Just about everything about last week’s Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon was surprising to most observers. When, in the early hours of May 24, the last Israeli soldier stepped off Lebanese soil and locked the border gate behind him, he ended a 22-year occupation several weeks ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s scheduled date of July 7. What was expected to be a gradual withdrawal supervised by the UN had instead been crammed into a chaotic 48 hours. As word of the first withdrawals spread on May 22, Lebanese civilians and resistance fighters began entering occupied villages faster than the Israelis and their proxy militia, the South Lebanese Army (SLA), could leave. The SLA literally collapsed, and the Israelis hastened their retreat. Dramatic images of the Israeli withdrawal have filled the Western and Middle Eastern press: SLA militiamen fleeing south into Israel, Lebanese villagers breaking down the doors of the notorious al-Khiam prison cells with their bare hands, joyous reunions of families separated by the occupation, celebrations across Lebanon.
Sectarian Rupture Did Not Materialize
Equally surprising, to some, is what has not happened in the wake of the withdrawal. Fears of sectarian tension between victorious Muslims and Christians sympathetic to Israel, echoed widely in the Western media, and most cloyingly by the teary-eyed former Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon on PBS’s Lehrer NewsHour, have so far proven groundless. To be sure, nationalism in Lebanon is tenuous at best. But media images of deserted streets in Christian villages and claims regarding the flight of entire Christian villages (Marjayoun, Ein Ibl, al-Qlaia, Jdeide) to Israel are misleading. Response to the withdrawal has simply not divided along sectarian lines. Hizbullah repeatedly asserted that any militia members who surrendered to the Islamic Resistance would be turned over to the Lebanese government to be officially tried and sentenced and thus far, this is exactly what has happened. Approximately 1500 SLA members turned themselves in to the Resistance, or to local Muslim and Christian religious leaders, and all have been handed over to the Lebanese government. 5000 to 8000 SLA militiamen, according to current reports, have indeed fled. But generally accepted estimates state that the SLA was approximately 70 percent Shi`a Muslim, with the remaining 30 percent being Christian and Druze. Militia leaders-who were disproportionately Christian and Druze-chose to leave Lebanon rather than surrender to the Lebanese army.
The SLA: Refugees in Israel
Muslim SLA members also left Lebanon, while hundreds of Christian militia members turned themselves in to the Lebanese authorities, including 250 from Marjayoun where the SLA was headquartered. Residents of Marjayoun, asked why their village seemed so quiet, responded that most villagers had already left during the occupation, and were replaced by SLA militia leaders, who then fled. Residents emphasized that they knew of no one who had left who was not affiliated with the SLA. Further, some of those who left Lebanon for a future in refugee camps in Israel were not in the SLA, but used to cross the border into Israel to work, and feared persecution and loss of income for that reason.
In Ein-Ibl, another Christian village reported “deserted,” a woman explained that although people were worried at first, they were very happy with the way the withdrawal had happened, and that “Hizbullah and Amal proved to be very good people.” She continued that Resistance fighters had waited outside the village, not entering until villagers invited them in, offering them tea and breakfast. Afterwards, members of Hizbullah met with the village priest and assured him that “we are all from one country.” A priest from al-Qlaia stated on a major Lebanese TV network that those who left the village had been in the SLA or had otherwise collaborated with Israel. He hoped that they would not live as refugees in Israel, but instead return to Lebanon and turn themselves in to the authorities, taking responsibility for what they had done. The atmosphere in other Christian villages reflects these sentiments.
Meanwhile, in the past two days, Lebanese who fled in the immediate aftermath of the withdrawal have begun returning to Lebanon to turn themselves in. The returnees note that their fears of Hizbullah reprisals were unfounded, and complain of miserable conditions in the refugee camps hastily constructed by Israel to accommodate them.
Villagers in the south remain concerned with the general state of disorder. There have been some reports of looting though in recent days these seem to have diminished. A resident of Marjayoun emphasized the need for vigilance lest “any small thing that happens here be taken to be Christian-Muslim tension even though it is just the general chaos of the moment.” He continued, “Hizbullah has been very good about this. They are forbidding some of their people who they think may want revenge on people here from entering. This is proof that Hasan Nasrallah is wise.” The Lebanese army has still not entered all of the villages in the south, and as of May 24, security seemed to be provided mostly by Hizbullah, though Amal, Progressive Socialist Party (in Hasbeyya) and Syrian Socialist Party (in Jdeide) militia were also in evidence.
Still some Lebanese media, especially the LBC TV network, voice worries about sectarian strife. A newspaper printed an excerpt from a letter from the Pope stating, “I ask all Christians to feel solidarity with the population of south Lebanon, who fear their future as a result of the situation which has emerged in the last couple of days” (quoted in the Daily Star, May 25). Some Christians outside the south echo these concerns, demonstrating the ease with which sectarian rifts can emerge. Yet response among Christian villagers remaining in southern Lebanon (as reported in papers and on television, and observed firsthand) has been more concerned with what one resident of Marjayoun called “the stirring up of sectarian conflict by outsiders.”
Uncertainty in the South
Naturally, the uncertainty about what will happen in the coming days and weeks is unsettling to southern villagers. Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, leader of Hizbullah, has stated on several occasions that Hizbullah will not consider the withdrawal complete until the Shibaa Farms-a water-rich area on the Lebanese-Syrian border that Lebanon and Syria both assert falls within the Lebanese borders-has been liberated and Lebanese detainees inside Israel, including resistance leaders Hajj Abu-Ali Dirani of Amal, Shaykh Abdel-Karim Obeid of Hizbullah and Samir Qintari of the Communist party, have been released. It is impossible to neglect mention of the few hundred thousand Palestinian refugees still stuck living in miserable conditions in Lebanon. Thus far, their likely fate after the withdrawal has met with media silence.
Celebrating the Day of Resistance
For now, though, uncertainties cannot quash the general mood of celebration in the south, particularly among supporters of the Resistance and among those who have been reunited with family from Beirut. May 25 was officially declared the Day of Resistance and Liberation and Beirut is unusually quiet, as Lebanese go south, to visit family, to view former Israeli or SLA sites like the al-Khiam detention center, or just to share in the jubilant atmosphere. The southern suburbs of the capital, where much of the original population of the once-occupied south now resides, have been empty for days as people reunite with family. Parents and children tearfully embrace for the first time in 22 years.
Along with the banners of various political parties, especially Hizbullah, many southerners are waving Lebanese flags these days. Real repatriation of the south and long-term prevention of sectarian rifts will require the whole country to embrace the south economically. Residents are already calling upon the Lebanese government to support them as they begin to build the infrastructure and economy of the area. The south has always suffered from neglect, a situation only exacerbated by the stagnation caused by the prolonged Israeli occupation. As much as 40 percent of the income in the south during the past 20 years may have been related to the occupation, though many of those employed by the Israelis have likely left for the refugee camps. The Lebanese government has pledged its support and security to the south. No doubt their adherence to this pledge will play a prominent role in the upcoming parliamentary and municipal elections.
What’s Next for Hizbullah?
Lately, media attention has shifted to speculate about what’s next for Hizbullah after the withdrawal. In addition to the respect for its military operations, Hizbullah holds six of 32 Shiite seats in the 128 seat Lebanese Parliament. Many observers consider Hizbullah the party most representative of its constituency. Nasrallah’s “victory speech” in Bint Jbeil on May 26 adamantly emphasized the importance of nationalism and the coexistence of all Lebanon’s religious groups. The party also administers a wide range of social service organizations that emerged to fill a void in government services-schools, clinics, hospitals, services for the poor. Hizbullah’s Jihad al-Binaa specializes in construction and agricultural development, and helps supply drinking water in the southern suburbs of Beirut. The likely expansion of these services to the south, with Hizbullah’s move into the former occupied zone, will only enhance the party’s popularity.