18,000 Refugees in Israeli Zone : Gemayel Betrayed Them, Lebanese Christians Say

Times Staff Writer

The elderly man, dressed in striped pajamas, sat cross-legged on a thin foam-rubber mattress and cursed Lebanese President Amin Gemayel as "a dog" who has "ruined the country."

He had reason to be upset. Only a few days before, he had been a member of the Lebanese upper middle-class, a homeowner in the Christian town of Karkha just east of Sidon.

But as of Thursday, his home was an army tent pitched on a dirt soccer field in this rundown village a few miles north of the Israeli border.

"We left everything," the man's wife said as she stood at a makeshift outdoor sink washing her husband's only pair of trousers. The Muslims had forced them out of their home and smashed their belongings, said the woman, who requested anonymity. "They ruined all the flowers I had in my garden."

The Karkha couple are among 18,000 Lebanese Christians who have taken refuge inside what Israel calls its "security zone"--a strip of land five to 10 miles wide just north of the border that is still under the control of the withdrawing Israeli army.

They are part of a larger number of refugees--estimates range as high as 50,000--who have been driven out of their homes in the coastal areas around Sidon in what has been called one of the worst setbacks for Lebanon's Christians in 10 years of civil war in this country.

Some compare the Christians' rout by Palestinians and Lebanese Muslims with the Christians' defeat at the hands of the Druze in the Shouf Mountains' fighting of 1983, when 150,000 fled their homes in the hills east and south of Beirut.

Like the old man in pajamas, most of a score of refugees interviewed here and in nearby Marjayoun on Thursday seem more upset with Lebanon's Christian leadership than with the alliance of Lebanese and Palestinian Muslims and Druze, whose weeklong offensive has driven them from their homes. The Druze are an offshoot sect of Islam.

They say they have been betrayed, particularly by Gemayel, whom they see as a tool of neighboring Syria, and by Samir Geagea, the hard-line commander of the Christian militia organization called the Lebanese Forces, who pulled about 400 fighters out of the hills east of Sidon last week and left these villagers virtually defenseless.

The one Christian they still respect is Gen. Antoine Lahad, who is anathema to Lebanese Muslims because he heads the South Lebanon Army, a militia group that is equipped and financed by Israel to help police the security zone.

Vain Hopes?

The Christians are hoping--almost certainly in vain--that Lahad, with Israeli backing, will lead a Christian counteroffensive that might allow them to return them to their homes. They ignore Israel's insistence that Israel has had enough of Lebanese factionalism and will not intervene militarily except to defend Israel.

The Christians only rarely acknowledge that they are now receiving a taste of what they were giving the Muslims and Palestinians in Sidon just a couple of weeks ago and that all the fighting is part of a cycle of Lebanese violence, which by now goes back so far that it is almost impossible to fix blame.

Not far from the old man in pajamas, Rashid Simon, 57, described how Palestinian and Lebanese Muslims burned his village of Miye ou Miye on the outskirts of Sidon a few days ago.

Why did they do it? Because three years previously, the Christian villagers had put the torch to a neighboring Palestinian refugee camp. And why was that? Because about 10 years ago--Simon wasn't exactly sure of the dates--Palestinians murdered three of the Christian villagers. And so it goes.

What is clear is that the Christians have gotten much the worse of it in recent days as their former Israeli allies completed the second stage of their phased withdrawal from Lebanon. The Israelis evacuated the important Christian hill town of Jezzine last week, and, with his back thus exposed, Geagea quickly abandoned the Sidon area, saying that it would be a test of Muslim good will. The Muslims failed the test.

Muslim Drive Stalled

The big concern here is what will happen if the Muslim forces continue their offensive to Jezzine. So far, Lahad's South Lebanon Army appears to have stalled the Muslim advance at Kfar Falous, about 10 miles west of Jezzine on the road to Sidon.

However, Francis Rizik, a Qlaiaa school teacher and leader of the local Christian aid committee, said that "if (the Muslims) attack the Jezzine area, you will have here 100,000 people."

Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze chieftain, and Nabih Berri, head of Amal and a top secular leader of the Shia Muslims, have said they will spare Jezzine if Lahad's forces leave the town and return to their enclave in the south, around Marjayoun. But Lahad shows no signs of moving voluntarily, and even if he did so, few Christians would be likely to stay around to test the Muslims' promises.

"We trusted a lot of people we shouldn't have," said Elias Hourani, a shopkeeper among the refugees at Sacred Heart School in Marjayoun on Thursday. "We trusted the wrong people, the wrong words, the wrong promises. From now on we won't trust anyone unless we can go back to our homes."

Jumblatt Gave Guarantee

Lebanese and Israeli sources said Thursday that some Christians left Jezzine for Beirut under a safe-conduct guarantee from Jumblatt, whose Druze forces control the land north of the town. Meantime, the International Red Cross and the Israeli army are providing supplies for the refugees in the security zone. A group calling itself the South Lebanon Christian Aid Committee appealed Thursday for the world's Christians to lend their help.

Dusty and battered Lebanese cars clogged the street near an aid distribution center established at a Qlaiaa church hall as Lebanese boy scouts handed out Israeli army blankets and Red Cross food parcels.

The Israelis put up three small tent camps--two of them here--and other refugees found shelter in the homes of local residents. For Nayef Nasrallah and his wife and two children, home was a dark green Peugeot in which they have spent the last three nights. According to the Israeli army, about 60% of the 18,000 refugees in the security zone are children aged 15 or under. And that raises a particular problem, shopkeeper Hourani said.

"How can you explain to these children what their leaders have done?" he asked rhetorically. "The mistakes? Why they are here? It takes time to explain that they will not be going back home in the near future."

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