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PULLOUT FROM LEBANON

Lebanese Militia Finds Sanctuary --but No Solace

May 24, 2000|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FATIMA GATE, Israeli-Lebanese Border — Bitter and humiliated, hundreds of Israel's allied militiamen and their families trudged into the Jewish state Tuesday, fleeing the loss of their homeland to Islamic guerrillas and accusing their patrons of cruel betrayal.

They waited long, hot hours in a line of cars three across that snaked more than a mile into Lebanon from this border crossing in Israel's extreme north.

With babies in tow and suitcases stuffed with hastily gathered belongings, about 5,000 Lebanese had been admitted by early today. They were shuttled off to a Sea of Galilee "holiday village" where they contemplated their uncertain futures.

"Why did we fight together, side by side, for 25 years?" cried one distraught man as he passed through the barbed-wire crossing gate. "We fought together, ate together, got killed together. If I were an Israeli citizen, I would be ashamed of my government today."

The rapid disintegration of the South Lebanon Army, which Tuesday essentially ceased to exist as a military force after more than two decades, touched off a searing debate in Israel about betrayal and humiliation. Israelis, who eagerly wanted to end their nation's messy involvement in Lebanon, were instead suddenly feeling humiliated by what was widely seen as a panicked retreat. And some were feeling guilty that their proxies might be left in the lurch.

"A Day of Humiliation" was the banner headline in Israel's top-selling newspaper, Yediot Aharonot. Callers to radio phone-in programs expressed dismay and outrage at having "abandoned" the SLA.

Viewed as nothing more than mercenaries or traitors by many other Lebanese, the officers of the SLA, especially, fear retribution.

Hafif, an officer who would not give his last name, waited more than seven hours Tuesday crushed against the fence at Fatima Gate before he, his sister and six small children could enter Israel.

"The army came and told us those that wanted to leave had to get here quickly," he said as he loaded the group's bags into a silver Volvo that awaited him on the Israeli side. "From here they told us we could go to Sweden, to Canada, to Australia. . . ."

Tensions ran high at the crossing. One man shouted angrily and threatened American reporters with a pistol when they tried to interview him. A gun battle between Israeli troops and suspected Lebanese snipers, apparently firing from an abandoned building nearby, broke out later over the heads of the queuing new refugees.

Ahmed, a worker in an Israeli textile factory, stood on the Israeli side of the fence and scanned the long line of desperate faces. He was hoping to see his wife and three children, whom he had left behind in their home village of Reihan two days before, not expecting that the occupation would collapse so quickly. Now he couldn't reach them, and phone lines were cut.

"Nobody can imagine what will happen," he said.

A few minutes later, a group of about 20 Druze, wearing white fezzes, began a journey in the opposite direction, making their way back to Lebanon to rejoin families. Several embraced and sobbed as they went.

These are the kinds of scenes that are distressing to Israelis who liken the collapse of the southern Lebanese occupation zone to the fall of Saigon.

"Just like that last helicopter on the embassy roof in Vietnam, we witnessed a set of difficult images last night that will be forever engraved in our collective consciousness," wrote commentator Hemi Shalev in Tuesday's Maariv newspaper. "We too learned that there are no happy withdrawals, no free withdrawals. The scent of humiliation permeates the air."

Shalev joined a chorus of critics who believe that the Islamic Hezbollah guerrillas now taking over southern Lebanon have pulled off a propaganda coup that shows them calling the shots while Israel reacts clumsily.

For their part, Israeli government officials defended their actions and said the unfolding scenario is one they anticipated. A senior military official said the SLA, which numbered about 2,500 to 3,000 fighters, was to be dismantled anyway under the United Nations resolutions governing the withdrawal, so its collapse has only made matters easier.

Government officials promised Tuesday that the fleeing SLA men and their families will be given "all the rights of immigrants," which include a yearlong tourist visa, health insurance and work permits.

The men and their families were bused, incongruously, to a small lakeside resort that advertises on its billboards "touring, relaxation, entertainment and camping."

Christian holy sites, including the one where Jesus is believed to have delivered his Sermon on the Mount, are a few hundred yards away.

Israeli officials took unusual precautions to keep the new refugees away from the press, closing off the premises as a military zone. Only government ministers, lawmakers and employees of a windsurfing company that services the resort were permitted entry.

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