaborators then, Abu Arrida, now languishes in an Israeli prison, convicted for ultimate collaboration with the Lebanese army.

So visa officers in Britain and other European countries - and in the US - may be looking out for names such as Raymond Daher and Hassan Abdulatif and Hussein Kdouah, an intelligence officer in the notorious torture prison at Khiam inside the occupied zone. There are only 160 prisoners left there and their fate, despite requests for information from the International Red Cross, remains unknown. Will these hostages, held for the return of missing Israeli troops in Lebanon, be freed or taken across the border into Israel?

There are men in the jail who have been held without charge for more than 10 years. Sulieman Ramadan, for example, has been in Khiam for 16 years, one of four men who tried to dig a tunnel out of the walls last year but who were punished most severely for their attempts at freedom, their food and letters and family visits suspended. Ramadan's leg was stamped on and burnt during interrogation. It was later amputated. He will be in no mood to offer compassion or clemency to his Lebanese collaborator torturers.

"I would like revenge of some kind," a former Khiam inmate told me in suppressed fury as we looked across the village at another massive Israeli compound, its minefields and wire and cement bunkers baking under the early summer sun. "I don't want to kill them, but I would like to do something. I don't know what. Slap them, beat them maybe."

The same man told me he has a fast car ready for the Israeli withdrawal. "If the resistance attack the Israelis when they leave, the Israelis will fire on all of us and we will want to leave at once.Yes, we want liberation, we want the Lebanese army here. But we are all afraid," he said.