FATIMA GATE, Israeli-Lebanese Border — As Israel intensifies preparations to end its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon, a nagging question looms: What will happen to the thousands of Lebanese soldiers who fought as Israel's proxies?
On Monday, the commander of the Israeli-allied South Lebanon Army, or SLA, proclaimed that his men will remain in southern Lebanon to "defend the land," preferring the risk of death over life as refugees.
Gen. Antoine Lahad also said his men--about 2,500 to 3,000 fighters--plus more than 70,000 family members and associates will be willing to accept Lebanese rule if and only if they are granted a blanket amnesty.
"Our men prefer to die and not become refugees," Lahad said. "They prefer to go the Masada way"--a reference to the legendary last stand of Jewish Zealots who, in AD 73, committed suicide rather than submit to the Romans, a seminal tale of Jewish heroism.
Lahad spoke at a chaotic news conference at an Israeli military post on the border with southern Lebanon. His presence seemed designed to address mounting speculation about the fate of the SLA militiamen, who have fought alongside Israeli troops for years and are branded traitors by Beirut. Many SLA commanders have been sentenced to death in absentia by Lebanese courts.
With peace talks with Syria, which controls Lebanon, at a seemingly insurmountable impasse, Israel has accelerated plans for a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon to end a long, deadly war of attrition between Israel and Syrian-backed Islamic Lebanese militants. The Israeli government says its troops will be out of the 9-mile-deep "security zone" in southern Lebanon by July 7 at the latest, and possibly weeks earlier.
Many of the Lebanese who fight with Israel fear that they will be slaughtered once Israel departs. The Israeli government has spoken repeatedly of its "moral obligation" to the Christian-led SLA and its members' families, and plans reportedly are under consideration to resettle some of these Lebanese in Israeli villages and kibbutzim.
Israeli Brig. Gen. Benny Gantz, who appeared with Lahad at the news conference, said the Israeli army is preparing to accommodate any SLA militiamen and families who wish to take refuge in Israel.
"We have an obligation to the SLA and the security zone population," Gantz said. "We will make all the arrangements to assure their safety, including acceptance in Israel. . . . We are ready. Whether they come or not is up to them."
But Lahad, to the evident surprise of Gantz and other Israeli officers, said his troops were choosing a different option: to defend their land to the death. Whether there is fighting in the future, Lahad said, depends on the response of Lebanese authorities and the Shiite Muslim guerrillas of Hezbollah.
Although Lahad's comments--coupled with renewed threats from Hezbollah on Monday--raised the specter of greater fighting, it remained unclear how the SLA can sustain its combat ability once its patron Israel is gone. Israeli military analysts said militia units are likely to be reduced to a more localized role, if they don't disintegrate altogether.
Lahad, who is 71 and looks as if he hasn't been on a battlefield in a while, is known to have a house in France where his family already has relocated. He previously has said he would go into exile if Israel withdrew from Lebanon, but that was when the pullback was to be accompanied by a peace deal with Syria.
With the lack of a peace agreement making withdrawal more dangerous and volatile, Lahad said he now plans to remain.
"I will be viewed as a traitor if I leave now," said Lahad, dressed in civilian clothes that included an oatmeal woven blazer, royal blue shirt and white leather loafers.
Gantz said he remained optimistic that a deal can be reached and that the withdrawal will go smoothly, largely because it is in Lebanon's own interest to rein in Hezbollah and similar organizations that operate in southern Lebanon.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak seemed to concur Monday. Speaking after a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Barak played down the threat of intensified cross-border attacks on Israel by Hezbollah.
Barak also reiterated that chances for resuming peace negotiations with Syria are "quite low," which makes the unilateral withdrawal--an operation dubbed Morning Twilight by the Israeli army--all the more likely. He said Israel will withdraw to the international border, a statement meant to dispel reports that the Jewish state might attempt to hold on to several outposts inside Lebanon to better defend its northern towns.
Once the pullout is underway, various plans for resettling SLA soldiers and their families could take effect, according to Israeli newspapers. One plan calls for construction of housing for 2,000 people in the northern coastal town of Nahariya, and another would place several hundred refugees in structures built for a Mass held by Pope John Paul II last month on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Ofer Kol, spokesman for one of Israel's main kibbutz movements, said Monday that three or four kibbutzim have offered to take in SLA families. "This is Israel, and we like soldiers, especially soldiers who defended Israel, so this is nothing strange for us," he said.
But a columnist in the Maariv daily warned the Lebanese not to come.
"The invitation extended to you expresses theoretical enlightenment toward strangers," Ariana Melamed wrote, "which is bound to be followed by people who will not let you swim in their pools, by headmasters who prefer you not study in their schools, by neighbors who will complain of drops in the value of their real estate."