Peace drive may be fatal for Israelis' proxy army

A CLOWN wearing a green turban and with his face painted pink and white is entertaining children of soldiers of the "South Lebanon Army", Israel's militia in southern Lebanon, at an Israeli army holiday camp at Hadera, south of Haifa. He sticks out his foot and on his big toe balances a long stick on top of which is a small table with four glasses on it. He does not look very confident about its stability.

A few minutes later General Antoine Lahad, commander of the SLA, drives up, to the cheers of the 600 children in their blue caps and yellow T- shirts. He faces a similar problem to the clown. He knows that the future of the SLA is delicately balanced, because Ehud Barak, the new Israeli Prime Minister, has promised to get the Israeli army out of Lebanon within a year.

Gen Lahad, a stocky man in a check shirt, counters questions about the disintegration of the SLA with weary irritation. He says: "I'm tired and fed up with answering the same question: I've been here for 17 years and every year people have said the SLA is about to collapse, but we've remained intact." He denies he is going to resign, says the morale of his men is high and claims "we have more volunteers trying to join the SLA than we have places for them."

He admits he has not met Mr Barak since he became prime minister, but expects to do so soon. In the meantime, as Israel and Syria move towards talks on a peace treaty in the next few months, Gen Lahad insists "you can be confident I know everything that goes on". He says he has pledges from previous Israeli governments that, in the event of an Israeli withdrawal, the security of his 2,600 soldiers and their supporters will be guaranteed.

His confidence sounds a little forced. In the past month Syria and Israel have been making the friendliest noises towards each other for 50 years.

Abdullah, a teacher organising the summer camp, who comes from Marjayoun, the SLA's headquarters in southern Lebanon, says: "Maybe the children will come one more time to Israel and after that we will see."

In fact, the disintegration of Gen Lahad's forces under pressure from Hizbollah, the Islamic Lebanese guerrillas, is well under way. "The SLA can no longer be considered a military force," General Haim Yifrah, a retired Israeli army intelligence officer with long experience in Lebanon, told the daily Maariv earlier this year.

"The local population is not supportive, not of the SLA and not of the IDF [Israeli army]. We have trained Hizbollah and made it the most effective guerrilla force in the world."

This is a little exaggerated. The heavily fortified front-line fortresses in the Israeli security zone, which from the distance look like large concrete mushrooms, are still manned by the SLA. Its men take heavier casualties than Israeli troops from roadside bombs and mortar attacks.

Israel relies on the SLA militiamen to keep down its own casualties but pays a heavy price. It has lost the intelligence war in south Lebanon because Hizbollah has infiltrated the SLA. "Hizbollah knows today every whisper we make in southern Lebanon," said Gen Yifrah. "Let anyone check how many of our ambushes fell into their ambushes."

There has been a series of small-scale but spectacular military disasters. An elite naval patrol, seeking to ambush a Hizbollah leader, was wiped out by waiting guerrillas in 1997. The Israeli commander in southern Lebanon was killed by a roadside bomb. Earlier this year the SLA was forced to abandon its salient at Jezzine, jutting north from the Israeli security zone.

The decline of the SLA has proceeded steadily since 1990. Established in 1978 after the first Israeli invasion of Lebanon, it was at first an effective force, armed, trained and paid for by Israel. When Israeli troops retreated to the present security zone in 1985, Hizbollah was only one of 36 local militias, nominally fighting Israel. By 1991 it dominated the war in the south.

At the same time Syria, as its price for supporting the US and its allies in the Gulf war, was able to extinguish the last Lebanese Christian resistance to its predominant power in Lebanon. Together with Iran it gave full support to Hizbollah.

Year by year Israel's enthusiasm for staying in south Lebanon waned. Israeli officers became convinced that a growing number of SLA members had a connection, at one level or another, with Hizbollah.

In practice, Mr Barak's pledge to withdraw Israeli troops is self-fulfilling. Despite Gen Lahad's claim that the SLA is not disintegrating, its soldiers inevitably want to insure themselves against future retaliation by Hizbollah or the Lebanese government.

Even if Israel's negotiations with Syria fail, the SLA cannot easily be reconstituted and, without Gen Lahad's small army, Israel cannot stay in Lebanon.