Lebanese Army Seeks to Extend Control Into Southern Lebanon, Replacing Militia and Israelis
THE freshly-painted sign on the wall of the Shalal Restaurant - in Hebrew - best symbolizes the fate of this town: Pointing to a strategic bridge, it makes clear that Israeli troops will be close by for some time to come.Hopes that American pressure on Israel to accept terms for peace talks might loosen the Jewish state's grip on southern Lebanon were dashed by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens's statement last week that Israeli troops would not withdraw, despite the Syrian-backed Lebanese Army's attempt to extend control over all Lebanon. Actions quickly followed Mr. Arens's words, as the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army (SLA) militia bombarded a Shiite Muslim village just north of Israel's self-declared security zone. Less than 24 hours later, Israeli jets rocketed the same village. Unless Syria removes its estimated 40,000 troops, which have been stationed in Lebanon since 1976, Israeli forces will remain in the security zone, regional observers say. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's acceptance of a United States plan for peace July 15 - which Israel had earlier rejected - came as the newly-confident Lebanese Army has been spreading its authority throughout the south. After disarming Palestinian guerrillas based in south Lebanon in the past month, the Army is now looking to Jezzine in the east. This pristine, mostly Christian town of 17,000 lies seven miles north of the Israeli buffer zone. Any withdrawal of Israel from southern Lebanon - and the further extension of Lebanese Army authority - is expected to begin here. "Ours is a security problem, not a political problem," says Edmund Rizk, a Christian lawyer who has represented Jezzine in the Lebanese national government since 1968. "Anyone who can guarantee the security of this area is welcome. We prefer to have the Lebanese Army here, but in the past they have been unable to protect us." Since 1985, when Israel withdrew the bulk of its forces from Lebanon, Jezzine has been under the control of the SLA, a militia of about 6,000 mainly Christian Lebanese gunmen trained, armed, and financed by Israel. Their mission is to secure Israel's northern border by preventing attacks on the Jewish state from Palestinian guerrillas, and leftist and Islamic fundamentalist militias. SLA chief Gen. Antoine Lahad has said repeatedly that his militia will not disband as the rest of Lebanon's militias have, and that it will not give up Jezzine. One-third of Lebanon's 42,000-strong Army is now deployed in the area - up to the northern fringes of the "security zone." But the Beirut government has been unable to stop 14 recent incursions by guerrillas belonging to the Shiite Muslim Hizbullah ("Party of God") and Damascus-based Palestinian organizations. "We want the Lebanese Army," says Mr. Rizk, mirroring a widespread feeling in Jezzine. "But we need proof that they can stop the guerrilla activity. That is our hope," he says, sitting in his large 200-year-old stone house. Speculation about when the Lebanese Army will arrive in Jezzine to replace the SLA and Israeli intelligence agents at the checkpoint outside town, runs from a few days to months. Transport Minister Shawki Fakhoury speaks of "weeks." By all predictions, not a shot will be fired because the Lebanese Army can prove no match for the military power that backs the SLA. Though an SLA withdrawal will have to be negotiated, pressure on Israel from the United States - because of the Syrian move toward talks - will be critical. Syrian forces in Lebanon police much of the north and rest of the country, including most of Muslim Beirut, with the Lebanese Army. "Jezzine has a unique status," says a Western diplomat in Beirut. "Syria could accept a deal with the SLA, but whenever the spotlight is on Israel in the south, it reflects upon the Syrian occupation everywhere else." For those in Jezzine and the SLA, the test of the Lebanese Army's ability to protect them will come only when the 5,000 refugees in the town can return to their destroyed villages between here and Sidon and be safe. And there is, according to Rizk, a need for "all those who collaborated with the SLA to defend their own lands, not to be discriminated against. The SLA are family, Lebanese, not strangers." On the street, however, there are some lingering doubts. "The Lebanese Army has moved too quickly into the south for us to be sure of them yet," says one resident. "There is so much more that could happen."