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S. Lebanon: answer near?

The mayor of Sidon, the largest city in south Lebanon, takes in his office with a sweep of his arm and smiles wryly. ''We are refugees here as everybody in Lebanon is,'' Ahmed Kalash explains. ''Our municipal building was destroyed during the 1982 (Israeli) invasion. So we moved here, to the electric company's offices.''

Since the invasion, Sidon has made great strides in its rebuilding effort. But the city still suffers, as does the rest of south Lebanon, from the Israeli occupation. Thousands of refugees squat in abandoned buildings. Tightly restricted movement between north and south Lebanon has hurt the economy. Tensions continue to rise between the native Shiite Muslims and Israeli occupation soldiers.

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Despite the problems, Kalash says, he fears what might happen should the Israelis suddenly pull out their troops.

''You can't leave people without police or security,'' he says. ''When you create a vacuum for any society there are problems. The pullout must be planned.''

Barring any last-minute snags, Israeli and Lebanese Army officers will sit down together tomorrow morning in Naqurah at the headquarters of the United Nations' south Lebanon force to negotiate just that.

The Israelis have said they will pull out of Lebanon within six months to a year of reaching an agreement with the Lebanese and tacit understanding with the Syrians on security arrangements that will protect Israel's northern border from guerrilla attacks.

Israel and Lebanon reportedly agree in principle that security in the south should be handled by a combination of a vastly expanded UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which has remained virtually impotent during its six years in south Lebanon, and the deployment of the Lebanese Army there. Under the Israeli proposal, the UN patrol area would practically quadruple.

The two sides are still far apart, however, on the future of the Israeli-funded South Lebanon Army led by Gen. Antoine Lahad. Israel wants the SLA to patrol a strip of land immediately north of Israel's border. Lebanon and Syria have insisted the SLA be disbanded.

The pullout talks were scheduled to begin Monday, but were postponed when Lebanese Cabinet ministers Walid Jumblatt and Nabih Berri failed to return to Lebanon in time for a Cabinet meeting to approve the delegation to the talks. Reportedly under pressure from Syria, Mr. Berri, head of the Amal organization that represents Lebanon's Shiite population, and Mr. Jumblatt, leader of the Druzes, have said they will participate in a Cabinet meeting scheduled for today.

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Many of the south Lebanese interviewed a few days before the talks were announced said they were skeptical that the Israelis would withdraw. Those who said they believed the Israelis would leave were convinced their departure would be guaranteed only if guerrilla attacks on Israeli troops by the southern Lebanese, which have occurred at a rate of about 60 a month, continue.

Nazri Bizri, a member of the Lebanese parliament from south Lebanon and a former Lebanese Cabinet minister, speaks with some pride of Sidon's role in what he called the ''resistance'' to the Israeli occupation.

''The highest percentage of the arrested people held in Ansar (the Israeli-run prison camp in south Lebanon) are from Sidon,'' Dr. Bizri said during an interview.

Bizri says he favors an immediate Israeli pullout, and scoffs at the idea that fighting would break out between south Lebanese factions should the Israelis leave before a credible Lebanese Army force or an expanded UNIFIL could take over their positions.

''Even if the Israelis went tonight, (Lebanon's) Army would come tomorrow,'' Bizri says. ''And we would help the Army because we asked this Army to come. We will accept UNIFIL also because we know they are not occupiers. They have been very good in south Lebanon.''

''The Israelis are still foolish,'' Bizri says. ''They think that Lahad can defend their boundary. That is not true - Lahad cannot defend himself.''

Daoud Daoud, an Amal political representative in a village outside of Tyre, agrees with that assessment.

''Every soldier must have a goal of holy aim to fight for someone,'' Mr. Daoud says. ''The SLA has none. Against whom is this Army? Why aren't they with the Lebanese Army? If the Israelis are sincere about security being their concern, this can be achieved easily. Two years ago, we said that 1,000 soldiers supported by the people can keep the security better than 50,000 who are isolated from the people.''

Daoud says Amal supports the idea of an expanded UNIFIL force. According to UNIFIL spokesman Timor Goksal, the nine-nation force now has 5,100 UNIFIL soldiers in south Lebanon.

In Sidon, Mayor Kalash is optimistic about the city's future. He gives a breakdown of the millions of dollars in damages suffered during Israel's invasion, but he comes alive when he talks about the rebuilding effort.

''We had no means, and we had to appeal for voluntary help from many people and organizations,'' he says proudly. ''Our first job was to clear the rubble and restore the infrastructure. We had the electricity on again in 15 days.''

Today the rebuilding effort is evident. Driving north to Sidon from Tyre, travelers who have had to contend with enormous potholes and army checkpoints suddenly hit a broad, newly-paved road leading into the city. Construction crews with heavy equipment are working on an extension of the road, and apartment buildings are under construction in several places.

Kalash says the city has financed repairs of 1,800 apartments and rebuilt 3, 050 that were destroyed. Lebanese businessman Rafik Hariri is a major source of funding. But the city is far from restored. From offices next to Sidon's port, one sees the eerie sight of the metal mast of a sunken ship rising from the waters. Further out in the port, the prow of another ship juts out.

Business in Sidon and the rest of the south is also suffering. Israel's controls on movement between south and north Lebanon make it costly and difficult for southern farmers to get their products to the north and for southern businessmen to receive products from the north.

''It is as if you are cutting the head off the body,'' Kalash says. ''All business is centered in Beirut. We have 15,000 persons in this city who worked in Beirut and lived in Sidon. Fishermen can't go fishing, because of the Israeli gunboats. What used to cost 1,000 Lebanese pounds ($125) to truck to Beirut now costs 10,000 Lebanese pounds.''

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