Kefer Kila, Southern Lebanon
The final confrontation between Hezbollah and Israeli troops will stand alongside Anwar Sadat’s 1977 arrival in Jerusalem and the extraordinary handshake (fatal for Yitzhak Rabin and perhaps for Yasir Arafat too) on the White House lawn in 1993. In southern Lebanon in May, after all the years of bestializing every Islamic enemy as a “mindless terrorist,” Israelis found the bearded, armed members of the Party of God on their frontier. Right up against the border fence. Standing next to the gunmen, I was amazed to see how awed they were by their own victory. One of the world’s smallest guerrilla forces had driven one of the world’s most powerful armies out of an entire country. The Hezbollah, it seemed to me, were as amazed at history’s power as the Israelis. I asked one of them–a red-faced, bearded man with an M-16–what he was thinking as he looked over at the Jewish settlement of Mishgav Am. “Incredible,” he said.
And he was right. Inevitably, US and Israeli journalists recalled the fall of Saigon and the collapse of the South Vietnamese Army. In just two days, Israel’s Lebanese surrogates, the ragtag South Lebanon Army, had fallen to pieces. But the parallel was preposterous. In South Vietnam the national army fought on alone for years with, in its initial stages, high morale. But Israel’s SLA militia fought for money–$400 a month, often paid in fake $100 bills. And they fought because they were blackmailed into service–brothers and sisters would be jailed in the notorious Israeli torture prison at Khiam if their siblings did not enlist. And they fought because they had collaborated with Israel in the past and had no other future in Lebanon.
Once the Israelis decided to leave, the SLA’s disintegration was inevitable. It never had a cause to fight for. The SLA was not, as a general once boasted, the “shield of Galilee.” Nor was Israel’s so-called security zone secure. It was a myth. The SLA fell apart like a gang of mercenaries in central Africa. Comparisons with Vietnam are as dangerous as they are childish. The bearded images staring through the frontier wire were, alas for the Israelis, the authentic face of southern Lebanon. Many belonged to young Hezbollah men displaced from their homes in the south during Israel’s military adventures in Lebanon in 1978 and 1982. Hundreds of them were embracing family members for the first time in more than a decade.