A proposed bill of amnesty for the former members of the South Lebanon Army (SLA) languishing in exile in Israel has rekindled the debate over whether the militiamen were victims of circumstance or just traitors - a debate that inevitably has fallen along sectarian lines. In early June, Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir called for a general pardon at the urging of some former militiamen who had been informed by Israel that they would have to renounce their Lebanese nationality if they wished to receive Israeli citizenship. The call for a pardon was echoed by parliamentarians belonging to the bloc headed by the former head of the military government in 1988-90, Michel Aoun.
For Hizbullah and Amal and their Shiite supporters in Southern Lebanon, however, the SLA was a collaborationist force whose artillery shells and bullets created misery and horror for over two decades. As far as they are concerned, the notion of granting a blanket amnesty to those who collaborated with Israel, and only five years after the Israeli withdrawal, is an insult to the hardships they endured and the memories of relatives and friends killed during the conflict.
Hizbullah also has a more practical objection, suspecting that the reprieved former militiamen would still be on the payroll of Israel. Hizbullah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, recently said that the proposed amnesty "would open the door for the Israelis to rebuild their security and terrorist networks in Lebanon."
However, other, mainly Christian, Lebanese argue that the spirit of reconciliation in post-Syria-controlled Lebanon should extend beyond Samir Geagea, the Dinniyeh group, and the Majdal Anjar rioters, to include southerners who were initially forced to rely on Israel for survival, but gradually found themselves trapped in a vortex of collaboration.
There is no simple truth and both sides of the argument have merit: the SLA collaborated with Israel and committed some atrocities, true, but its collaboration was a consequence of the civil war, and the militia eventually became a helpless hostage to Israel's fortunes in Lebanon. The grim reality for the SLA is that it, more than the Israelis, was the ultimate loser of the war in South Lebanon and is still paying the price today.
The SLA had its origins in a Lebanese Army unit based in the southern town of Marjayoun, with many of the soldiers drawn from surrounding Christian villages. In 1976, the army fragmented and the troops in Marjayoun dispersed to their home villages, which were surrounded and threatened by fighters of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and their Lebanese allies. The Israelis, eager to win the support of the anti-PLO Christians, offered military and humanitarian assistance, which was accepted by a small group of soldiers from the Maronite border village of Qlayaa, the nucleus of what was to become the SLA.
The alliance gradually deepened as the Israelis began training, equipping and paying the Christian-led militia. After the 1978 and 1982 Israeli invasions, the militia expanded and took on Druze, Sunni and Shiite recruits, built up an intelligence wing, and developed a civilian administration to oversee the running of Israel's occupation zone.
Derided as "Israel's sandbags," the SLA bore the brunt of the fighting, manning the frontline outposts while Israeli troops occupied larger and better protected positions to the rear. By the mid-1990s, the morale of the militia was sinking. Hizbullah's unrelenting resistance campaign was exacting a high casualty toll among the SLA, and the future looked bleak.
Although the militia was essential to Israel's strategy in South Lebanon, it suddenly became a liability in 1999 when Israel decided to withdraw unilaterally from Lebanon, a campaign promise of then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, facilitated by the breakdown of talks with Syria in April 2000, following the unsuccessful Geneva meeting between Syrian President Hafez Assad and U.S. President Bill Clinton. It was a relatively simple logistical task for the few hundred Israeli troops to leave Lebanon, but what was to be done with the SLA? By May 2000, the mood in the Christian villages of the occupation zone was one of defiance. Civilians were stockpiling food and ammunition and receiving weapons training at the SLA camp in Majadieh.
I interviewed one resident of Qlayaa, who proudly displayed for me his newly purchased M-16 rifle with attached grenade launcher, ammunition, flares, a helmet and a backpack. "I asked myself should I spend the money on toys for my children, food for family or to buy guns," he told me. "I decided to buy guns so that I can defend my family."
Hizbullah's shrewd and insidious propaganda campaign against the SLA had a tremendous impact in the occupation zone. Invariably, Nasrallah's carefully crafted words were refracted and distorted through the lens of paranoia that pervaded the zone, until many Christians were convinced that Hizbullah intended to slaughter them all in their beds.
When the zone started to collapse, as hundreds of Lebanese from outside the zone marched into occupied villages, Israel's military commanders suddenly informed the SLA that they were leaving, and the militiamen had the stark choice of accompanying them to Israel or awaiting their fate in Lebanon. Either way, the border was going to be sealed within hours. Fear overcame defiance and more than 6,000 militiamen and their families, including the person I interviewed in Qlayaa, fled to Israel.
As it became clear that there would be no serious sectarian reprisals in the newly liberated border area, the refugees began drifting back into Lebanon. Most of them were junior militiamen who were either press-ganged into service or joined out of economic necessity. They were tried and sentenced to generally moderate jail terms.
Some 2,400 former militiamen and their families still live in Israel. Most, but not all, of them are Christians who comprised the hard core of the SLA and its feared intelligence apparatus. It is difficult to imagine that most of them would want to return to their former homes in South Lebanon, even if they are granted amnesty by the government. An amnesty law would not protect the likes of the Saleh siblings, who as Shiite SLA intelligence officers instituted a brutal regime in their home village of Ait al-Shaab, a bastion of Hizbullah support during the occupation. The same applies to those involved in maintaining the Khiam detention center. Hizbullah has "named and shamed" the prison guards, interrogators and other personnel on a plaque at the entrance. Would any of them really risk returning to South Lebanon?
Last December, the Israeli government finally agreed to grant citizenship to those former militiamen who wish to remain in Israel, along with a "service appreciation" grant starting at $8,800 and bonus for each year served in the SLA. The Syrian disengagement from Lebanon and Israel's ultimatum to the former SLA members to choose Israeli citizenship or retain Lebanese nationality has spurred the former militiamen to explore their options in returning to Lebanon. Yet even if a government pardon is approved, it's quite possible that many of the more compromised former militiamen would choose a future in Israel or a third country rather than return to Lebanon under an amnesty that would protect them from prosecution but not necessarily from persecution.
Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based correspondent who covered the conflict in southern Lebanon for THE DAILY STAR, for whom he wrote this commentary.