Five-star refugees

Ex-SLA veterans and their families have mixed emotions regarding their place in Israeli society.

By DIANA BLETTER
October 22, 2008 14:47
Five-star refugees

SLA tank 88 224. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

On May 23, 2000, a South Lebanese Army colonel and his wife made a decision that would change their lives forever. After they were evacuated from southern Lebanon in conjunction with the Israel Defense Forces' withdrawal from the security zone the day before, Boutros and his wife Maggie (they don't want to give their last name because of fear of reprisals against family members still in Lebanon) were asked by Israeli government officials what country they'd want to resettle in. But they said they didn't want to move to any other country. They wanted to move to Nahariya, in northern Israel. "They asked me to name at least one other country," recalled Boutros, a muscular man with an easy smile, "and I said, 'Okay, we'd like to live closer to the sea - but within Nahariya.'" Then the 51-year-old security guard and former South Lebanese Army officer sitting in his apartment - in Nahariya - grew serious. "After so many years of war in Lebanon, we had suffered enough," Boutros said. "We wanted to put Lebanon behind us. We wanted to open a new page." "From that moment on," his wife Maggie, a cheerful, youthful mother of five, added pointedly, "we told our children that Israel was our new homeland." When the IDF withdrew from the security zone on May 22, 2000, approximately 6,000 members of the South Lebanese Army and their families were also brought to Israel. Boutros is one of the 2,600 members of that community who still reside in Israel - scattered in northern Israeli communities such as Carmiel, Hadera, Kiryat Shmona and other towns - with the majority, approximately 1,000 people, living in Nahariya. But eight years after they fled their country, many in this Lebanese community - unlike Boutros and Maggie - have yet to put down roots. Their children and siblings and parents are scattered around the globe like push pins in a world atlas, in far-flung places like Sweden and Canada as well as Lebanon, and they meet every few years for emotional reunions in Cyprus. Yolla Rezk of Nahariya said there's not a day that goes by that she doesn't think of her father, who was shot before her eyes during the Lebanese civil war, more than three decades ago. She was 11 years old. The sadness in her eyes is reflected in many of the refugees' faces. They carry tragic stories of homes and villages destroyed, of a whole way of life lost. Despite their Israeli identity cards - issued in the past two years - they still bear the restlessness of refugees who have yet to call any place home. Their children, growing up in Israel, might speak and write Hebrew but they - the SLA soldiers and their wives - have yet to integrate into the country. Many cherish Lebanon and keep a Lebanese flag on display in their living room, saying that if they could they'd return there tomorrow, if not sooner. Most feel like they will always remain a distinct minority, set apart both from Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. They are full of pride for the way they fought in Lebanon from the early 1970s until 2000, yet they feel under-appreciated - and often unknown - by the Israeli public. More critically, they feel neglected by the Israeli government. As George Rezk, a former SLA colonel who now works in the Nahariya City Hall in charge of Lebanese affairs said bluntly, "It's a big mistake how the government has treated us." Rezk said the Lebanese community in Israel is now at a crucial juncture because government financial subsidies to have been tapering off and are expected to stop completely by November 2009. A spokesperson for the Prime Minister's Office said that the gradual decrease in financial aid is meant to help the Lebanese "enjoy financial independence and integration into Israeli society." But most of the Lebanese [still] feel abandoned by the very country they helped fight for. "I lost my parents, my way of life, my house, to fight with Israel's interest at heart," said Pierre Diab, an 18-year SLA captain who lives in Nahariya. "We all fought shoulder to shoulder with the IDF and the Israeli government has forgotten what we did." The SLA was founded in 1976 by Lebanese Army Major Saad Haddad, who broke away from the Lebanese Army to form the Free Lebanon Army (which eventually became the SLA). The militia fought various groups, including the Palestine Liberation Organization and, after the 1982 Lebanese War, the newly emerging Hizbullah. "The government has always felt an obligation to take responsibility for the safety and welfare of South Lebanese Army soldiers and their families from the moment they arrived in Israel," stated the Prime Minister's Office spokesperson. Until 2001, the Lebanese were under the jurisdiction of the Defense Ministry. Then it was decided that the ministry could not handle such a large population. Only officers with a rank of platoon commander and higher and those connected with the intelligence community remained under the auspices of the Defense Ministry. The responsibility for the rest of the community was transferred to the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, which handled all their financial aid. In May 2008, their file was shifted to the Industry, Trade, and Labor Ministry. According to the Absorption Ministry, this was because government officials believed that the Lebanese needed more help finding employment. "The Lebanese were given the exact same rights as other immigrants to Israel, including rent subsidies and employment incentives," an Absorption Ministry spokesperson told Metro. "[But] we didn't come as new immigrants and should not be treated that way," said Diab. He and others feel that since they served alongside the IDF, they should receive the same benefits that career IDF soldiers do. "Everyone, and not just high-ranking SLA officers, should be connected with the Defense Ministry," Diab said. "It's a matter of our honor and an acknowledgment of what we've done." That the government divided the Lebanese community into three categories, with higher-ranking SLA officials receiving more government benefits than lower-ranking soldiers, also rankles the Lebanese. "We all belonged to one army and we should all be treated as one," Rezk said. "A body without a head cannot function and a head without a body cannot function." As an example, Rezk cited a man he referred to as Abu Ali who did not have a high rank in the SLA but served for 25 years detecting and dismantling roadside bombs (and in the process, Rezk added, saving many Israeli soldiers' lives). Abu Ali arrived in Israel with no employment skills and now, at age 60, has no employment prospects. He receives approximately NIS 3,000 each month and spends NIS 1,400 to rent an apartment in Nahariya. When the financial aid runs out, Rezk warns, he and others like him will face serious hardships. "There should be financial compensation, not only commensurate to someone's rank but also for the number of years that someone served in the army," Rezk said. The Immigrant Absorption Ministry spokesperson said it was appropriate that the financial help the Lebanese received be determined according to their rank and years of service. Diab echoed Rezk's view, saying emphatically that the Israeli government should offer former SLA soldiers a pension like IDF career soldiers but that it should be commensurate with the number of years served in the army, giving everyone equal treatment. He feels those steps "would go a long way to make us all feel welcome in Israel." Reached by telephone, MK Yisrael Hasson (Israel Beiteinu), chairman of the Knesset Economics Committee, said he has had direct talks with Rezk as well as other members of the Lebanese community in Israel. Hasson said he is "aware of the difficulties facing the Lebanese" and is now working to make sure that their financial benefits will be extended beyond the 2009 deadline. "I expect to have a positive response for them," Hasson said. "It's a small amount that we're asking from the government, but a huge amount for them." In an interview in his simple apartment, with a prominent drawing of Jesus's mother Mary on display in the living room, Diab recounts the story of the night of the IDF withdrawal from the security zone, when an IDF officer told him that they were destroying the SLA position and he had to report to the Israeli border. "I was given a command to come here," Diab said. "I arrived in my tank and abandoned it there." Then his voice turned to cynicism and sadness adding, "We left all the ammunition and equipment as a gift for Hizbullah." At the same time, in a southern Lebanese village some miles away, Diab's wife and daughters were also being evacuated. But Diab did not know it. He did not know where his family was and his family did not know where he was. "I was nine years old at the time," said Diab's 18-year-old daughter, Maria, a recent high school graduate. "My mother told me that in five days we'd return home." She said that she and her mother and sisters had no idea if her father was in Israel or left behind in Lebanon, if he was dead or alive. Her family was reunited, Maria said with a deep sigh, but "the five days my mother promised me have turned into many years." Maria said that she has spent half her life in Israel, yet her identity - and her future - are still in limbo. She said she keeps in touch with friends and family from her southern Lebanese village via the Internet, using English letters to sound out the words in Arabic. She has positive experiences in her high school, Manor-Cabri, situated in Kibbutz Cabri about five miles from Nahariya. "The school treated us very nicely," she said. "I went to Poland on the class trip to visit the concentration camps and felt like a part of everything." She said, however, that many of her fellow students had no idea of the role the SLA played during Israel's occupation of the security zone in southern Lebanon. Hearing his daughter's words, Diab excused himself from the room and returned with a book commemorating Israel's 60th anniversary. He opened to the bookmarked page describing Israel's withdrawal and pointed out how the SLA was not even mentioned. "We've been written out of Israel's history," he said. Diab said that although he has found work at the Zoglobek meat-processing factory in the nearby town of Shlomi, he doesn't feel a part of society yet and has learned more Russian (from his fellow workers) than Hebrew. He would like to go back to Lebanon but he is a realist and knows what would await him. Stories circulate among the community: people who returned to Lebanon were put in jail; some paid enormous fines to Hizbullah, ending up without work and feeling shunned as an enemy of Lebanon. "Since I was 17, I've fought against all foreigners - Syrians, Palestinians, Iranians, Somalis and French nationals - who've tried to take over Lebanon during the constant fighting," said Boutros. "I am not an enemy of Lebanon. I tried to protect it." Maggie said that as a teenager she was forced to run away from her hometown of Sidon because of attacks by Druse and Muslims. It was there that she first heard of the word "refugee." "My fellow Lebanese called us 'refugees' there and threw garbage at us," Maggie said. "I know what the meaning of 'refugee' is. Here in Israel I feel like I'm a five-star refugee. The government gave us rent, a monthly salary, money for school - even book bags for my children and private lessons." Her gratitude for her newly-adopted country has rubbed off on her 18-year-old daughter, nicknamed 'Jimmy,' who will soon enlist in the IDF. "Some of my Lebanese friends have done a year of national service and others aren't interested," Jimmy said. "But Lebanon is behind me and I look forward to new things. I've spent half my life here and I call myself an Israeli more than anything else."


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