QLAYA, Lebanon: In the early summer of 2000, thousands of Lebanese poured across the Israeli border, close on the heels of the Israeli army. Fleeing through the Naqoura gates were members, families and neighbors of the South Lebanese Army, an Israel-allied militia that operated in southern Lebanon during the Civil War.
Fearing retribution for the SLA’s cooperation with Israel during its occupation of the south, some 6,500 Lebanese left for Israel, where they received residency, eventual citizenship, and some financial support. This week, Parliament passed an urgent draft law allowing them to come home.
But the new law may not change much. In the parts of the south where the SLA – known as Lahd’s Army after its leader Antoine Lahd – once reigned supreme, locals have been trickling back for years. Exact numbers are tough to find, but it is said that some 2,000 have already returned to the country.
Melissa Hajj was 10 when she left Qlaya for Israel with her parents and two younger brothers. After living in the northern Israeli city of Nahariya and studying at school and university in Hebrew, she decided to come to Lebanon after falling in love with Qlaya resident Johnny Saeed. They met on Facebook, discovered they were once neighbors, and decided to marry.
Seated next to Saeed on his father’s couch, with her diamond ring sparkling through the scant space between the newlyweds, Hajj says, “It was difficult to adapt to life in Israel,” and that although “Lebanon is my home, we moved on with our lives in Israel … we had to live.” Most of her friends were other Lebanese, and she says she “didn’t feel as if we were part of their [the Israeli] community.”
But the choice to come back around five months ago still wasn’t easy to make. “I didn’t know if I would see my parents again. The distance is horrible. It was a one-way ticket.” Hajj tears up when describing her June wedding, saying she “would never forget that my parents weren’t at my wedding, it broke my heart.”
Hajj’s story is fairly typical for those who have already been repatriated. She was a child during the Civil War, and as a woman coming to marry was unlikely to face prosecution. Among those who have not come back, and are unlikely to do so in the future, are the SLA members or collaborators who under the new law will be arrested at the border upon their return and tried.
In the absence of a written law, the state has been allowing returns to take place with the help of international organizations. Hajj, for example, was taken to Naqoura by the Red Cross, which delivered her to General Security. There, she says she spent two nights in custody and was interrogated for three days. Eventually she had to pay a $900 fine. Most rank and file SLA returnees have received sentences of around one or two years, criticized by some, including Hezbollah, as too light.
The mukhtar of Qlaya, Joseph Salameh, says that between 1,200 and 1,300 people have returned to his village. Another 800-900 remain in Israel, he says, including his brother and one of his sisters. Another sister moved to Canada.
He says that the new law gives him “some hope,” but that “the issue of return is very tragic” because of how it has divided families.
Salemeh echoes Hajj’s sentiment that the decision to return, especially for SLA members, is “difficult to make. If someone decides to return, he knows what awaits him: imprisonment. And if he gets out, he will be unemployed.”
Some still see the SLA members as collaborators, and others see them as victims of unfortunate circumstances. Fear of retribution by organizations such as Hezbollah was once high, but the party has said that returnees should be dealt with by the Lebanese justice system. The party did not respond to requests for comment, but its MPs supported the draft law.
Economic woes may also stand in the way of homecoming. “There are no jobs in our area … most of the jobs are in Beirut,” Salameh continues. “If someone who is 20 years old returns from Israel and seeks a job in the government, they will not accept him because he was living in Occupied Palestine and his record is not clean, or because his dad worked for the SLA. They blame him for his father’s deeds.”
Salameh doesn’t think any new arrivals from Israel should be tried. The MPs in government feel differently, and an amendment to the draft law stated that further decrees will specify measures to deal with those who grew up in Israel and are seen as potential security threats. The issue of an SLA amnesty was first raised in 2005, but never came to fruition.
Hajj and her husband welcome the new legislation, but also find it late and lacking. “It will only serve to divide families further,” if adults are still subject to prosecution, Hajj says. Her parents are still too scared to return.
The SLA ran the notorious Khiam prison, where it carried out acts of torture. The return of torturers or those seen to have collaborated with Israel is bound to be a sensitive subject, but Mohammad Safa, head of the Khiam Rehabilitation Center for the Victims of Torture, welcomes the law, “especially for women and children. These are Lebanese people and the government must return them to their country to educate them, to let them into Lebanese society,” he told The Daily Star.
He stresses that it is the government’s responsibility to enforce Lebanese law for those returnees who participated in criminal acts, as well as to prevent potential conflicts that may arise between returnees and those who harbor resentment towards the SLA.
“For the collaborators with Israel who tortured the Lebanese people, [who tortured] the detainees in Khiam … of course there will be a court for them,” Safa says. Overall though, he adds, “we are happy [with the law], all the people inside Israel must return … and be happy to return to their villages.”
Qlaya resident Antoinette Salameh, known as Umm Fadi, isn’t terribly optimistic about the new law.
With two daughters in Lebanon, a son in Germany, and a son and daughter in Israel, she says the current “situation makes you curse the war and how it divided families.”
Her children regret leaving, she reports, “and want to come home badly.”
She says her kids left fearing a massacre, and she hopes they won’t be tried if they do come home.
But now, says Salameh, “parents are growing old here and dying in the village, and their children are in Israel.” When her son left, she laments, “he was crying. I told him don’t worry, two or three days and you’ll come back. No one expected it would take this long.” – With additional reporting by Reem Harb