Muslim 'collaborators' fear departure of the Israeli army: Robert Fisk, in Qantara, reports on the mixed blessings of Middle East peace for southern Lebanon

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The Independent Online
WINTER is returning to southern Lebanon. The days are still hot but at dusk the wind rips at your clothes and tears at your hair as cruelly as the fear which is now beginning to cut into the lives of the Muslims who still live under Israeli occupation.

Up on the hills, east of Qantara, an Israeli patrol - Merkava tanks guarding a herd of personnel-carriers with sheets of iron over their bonnets, the soldiers flak-jacketed and visored against Hizbollah attacks - prepares to drive across the foothills of Mount Hermon.

'The Israelis don't care about us now,' a villager laments. 'They force us to join their militia but they take 12 hours to reach us when we've been attacked. Many of our men have been wounded and might have lived if the Israelis had come to our rescue earlier.'

The Muslims who have been forced to join Israel's 'South Lebanon Army (SLA)' now fear the consequences of peace every bit as much as their co-religionists north of Israel's occupation zone now wait for their deliverance.

'How can we explain that we didn't want to fight for the Israelis?' the brother of a Shia Muslim militiaman complains. 'I guess there'll be a peace - but what will become of us?'

For who can forget the fate of the collaborators of 1983, left behind when the Israelis retreated from Chouf mountains? Or the Lebanese collaborators and gunmen abandoned by the Israelis in Sidon in 1985, doomed to be 'executed'

by their fellow-countrymen for aiding and abetting the Israeli occupation army?

'Every time I ask our officers what will happen, they say 'Don't worry,' they say it will be okay,' the SLA man says. His two brothers have vainly tried to bribe the SLA's Christian officers to release him from the militia - they offered dollars 3,000 ( pounds 2,400) to no avail - and are now terrified of the Middle East peace accord which the world so eagerly awaits.

Not that you'd know there was a peace in the offing in southern Lebanon just now. Only hours after the Shia family bared their souls over rich, black coffee on the terrace of their home, the Hizbollah attacked Israel's SLA-manned artillery compound at Qantara with mortars, seriously wounding two press-ganged Shia militiamen.

As usual in southern Lebanon, the names of those who talk must be suppressed to protect the innocent - from both the Israelis and the Hizbollah.

'How do you think we all think now?' the SLA gunman's brother asked. 'We are so frightened of what's going to happen if there's an Israeli-Lebanese peace agreement that nine of the men from this village alone have deserted from the SLA. There is no morale any more. My brother returned from the Qantara compound only two hours ago. For two nights we heard the shooting coming from his location and feared he was dead. One mortar exploded so close to him that he lost part of his hearing.'

Leaning from the window of an upstairs room, the brother appears in a blue tracksuit, bellowing to two friends in the street in a high, unnatural voice. He arrives a few minutes later to sit with us, smiling and embarrassed to find foreigners listening to his story, aware that careless talk costs freedom; whatever freedom is worth now in the hill villages of Israel's so-called 'security zone'.

'To leave our village and go to Beirut, we must have Israeli permission,' his brother continues, producing from his pocket a laminated yellow card. It is stamped in Hebrew and carries the insignia of the Israeli army's Golani Brigade and the signature of an Israeli officer: Israeli permission for one return trip to Beirut, even though the man's village is in Lebanon, scarcely 70 miles from his own capital city.

Most of the SLA's rag-tag militia are Shias, officered by Christian Lebanese gunmen from the Marjayoun district, men who willingly offered their services to the Israeli occupiers when they first moved into this Lebanese border strip 15 years ago.

'I will tell you this,' one of the brothers says. 'When the Israelis go, there will be a civil war here between the Muslims and the Christians, between us and the Lebanese who made us fight with them. Maybe the Lebanese army will arrive and keep order, but this will be a very dangerous place.'

From many of the hilltops, it is possible to see Khiam, which the Israelis will not allow the Inter national Red Cross to visit. Its inmates are still subjected to repeated torture by their guards, according to Amnesty International. The old French fort holds more than 300 Shias, women as well as men, who are effectively hostages for the return of a missing Israeli air force pilot, Ron Arad, and six missing SLA personnel. When Israel finally withdraws from southern Lebanon - if it withdraws - these prisoners could be transferred across the international frontier into Israel itself.

The future of Israel's proxy army in southern Lebanon seems as bleak as the weather now closing in on the poor Shia villages. 'I just want the Israelis to leave - now,' the first brother says. 'We are being broken apart. A few weeks ago, an SLA man in the Alman compound came under attack by the Hizbollah. Hours later he discovered that the dead Hizbollah attackers included his own brother.'

(Photograph omitted)