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Israeli Militia Has Little Option

March 15, 2000

MAJIDIYEH CAMP, Lebanon (AP) _ On the rocky slopes beneath an Israeli border outpost, South Lebanon Army militiamen learn to use the semiautomatic rifles and well-worn tanks provided by their Israeli allies.

Training hasn’t let up, officers say, even though Israel’s plan to withdraw its forces from southern Lebanon by July has made the future of the 24-year-old militia uncertain.

``The soldier works to the end,″ said Maj. Said Ghattas, who is in charge of training at Majidiyeh Camp, about half a mile from the Israeli border. ``You can’t say `I don’t want to because Israel is leaving.‴

SLA members speak with bravado about following their general, Antoine Lahd, whatever the course. But the options _ from fighting on to fleeing the country _ look bleak.

Last week, a day after the Israeli Cabinet’s decision to withdraw, the Supreme Court rejected a request for political asylum from fighters in an Israeli-backed Lebanese militia.

Army officials, however, say they are making plans to protect the militiamen if a unilateral Israeli withdrawal goes through.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has pledged to act on Israel’s ``moral and actual obligation″ to the SLA and said a commission headed by his adviser on Lebanese affairs, Uri Lubrani, would determine the needs of SLA members and recommend action.

The SLA, active before allying with Israel in the 1980s, has not indicated whether it would stop fighting after an Israeli withdraw.

``I will not say anything until we see what happens in the future,″ Raymond Abu Murad, chief spokesman for Lahd, told The Associated Press in Marjayoun, 10 miles west of the camp.

Key to the militia’s fate is whether an Israeli withdrawal from the border zone accompanies an agreement with Syria, Lebanon’s neighbor and chief power broker.

If Syria wants to, it could exert enough pressure to stop a guerrilla campaign to end the Israeli occupation. With Syria’s approval, Israel also could win safety for the SLA.

Without an agreement, many residents and some SLA militiamen predict worse bloodshed in the form of revenge attacks by guerrillas. Hezbollah, the main guerrilla group fighting Israel, says it will not stop the guerrilla war until Israel has left every inch of Lebanese soil.

Ghattas said SLA fighters are ready to turn their guns over to the Lebanese army if it moves in and ensures security in the area. Lebanese government forces could throw SLA fighters into jail, since under Lebanese law cooperating with Israel a crime.

If there is no security, Ghattas said he is willing to fight on.

``If Israel moves out, we will take the orders from General Lahd,″ he said. ``We are ready. We have armies, guns, tanks. We are ready.″

The SLA has about 160 tanks, he said, including the dozen 45-year-old Russian T-55s and three American M-130s parked at Majidiyeh.

About 25 new members are in a two-month, weekends-off training program, he said. SLA veterans also participate in weeklong courses updating them on the latest Israeli information on Hezbollah tactics and logistics.

The SLA alliance provided Israel with a friendly force along the border amid the chaos of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war. The militia also reduced Israel’s dependence on their own troops to patrol the border and protect northern Israeli towns from guerrilla attacks.

Many Lebanese, however, saw the militiamen as traitors who were fighting their own people and serving as sandbags for their masters in Israel.

The late Maj. Saad Haddad formed the militia in the late 1970s after leading his troops to take control of a border strip from Palestinian guerrillas. With his back to the border, he sought _ and received _ Israel’s help and was fired from the Lebanese army. Lahd took over a revamped force after Haddad died in 1984.

About 2,500 Christian, Shiite Muslim and Druse fighters are part of the SLA, out of belief in the cause, for economic reasons or because they were coerced into the service. Hundreds have been killed or wounded fighting alongside Israeli soldiers against the guerrillas.

Ghattas said he also is ready for what he considers the least desirable option after an Israeli withdrawal _ leaving his hometown and country. Israel, he is confident, will not to abandon Lebanese who fought alongside its soldiers for two decades.

``Israel knows all that we need _ money, passports, homes, any country. But this is what I do not want,″ Ghattas said.

If all the militiamen and their families were to leave that would mean resettling around 10,000 people.

Sgt. Gantous Abu Farhad, 24, said he joined SLA three months after his brother and brother-in-law were killed in a Hezbollah explosion in 1998, and has no plans to leave Lebanon.

``I didn’t come for the money or anything. I came because I want to be a soldier,″ he said. ``I’m not afraid. ... I know we are not losing. We are winning.″

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