Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Lebanese Shiites torn between Israelis, Christians, PLO

Abu Ali Rumani, a short, stocky Lebanese carpenter, jabs a finger at a bullet hole in the mantle of the front door of his square concrete house.

''This hole was made by the Palestinians,'' he shouts angrily.

About these ads

''This one,'' he says, pointing to a twisted window grill, ''was made by Israelis.''

Abu Ali - a carpenter in the village of Habbouch, near Nabatiyeh - was caught in the middle of the conflict between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. But now that the Israelis have driven the PLO out of southern Lebanon, he is more in the middle than ever. A white flag flutters from his roof.

Abu Ali is a Shiite, the Islamic sect that makes up the bulk of the population of south Lebanon. Israel and its Lebanese Christian allies need Shiite cooperation to ensure tranquility in the south.

But many Shiites, while happy to see the Palestinians go, are worried that Israeli-backed Christian forces may seek to exert control over the region. And, local residents say, this could provoke renewed fighting once the Israelis withdraw.

The Shiite Muslims are the largest and poorest religious bloc in Lebanon. Most of them concentrated in the south. Shiites were largely ignored before Lebanon's mid-1970s civil war; their political leaders were unable to secure essential services for them.

Shiite visibility and activism soared after the rise to power of their co-religionist Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran and the disappearance of their spiritual leader Imam Musa Sadr while on a trip to Libya in 1978.

He founded Amal, or ''Hope,'' the Shiites' burgeoning political organization.

About these ads

Abu Ali is the head of Amal in Habbouch. The group is said to receive arms and funds from Iran. Amal sometimes fought with the PLO against the Israelis in the Beirut area last month. But in recent years Amal's relations with the PLO in south Lebanon disintegrated into enmity.

''They made problems for us,'' says Abu Ali, pulling from a cupboard two black bordered posters of Shiite youths killed by leftist allies of the PLO in 1980. ''We are glad they are gone.''

Israel hopes to capitalize on this gratitude. In order to withdraw from Lebanon, it must find a substitute force to police the 25-mile safe zone it wants to maintain above its border. One early hope, a multinational force with American troops, now seems unlikely. And Israel does not want an expansion of the United Nations force that failed to protect its border before the war.

So Israel is banking on expanding the power of its Christian ally in the south, Maj. Saad Haddad.

With Israeli funds and weapons, Major Haddad, who left the Lebanese Army, maintained a buffer enclave of Christian and Shiite villages along Israel's northern border called free Lebanon. His private militia battled Palestinian guerrillas.

Israeli sources say Prime Minister Begin has insisted to the United States that Major Haddad's ''region'' retain special status even if a central Lebanese government is reconstituted.

But Major Haddad, with an army of 2,000 to 3,000 men, cannot police a mountainous 400-square-mile area populated by 600,000. So he has turned to the Shiites, recruiting 10 to 100 men in ''several hundred villages,'' and arming them to form ''local village militias'' under his command. The arms, he says, are to hunt PLO guerrillas still hiding in the hills. He has raised the percentage of Shiites in his army from 60 percent to close to 70 percent.

At the same time Haddad has closed Amal offices, even as the Israelis have disarmed Amal members.

''There is no more need for a separate group,'' says Major Haddad. ''I can control this area.''

Many Shiites are nervous about Major Haddad's intentions. They fear being squeezed between two Christian-led forces attempting to secure new power bases.

Haddad is moving up from the south. His green cedar emblem is freshly stenciled on buildings and shops in the Shiite stronghold of Nabatiyeh and neighboring villages.

The militia of Maronite Christian leader Bashir Gemayel is also moving up from the south. Israel backs Gemayel to become the next president of Lebanon. Gemayel's forces have set up a roadblock just north of Sidon and have opened an office there. They have not previously had a presence in Sidon.

Abu Ali Rumani outlines the Shiite position:The Shiites' want the south to be reintegrated into one united Lebanon (in which Shiites might one day challenge Christian dominance by sheer force of numbers).

Sitting in a simply furnished room, the concrete floor bare, surrounded by neighbors under portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini and Imam Musa Sadr, he says:

''If Haddad will make a separate state in the south for himself alone we won't move with him. But if he makes one state for all Lebanon, if he rejoins the Lebanese Army, then we will be for him.'' Abu Ali's neighbors nodd in agreement.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.