For nearly two decades, the South Lebanon Army fought as Israel's ally and then proxy against Islamic guerrillas in Lebanon. But Sunday, members of the militia petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court for asylum, saying their lives will be in danger if Israel withdraws from Lebanon as part of a peace treaty with Syria.
The prospect of an Israeli withdrawal took on new immediacy last week after Israel and Syria launched landmark peace talks in Washington. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has already promised to remove his army from a self-declared security zone in southern Lebanon by July, and any deal with Syria, the power broker in Lebanon, is almost certain to include a pullback.
"Every thinking person knows that the possibility of concluding the Lebanese tragedy is connected with the talks with Syria," Barak told television interviewers here upon his return from Washington.
But amid the high hopes of peace with Syria and Lebanon, the last of Israel's Arab neighbors formally at war with the Jewish state, one of the complicated unresolved issues is what to do about the South Lebanon Army, or SLA. Senior Israeli army commanders speak of their "moral obligation" to the 3,000-strong militia, which fought alongside the Israel Defense Forces, and have offered assurances that its members will not be abandoned. But the rank and file--seen in Lebanon as nothing more than mercenaries--are not convinced; SLA soldiers who remained in parts of Lebanon vacated by Israel earlier this year were put on trial for treason and given long prison sentences.
The petition to the Supreme Court, a class-action suit filed on behalf of SLA members, reflected the dilemma, along with the fear among SLA servicemen who argued Sunday that they will be left to the mercy of Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas. The latter have waged a deadly war of attrition against Israel for nearly two decades.
"Hezbollah has written the SLA's death sentences, and it's clear that when the [Israeli army] pulls out, Hezbollah will carry out the sentences," attorney Zvi Rish said in an interview.
Rish, who represents three members of the SLA, said the suit will benefit all members of the corps and their families, a group totaling 17,000 individuals.
While the top SLA commanders are known to keep apartments in Paris or enjoy similar lifestyles, ordinary militiamen and their families say they have received no concrete offers of refuge or security from the Israelis.
Israel first invaded Lebanon in 1978, then in 1982 stormed all the way to Beirut in what it said was a campaign to wipe out Palestinian guerrillas. Three years later, Israeli forces pulled back to a nine-mile-deep strip in the south established as a buffer zone to protect Israel's northern communities, and they propped up the Christian-dominated SLA as the main fighting unit. Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim "Party of God," has been waging a bombing and ambush campaign ever since to eject Israel and its proxy.
How Hezbollah will respond to an Israeli withdrawal remains a big question mark, with conflicting signals coming from guerrilla leaders as to whether they will suspend their activities or launch cross-border attacks. Israel, meanwhile, used the Washington talks to seek guarantees that Syria would rein in Hezbollah actions immediately.
The Syrian representative to those talks, Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh, made no promise, but Israeli military officials noted Sunday that Hezbollah has not retaliated for an SLA shelling that wounded at least 20 Lebanese schoolchildren Thursday.
Israel and Syria are set to resume "intensive" negotiations in Washington on Jan. 3, and Lebanese delegates may soon be included--in what would be Beirut's first talks with the Jewish state in five years.
There were other signs Sunday that an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon is taking shape. Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz has drafted a withdrawal plan, which the press here said is titled "New Horizon" and will be presented to Barak this week. The army also has begun to solicit bids for the construction of fences, military posts, paved roads and warning systems on the Israeli side of the border, one newspaper reported.
Barak's spokesman, Gadi Baltiansky, said Sunday that the SLA has had time to prepare for a withdrawal and to get used to the idea.
"This is no surprise," he said. "The government and the prime minister have said that we will make sure that their fate is dealt with in the framework of an agreement. We will not forget their help."
Barak went before his Cabinet on Sunday to brief members on the Washington talks. According to officials who were present, he said he will appoint "teams" to handle each of the key issues with Syria: the nature of diplomatic ties; security arrangements; water rights; and the extent of Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights, fertile farmland that the Jewish state seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. The goal, Barak told the Cabinet, is to reach a "core agreement" that addresses each of these areas while leaving details to a further negotiation.
"I understood from the prime minister that the intention is to conclude the negotiations within three to four months, one way or another," Housing Minister Yitzhak Levy said after the meeting.