Lebanon's SLA - Resistance Fighters or Treasonous Sellouts?

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNS) - The row over a Lebanese Christian television network employee accused of collaborating with the enemy has focused attention on an Israeli-allied Lebanese militia which the authorities in Beirut insist controls the CBN station.

The South Lebanon Army (SLA) is not widely known outside the region, but the small force is an important player in the 15-km wide southern Lebanon "security zone" controlled by Israel.

Today some 2,500-strong, the SLA claims to represent the aspirations of the area's Christian Maronite minority, which is to a lesser or greater degree opposed to the Iranian-backed Islamist militia Hizb'Allah; the Syrians who effectively control Lebanon; and the "puppet" government in Beirut.

Most SLA soldiers are Maronites, although there are some Shi'ite Muslim members as well. A sympathetic Lebanese journalist told CNSNews.com that many join the militia because it offers jobs, security, and the opportunity for family members to work in Israel. Others are more ideologically-driven.

The militia's detractors regard it as an illegitimate gang of traitorous rebels in Israel's pay, and support Hizb'Allah's armed campaign against both the SLA and Israeli forces in the buffer zone.

Speaking in the Knesset this week, a communist Israeli Arab lawmaker, Issam Mahoul, echoed the views of many Arabs in the region when he called the SLA "collaborators and traitors" and "quislings."

The origins of the SLA and the "security zone" - home to 100,000 Lebanese, 60 per cent of them Shi'ite Muslims and 35 per cent Christian - are tied up in the violent history of Lebanon over the past four decades.

In the late 1960s, armed Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) units began operating against Israel from southern Lebanon, inviting retaliation and beginning a process that would see the population of the south increasingly drawn into the Israeli-Arab conflict.

After Jordan's King Hussein declared war on the PLO in "Black September" 1970, thousands of Yasser Arafat's gunmen based in the kingdom were forced to leave. They resettled in anarchic Lebanon, where they established a virtual state-within-a-state centered in Beirut.

By 1976, Lebanon's ambassador to the UN was complaining that Palestinian guerillas in Lebanon were kidnapping, torturing and sometimes killing both Lebanese and foreign victims.

Inevitably, civil war broke out in 1975, with Lebanese Christian elements backed by Syrian forces fighting a PLO-Muslim alliance intent on taking over the country.

The Lebanese Army disintegrated in 1976, and Israel lent its support one of the constituent elements, a small Christian militia under the command of Major Sa'ad Haddad.

Six hundred thousand people died during the conflict, which at one stage saw Syrians fighting Christian factions, and at another had two Muslims militias fighting each other.

With Palestinian terror attacks against Israeli communities increasing, Israel launched a punitive strike against PLO bases in 1978, withdrawing under international pressure after two months.

UN forces were then deployed in the south of Lebanon, except for a strip of land in the far south, between eight and 29 kms wide, which remained under the control of Haddad's Maronite militia, advised and trained by the Israelis.

The strip was to become the "security zone," and Haddad's small army was eventually renamed the SLA. In 1984 it came under the command of its current leader, General Antoine Lahad.

The Israeli-SLA alliance has continued ever since - during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon to finally oust the PLO terror bases; the 1990 Syrian invasion and subsequent deployment of 35,000 troops in the country; and the long, bloody fight continuing to this day against Hizb'Allah.

Hizb'Allah had filled the terror vacuum left by the departure of the PLO in 1982. It was responsible both for a widespread campaign of kidnapping westerners, and for the bombings of U.S. and French military barracks, and the U.S. embassy in Beirut, in 1983.

It later turned its attention to the south, where it carries out an efficient and deadly war of attrition aimed, it says, at expelling the Israeli "occupiers" and costing hundreds of Israeli and Lebanese lives.

(Hizb'Allah has longer-term goals too. Its deputy leader, Naeem Qassem, told Sky News on July 15 that an Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon would not be the end of the organization's struggle against the Jewish state.)

Today the SLA and Israel mount joint operations against Hizb'Allah, although both forces, the large and the small, maintain their own outposts and command structures.

Israel and the SLA were criticized by the New York-based Human Rights Watch this week for deporting several hundred Lebanese nationals from the "security zone" since 1985. Those targeted were accused of links to Hizb'Allah, it said.

The SLA and its supporters want a pro-Western Lebanon free of foreign - especially Syrian - domination. Maronite academics and others held a seminar in Jerusalem recently where they argued for internationally-approved autonomy for the "security zone."

Alarmed by the prospect of an Israeli withdrawal - as promised within one year by Prime Minister Ehud Barak - the activists expressed the hope they would not be abandoned by their longstanding ally.

Prof. Whalid Phares, a Florida-based Lebanese exile and leading exponent of the Maronite cause, voiced the sentiment as follows: "We will not be exaggerating if we state that the only place in the world where Christian and Jewish blood is shed together for the defense of two Judea-Christian nations, is the security zone."

Colonel Sharbel Barakat, retired deputy commander of the SLA, told CNSNews.com Israel had offered to allow militiamen who felt their safety was at risk to move to Israel before evacuating its troops from the area.

But the Maronites, he said, did not want to become refugees in Israel.

"We need a chance to stay. We are ready to continue to fight for our lives, waiting for real peace to come."

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow