Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 July 2019

Divided by history: Lebanese families struggle to keep contact with kin in Israel

Thousands of Lebanese who fought in Israeli-backed forced fled across the border at the end of occupation

Lebanese refugees, many of them relatives of fighters with the South Lebanese Army, wait to enter Israel after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon on May 23, 2000. Israeli Government Press Office via Getty Images
Lebanese refugees, many of them relatives of fighters with the South Lebanese Army, wait to enter Israel after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon on May 23, 2000. Israeli Government Press Office via Getty Images

Of the more than 100 people waiting to face charges in Beirut's military tribunal court one day in late June, only about 10 were women. They sat in a small group at the front of the court, one of them discreetly breast-feeding her baby.

The women were there because they had communicated with Lebanese relatives in Israel. Since the two countries are technically at war, they faced life in prison for “contact with the enemy”.

The head of the military court, Hussein Abdallah, questioned them one by one. Their stories were similar: they lived in south Lebanon, near the Israeli border; a few months ago, they spoke to a family member living in Israel via Whatsapp or Facebook; they had spoken briefly about simple things such as health and children, not more sensitive topics such as money or their jobs.

It is over in a few minutes. The head of the military court nodded. “Salam wa kalam,” he said in Arabic several times, which translates roughly as “you just said 'hello' and a few words”. Such cases are always dropped, unless the accused does not show up.

The women are among thousands of people in southern Lebanon who are caught between family bonds and obedience to the state. Their relatives in Israel were once members of the Israeli-funded South Lebanon Army who fled there when Israel withdrew from the area in 2000 after nearly two decades of occupation. They feared retribution from the groups that had fought the occupation, among them Hezbollah, now one of Lebanon’s most influential parties.

The issue remains so sensitive that most family members and officials who spoke to The National asked not to be identified.

Hezbollah fighters wave guns and flags towards Israel from the border town of Kfar Kila on May 24, 2000, a day after Israel withdrew from south Lebanon. AP Photo
Hezbollah fighters wave guns and flags towards Israel from the border town of Kfar Kila on May 24, 2000, a day after Israel withdrew from south Lebanon. AP Photo

A source at the military court said there had already been 67 similar cases this year before the women's hearings on June 24. Although prosecutors know full well that such cases present little or no threat to Lebanon's security, they still had to be investigated to ensure these people were not speaking to relatives working with Israeli military intelligence, the source said.

Out of more than 7,000 Lebanese who fled to Israel in 2000, a few thousand came back to Lebanon despite the automatic prison sentence awaiting them for collaboration with an enemy state. Others emigrated to Europe, but many stayed in Israel.

A Lebanese Maronite priest who returned home this year after serving for four years in the port city of Haifa in northern Israel told The National there were as many as 4,000 Lebanese in the region, living in towns such as Nahariyya, Acre, Ma’a lot, Shlomi, Karmiel and Tiberias. Lebanon grants special exception to representatives of the Maronite church to visit the Holy Land, where it has a branch.

Families say they have been in regular contact with relatives in Israel for the past two decades and routinely discuss the content of their communications with the local branch of the military intelligence. They also tell them in advance of trips to Cyprus, where families hold reunions because Lebanon forbids its citizens from travelling to Israel.

As long as the intelligence officers were kept informed the issue would go no further, the relatives said, but of late there had been an increase in the number of people being told to face charges in the military court.

Although the source at the military court denied this, a lawyer told The National he believed the court was increasing pressure on people who have ignored repeated warnings against communicating with their relatives.

But a younger generation of relatives of former SLA fighters are increasingly rejecting the status quo. They want to be allowed to speak to family in Israel and for them to be granted a general amnesty like the one issued in 1990 for all crimes committed by the country’s many militias in the previous 15 years of civil war. Several political parties say they have drafted amnesty laws, but the country's tangled politics and slow legislative procedure mean that they have very little chance of being passed by parliament.

Joseph Al Akh, 33, from the Lebanese border village of Ein Ebel, had not seen his parents since they fled to Israel in 2000. After his father's death in December, he spoke to his mother to co-ordinate the repatriation of his father’s body. Now he has been summoned to appear before the military court in September. “They can’t continue punishing all of us for what happened over 20 years ago,” Mr Al Akh said.

Human rights organisations have written extensively about abuses committed by the SLA, originally a breakaway faction of the Lebanese army, against the local population who refused to co-operate in fighting anti-Israeli groups such as Hezbollah and another Shiite militia, Amal. The SLA received orders and funding from Israel, Human Rights Watch reported in 1999, and ran the notorious Khiam prison where civilians were tortured.

While the SLA still bears the stigma of its brutal tactics, people make a distinction between its leaders and its fighters, said Zara Fournier, who has just completed a doctoral thesis on memories of the Israeli occupation at Tours University in France.

“SLA leaders are still considered to be traitors, but locals know that most of the SLA soldiers were not given a choice and were forcibly conscripted,” she said.

Two former high-ranking members in Lebanon told The National that they joined the SLA to defend themselves against fighters from the Palestine Liberation Organisation who they believed were trying to take their land. They rejected the term “collaborator”, saying the Lebanese state’s absence from the region gave them no choice but to ally with Israel.

The conflict with the Palestinians also had a confessional aspect to it: the SLA leaders were mostly Christian and the majority of its fighters Shiite Muslim – the biggest religious group in South Lebanon. The Palestinians were Sunni Muslim.

But fighting with the Palestinians was over by 1982, when the PLO withdrew from Lebanon. The SLA then helped Israel counter armed groups such as Hezbollah and Amal. Hezbollah declined to be interviewed for this article.

Today, the children and younger relatives of ex-SLA members are seeking to move on from the past. They believe their case for families to be reunited is humanitarian. They want relatives in Israel to be allowed to visit Lebanon without fearing prison, and for children born of Lebanese parents in Israel over the past two decades to be eligible for Lebanese citizenship and have their Israeli education certificates recognised in Lebanon.

The group Hakoun Yarjaou (“they have the right to return” in Arabic) was set up a few years ago to advocate the cause but gained attention only recently when it presented these requests at its first press conference on May 25, exactly 19 years after Israel left South Lebanon.

But with anti-Israel rhetoric still very present in Lebanese political discourse, the reaction was hostile. The group's spokeswoman Christelle Hana, 27, said she received death threats. A few hours after the press conference, a new hashtag was trending on social media in Lebanon: “Hakoun Rasasa” (“they have the right to be shot”).

Updated: July 7, 2019 10:16 PM

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