Lebanese in Israel Find Beirut Evermore Distant : Civil war: Their loyalties are tested by turmoil in their own war-torn country and jobs and needed goods just across border.
Beneath painted Israeli and Lebanese flags and two hands grasped in unity, Abu Rashid sat on a bench staring at the border gate and fellow workers filing past.
“Of course, many people in south Lebanon look to Israel, not to Beirut,” he said, still sweating from his day’s toil in northern Israel, the bus trip back and tedious border searches.
“The money is in Israel. Our work is in Israel. There is only trouble in Beirut. Our feelings about being Lebanese and loyalties to Beirut have to change. It is inevitable and normal.
“That doesn’t mean we want it that way, but here it is a fact of life,” added the 40-year-old engineer.
As he left the border enclosure, he was watched by tourists peering through dark glasses. They were on the Israeli side of the barbed wire that Israel calls its “Good Fence,” which separates Israel from the people and land it invaded in 1982.
Lebanon remains the most troublesome Arab frontline against Israel with guerrilla attacks against Israeli troops and their allies on its soil and cross-border raids on Israel itself.
But for Abu Rashid and a steadily increasing number of Lebanese, Israel is an employer and a place to buy goods hard to find in their war-torn country. It also plays a more active role in their lives than their own paralyzed government in Beirut.
Israeli officers say between 2,300 and 2,500 Lebanese cross the border each day to work in Israel, where the basic wage is $350 a month, compared to about $100 in Lebanon. Two years ago only about 1,000 Lebanese made the trip.
Two categories of Lebanese are allowed to work in Israel.
The largest group are those with a family member in the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army militia.
The second are authorized to work in Israel for what Israeli officers say are humanitarian reasons. For instance, widows of SLA militiamen with little chance of a local job.
At a cost to Israel of about $3 million a month, the 3,000-member militia holds a “security zone” in southern Lebanon between 1 and 9 miles wide to protect Israel’s northern border from guerrilla attacks.
“The zone is highly dependent on Israel,” said an officer with the United Nations peacekeeping force in the south. “This is bound to increase as long as Beirut is out of the picture.”
The Beirut government holds little sway in the border strip, although it has long demanded that Israeli troops leave Lebanon and the SLA militia be disbanded.
“We are not a separate state here,” the SLA commander, Gen. Antoine Lahd, said. “We are still part of Lebanon. The role of the SLA is simply to protect the area and maintain security.”
Security sources said the added income available from work in Israel had been a major factor in easing recruiting problems for the SLA in the predominantly Shiite Muslim south.
The workers, among an estimated 150,000 residents of the security zone, can also buy goods in Israel and bring them home.
With Beirut’s port paralyzed by war since January and imports from the rest of Lebanon closely checked before entering the zone, Israeli products are often attractive to those who can obtain them.
The United Nations Interim Forces in South Lebanon used to be the largest employer in the south with 300 Lebanese workers and 2,000 contractors. Now it is second to Israel.
Even people who work inside the zone sometimes look to Israel for help rather than to their own government.
Hassan has a job with Israeli authorities in the southern town of Marjayoun, but said he wants Beirut to extend its authority to the south and the 16-year civil war to end.
His eyes have been hurting for weeks and he has difficulty seeing clearly.
“I am waiting until I have time off to go to Israel and buy spectacles,” said Hassan, a Shiite.
While Israeli goods are often imported into Lebanon, it is illegal for products to enter Israel from Lebanon.
“There are no legal procedures for goods to be taken the other way. We have no diplomatic relations,” said Col. Shloumo Hassoun, Israel’s civil administrator in southern Lebanon.
Asked whether it is unfair for trade to be only in Israel’s interest, Hassoun said that, on the contrary, it helps the security zone because other sources of supply are often unavailable.
An SLA officer proudly showed visitors photographs of a recent vacation he took in Taba, which Israel handed back to Egypt last year but is still a favorite with Israeli tourists.
He said by way of comparison that, if he ever went to Beirut for a vacation, he would probably be killed.
“There are a lot of guys in the SLA who can’t go back to being totally Lebanese,” an independent security source said. “Their names are too well known for them to travel north out of the zone.
“They are trapped between Lebanon and Israel for the rest of their lives. The zone is all they have.”