US Jews Prepare Aid For Christian Lebanese Refugees

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - US Jewish organizations have banded together to raise emergency aid for Christian Lebanese refugees who fled their homes following Israel's retreat from southern Lebanon two weeks ago.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said there had been an "incredible response" from synagogues, local Jewish community centers and Jewish federations across the country to the plea for "Bundles of Hope."

"Obviously we wanted to show that we stand with those who stood with Israel," he said.

Hoenlein, in charge of the drive organized in conjunction with the United Jewish Congress, said toiletries, clothing and toys as well as money had been collected for the refugees and those overseeing their stay in Israel.

The National Guard, he said, had agreed to assemble the packages while the Israeli Airline El Al was willing to ship the goods.

The SLA and its predecessor were Israel's ally in south Lebanon for more than 25 years until Israel's hasty withdrawal to the international border completed the militia's disintegration, which had begun several weeks earlier.

Fearing retaliation from Iranian-backed Hizballah guerrillas, who rushed to fill the void left by Israel's departure, more than 6,000 primarily Christian south Lebanese fled their homes seeking refuge in Israel.

Israel has offered asylum and a chance to start a new life to all those who wish to stay. But many of the refugees are seeking to be absorbed by Western nations. Germany announced this week it would take in 400 former SLA members.

Prison Sentences

More than 1,500 of the 2,500-man militia already have been arrested by the Lebanese government, which accuses them of siding with the enemy.

On Monday, 48 former SLA soldiers were sentenced to one year in prison for serving in the now disbanded force. Another 42 were jailed for terms ranging from one month to five years.

The sentences are relatively light considering the fact that the charge of treason can carry the death penalty.

Some analysts believe the jail terms may prompt some Lebanese who fled to return. Without making any promises, Lebanon has made it clear that it wants all the refugees to come home.

However, about 80 percent of those who fled Lebanon are Christians, many of whom fear reprisals from Muslim militants in the south not only for their SLA membership but because of their religion. Many were SLA officers and thus presumably were subject to much stiffer penalties.

The head of the SLA, Gen. Antoine Lahad, was tried in absentia years ago for treason and sentenced to death. He is now living in France.

On the Border

Along the Israeli-Lebanese border Tuesday, United Nations teams were finishing their map-making to mark the international boundary.

According to the United Nations Interim Forces In Lebanon spokesman Timur Goksel, UNIFIL hopes to begin on Wednesday to verify that Israel has withdrawn its troops completely from Lebanon.

Once the verification has taken place, UNIFIL will wait for the consent of the Lebanese government before entering the area and starting patrols there, Goksel said.

Syrian Connection

Israel had hoped that it could withdraw its troops from south Lebanon in the framework of a three-way agreement between Jerusalem, Beirut and Damascus, which controls foreign policy in Lebanon.

But the collapse of Israeli-Syrian talks over disputed land dashed those hopes. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had agreed in principle to return the entire Golan Heights, which it had captured in the 1967 Six Day War, but not the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, Israel's main fresh water reservoir.

Barak on Tuesday blamed Syrian pressure for the failure of the Lebanese army to deploy along Israel's border, instead leaving Hizballah to dominate the area.

The border has been relatively quiet since Israel pulled out, aside from hundreds of Lebanese who have gathered at the border fence regularly to jeer Israeli soldiers and to hurl rocks and bottles at them.

But on a tour of the northern Israel border on Tuesday, Barak charged that the Syrians were trying to enlist Palestinian help to attack Israel.

"There is a Syrian attempt to recruit Palestinian activists to send them to act against Israel, and if it happens, we'll know what to do," he told reporters.

Barak has pledged to strike back hard at the source of trouble if Israel is attacked, but he has also said that the door is not yet closed on Israeli-Syrian talks.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in the region on a two-day visit, is scheduled to meet Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara in Cairo on Wednesday. However, Albright has cautioned against the hope of any breakthrough in negotiations.

On her last trip to the region in November, the same caution was given. Nonetheless, that visit was followed by an announcement by President Clinton that talks between Israel and Syria would resume after a nearly four-year hiatus.