A still-stunned Sharbel Barakat, former deputy commander of the South Lebanon Army, admitted here last week that he felt “betrayed” by the sudden withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon a month ago.
“We’re confused [about the retreat],” he said softly. “For 23 years we had an alliance with Israel. We had more families in Israel than in Lebanon.”
Barakat said the SLA was founded by members of the Lebanese army who “refused to [allow Lebanon to] be occupied by Syria and the PLO. Our people decided to ask the help of Israel. It did not create us.
“The SLA are not mercenaries of Israel but allied with them. We are the natives of the land; the Syrian army is the foreign occupation. We are the freedom fighters; Hezbollah are the terrorists.”
Speaking at a meeting of the Middle East Forum in Midtown, Barakat charged that United Nations special Middle East envoy Terje Larsen has “pressured Israel into disbanding the SLA, and we were denied the right to exist. We were sacrificed to accommodate Hezbollah.”
Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, explained that Israel dismantled the SLA in compliance with UN Resolution 425 so that Hezbollah “would have no cause to go after Israel” after it completed its withdrawal.
“Israel was saying, ‘You have everything you ever wanted, now leave us alone,’” said Pipes.
Israel said it moved troops into southern Lebanon in the mid-1980s to establish a buffer zone to protect northern Israeli communities from Hezbollah rocket attacks.
In answer to a question, Barakat said Israeli military commanders “ordered” the SLA to leave their positions in southern Lebanon. Asked if that meant leaving their weapons behind, he replied: “At 10 o’clock at night on the 22nd [of May], there was an order to leave [from a southern Lebanese village]. They ordered the brigade to take everything and to go to the border [with Israel]. What they could take, they took, and what they couldn’t, they left.”
He said the same thing happened the next day at other SLA positions. The Israelis “were telling everybody, ‘What are you still doing there? Come on, bring your families and come to the border. We will then close the border [behind you].”
Asked why Israel withdrew in May, six weeks before its announced intention to leave Lebanon, Barakat said simply, “I don’t know. That is a question for the Israeli government.”
The SLA was trying to push the United Nations to take some measures to keep it in the area and keep the gates open to Israel, he said, but that solution would not have allowed Israel to say it was in full compliance of UN Resolution 425.
Israel, Barakat said, did not want to give Lebanon or Syria or Hezbollah a chance to say it did not fulfill all the conditions of the resolution. “And if we [the SLA] were still there, [Israel] couldn’t have closed the border. I think the decision was made for political reasons.”
Barakat did not foresee an attack by Hezbollah on northern Israel in the near future, but rather “some snipers who will sit near Metulla and shoot at [Israeli] tractors, not people. The [Israeli] people will then leave and go south,” he predicted. “Israel can’t retaliate because if it does, it would be very expensive because Israel has no friends in southern Lebanon and everybody would be against Israel.”
He said the SLA at one time had 100,000 members, including family. After the withdrawal, 8,000 SLA members and their families fled to Israel, where he said they are living in hotels and being treated well. In fact, he said, when an Israeli cab driver learned he was with the SLA, the cab driver refused to allow him to pay.
“It’s not bad [living in Israel],” he said. “The government is trying to help the maximum amount. They said they would give a house to every family that stays. More than 700 families will stay and another 1,000 will leave.
“Canada and France have refused [to admit any as refugees]. Germany and Chile said they would take some. The U.S. hasn’t said anything.”
Another 1,500 SLA members remained in Lebanon. Some have been tried for treason and sentenced to prison, with terms ranging from a few months to eight years. Barakat said one or two are expected to receive the death penalty.
On Monday, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations announced the first in a series of shipments called Bundles of Hope to the former SLA members and their families now living in Israel. Americans donated clothing, toiletries and toys — as well as cash — for these “longtime friends of Israel, many of whom fled with only the clothes they were wearing,” according to Malcolm Hoenlein, the group’s executive vice chairman.
The United Jewish Communities and its 189 Jewish federations in North America orchestrated the mobilization, which according to UJC president Stephen Solender collected “over 800 cartons of goods for these refugees. We are proud to partake in this important effort.”