Whither the SLA?

Israel's former allies waited in vain for the IDF to enlist their help one last time.

idf forces mass 88 (photo credit: )
idf forces mass 88
(photo credit: )
M can't understand it. How could Israel let Hizbullah grow so bold, encroaching on the northern border, after the IDF's withdrawal in May of 2000? And how could the IDF let a bunch of guerrillas draw them into a trap? "For six years, everyone fell asleep," he says. "But we knew what was coming." "We" are former soldiers of the South Lebanon Army, Israel's main ally for close to 20 years in the area now effectively ruled by Hizbullah. A few thousand of the crumbling army's remaining fighters and their relatives retreated with the IDF into Israel six years ago. Most live close to the Lebanese border and many - like M, a former demolitions officer who operated throughout the length and breadth of southern Lebanon and knows Hizbullah well - expected to be asked for help in preparing Israel's battle plans in the past month of fighting. None received so much as a phone call. "Throughout the fighting, it seemed as if there was a link missing in the chain of command, something missing that was needed in order to give the correct orders," says M. "It was as if the IDF was hesitating, hoping a foreign army would come along and fight for them." A foreign army... like the SLA, perhaps? "Sure, we could have gone into Lebanon," says S, who served in the infamous Al-Khiam prison and now lives in Nahariya. "Even today, I am prepared to join this battle." When elite infantry units suffered serious losses in raids on Maroun a-Ras and Bint Jbail, and the air force failed to locate and destroy Katyusha rockets that pounded the North day after day, some suggested that the IDF was woefully short on valuable intelligence regarding the area - an area, it should be noted, where the former SLA men grew up, and where they patrolled for years. "Absolutely, we could have helped," S insists. "We know where every stone is. We called to offer our help, but... nothing." THE EX-SLA men didn't expect to be asked to fight. They were never officially part of the IDF and have had no connection to the Defense Ministry. Their only government contact in the past six years has come from the Housing and Construction Ministry, to arrange their living conditions. But the men have an open account with Hizbullah that only Israel can settle. And at least some were eager to advise Israel's generals against the mistakes their own comrades made against the Shi'ite militia. "Had they called me in," says M, "I would have told them, don't send in soldiers right away, it's a trap." What would he have suggested, had he been able to help prepare a battle plan? "I would definitely not have entered villages straight away, like the IDF did. They should have encircled those villages where all the Hizbullah fighters were, to prevent them from escaping, and then bomb them from the air. "Also," M continues, "I would have told them not to bomb civilian centers like Beirut and Tyre, but to focus their bombing raids on Hizbullah hubs like Bint Jbail and Maroun a-Ras. "All Israel succeeded in doing," he says sadly, "was to turn the Lebanese people into Hizbullah supporters." "Watching the war from home on the television was a total disappointment," adds D, who served in the SLA's equivalent of the Shin Bet security service. "It hurt a lot to see all those Israeli soldiers getting killed... the IDF's plan was not so smart. It made me think that the IDF doesn't realize what Hizbullah is like." While S watched news of the fighting he, too, couldn't figure out why the IDF didn't carry out more air strikes on the southern villages where the Hizbullah fighters were entrenched, before sending in soldiers. "I know that Israeli soldiers are better than Hizbullah fighters," he says, "so when I saw what was happening in Bint Jbail [where Israel lost several soldiers during the month-long conflict] I said to myself, why are they suffering so many losses? Have they forgetten Hizbullah's style of fighting?" IT WOULD be fair to ask how much SLA fighters have forgotten, considering that they, too, have been absent from Hizbullah's stomping grounds as long as Israeli soldiers have. Likewise, the well-trained, well-equipped forces that Israel encountered in Kantara and Marjayoun last month were not the same guerrillas that, despite their shortcomings, still managed to chase the SLA from its outposts years ago. "It's true," says M, "that things have changed. When we were there, Hizbullah was not so well armed; mostly, they had older weapons. And, they used less efficient tactics. Now, I know, they're much better." But the real problem, he says, is that "it's hard for Israel to fight them effectively as a democratic state, with principles and a large army. You can't fight guerrillas unless you act like guerrillas, too." It's precisely that point, though, that makes the SLA's experience so salient. And, it isn't entirely true that the veterans now in Israel are removed from what's happening in Lebanon. M sees much of what happens in his homeland through the eyes of his family members, almost all of whom are still there. He can't speak directly to them over the phone, because it's too dangerous. "They listen to the conversations," he explains. "But I can speak with my mother in the United States. We speak in code about what's happening with our family in Lebanon." On both sides of the border, M says, there is a feeling that Hizbullah has been anything but crippled. "This is no victory for the IDF," he says. "And what's more, this is only the beginning. I'm telling you, one day Hizbullah will reach Kiryat Shmona." "This was only the first stage," agrees S, who can't understand why Israel accepted the cease-fire without inflicting greater damage on Hizbullah. "Israel needs to continue the fighting, because this is not the end. It must cut off the head of the snake, not merely its tail," says D. "You know," he continues with a sigh, "we really could have helped." For the IDF to ignore the possible advantages of consulting the ex-fighters, says Dr. Mordechai Kedar, "is pure arrogance." "Israelis tend to think that they can do everything through the strength of their weapons; they think they don't need anyone who speaks Arabic, or who undersands the Arab mentality, in order to fight Arabs," says Kedar, a member of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University who has 25 years of experience in the IDF's Military Intelligence. "They wouldn't even consider talking to former SLA men." Still, D concludes hopefully, perhaps the fighting will continue, and the former SLA men will soon get their chance to contribute. "If people are willing to help," asks S, "why not use them?" The Jerusalem Post asked the IDF Spokesman's Office the same question. There was no answer. Blackest marks * The failure of the gunship INS Hanit to operate its missile defense technology, causing it to suffer a direct hit off the coast of Beirut. * The protracted raids on Hizbullah-held villages Maroun a-Ras and Bint Jbail that led to the deaths of dozens of soldiers from the IDF's elite units. * The targeting of a residential building in Kfar Kana that caused more than two dozen civilian fatalities and seriously damaged the image of Israel's campaign as careful, selective and defensive in nature. * The failure of the IAF, despite massive bombing operations and thousands of sorties, to kill Hizbullah's senior officials or to knock out the group's thousands of short-range Katyusha rockets, which fell on northern Israel by the hundreds each day, killing 51 Israeli civilians. * An intolerable number of fatalities in "friendly fire" accidents, including a tank crushing some of its own crewmen. * The failure to properly supply some frontline fighting units with rations and protective gear. * The fact that the IDF's infantry units didn't really begin to establish their control over southern Lebanon until a month of hostilities had passed - and only a day and a half before the government accept a cease-fire, limiting any momentum the troops could have gained against Hizbullah.