Milad Abu Samara walked down the steps of St. George's Maronite church in his best blue suit and pulled up with his white-gowned bride to pose for wedding pictures with the local leadership.
Maj. Saad Haddad, the military commander and undisputed boss of this bizarre Israeli protectorate in the southern Lebanese border hills, moved into the scene, resplendent in pressed khakis, automatic pistol and fatigue cap.
As the photos were snapped with Haddad smiling between the happy couple, it almost seemed like a normal ceremony for this Christian village celebrating the joy of two of its children. But the Israeli Army officer glancing nervously over his shoulder at Palestinian positions only a hillside away and worrying aloud about a possible mortar attack provided a reminder that normalcy here in "Free Lebanon" remains a strange state of affairs even for the unpredictable Middle East.
The existence of this secessionist Christian enclave running about five miles deep for 60 miles along the border from the Mediterranean to the foothills of Mount Hermon has given Israel a welcome buffer against guerrilla attacks for the last 16 months. But it also has added a new and dangerous factor to the already complicated formula regulating Israel's fight against the guerrillas and Lebanon's tragic struggle to regain control of its sovereign territory.
As time passes and the estimated 100,000 inhabitants of "Free Lebanon" get used to life in an Israeli dependency, the chances for a peaceful resolution of Haddad's little empire seem increasingly remote. Moreover, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, pleased with its surrogate warriors here, has made it clear its sponsorship of "Free Lebanon" will continue as long as Palestinian guerrillas have a free run on the other side of the Litani River frontier with the rest of Lebanon.
Any attempt to defuse the explosive standoff in southern Lebanon -- a tentative U.S. effort launched two weeks ago for this month's Arab summit conference scheduled in Tunis -- will have to deal with the growing consequences of Haddad's alliance with Israel and "Free Lebanon's" steady drift toward institutionalization.
The signs are everywhere. Israeli currency is exchanged almost as freely here as in Tel Aviv. A guest at Abu Samara's wedding wears a cap emblazoned "Welcome to Israel." One of Haddad's soldiers has forgotten to rip off the Hebrew insignia on his uniform and a teen-aged girl walking in front of him flashes a Hebrew brand name on her clogs.
The Israeli Army at border check-points issues what are in effect commuter cards for the estimated 1,500 "Free Lebanese" who cross into Israel daily, most of them to permanent jobs. About 40 students, most of the qualified college-age population of "Free Lebanon," are attending Israeli universities, and a Qalaiaa youth expresses disaproval of something a fellow townsman says with the Hebrew phrase, "lo besseder ," or "no good."
Haddad's soldiers, estimated at several hundrend regulars backed by another 500 local militiamen, draw their salaries from the Israeli Defense Ministry. 5They wear Israeli uniforms, pack Israeli rifles, drive Israeli jeeps and tanks and defend their friendship with the Jewish state with a passion.
"How can I forget Israel?," said Francis Rizq, a former French teacher who writes Arabic-language news broadcasts for Haddad's "Voice of Hope" radio station. "When I was hungry, they fed me. When I was thirsty, they gave me drink. When I was threatened, they gave me the means, all the arms I needed, to defend myself."
Rizq feels so strongly about the alliance that he attended an Israeli government ulpan (intensive Hebrew training course) and frequently travels around the country lecturing to kibbutz residents about Haddad and "Free Lebanon" -- in fluent Hebrew.
Although Israeli support remains the lifeline of "Free Lebanon," there are also signs that the rest of Lebanon is learning to accommodate the 400-square-mile anomaly. Electricity, albeit subject to cutoffs, streams into the enclave from a Lebanese power grid to the north. Gasoline -- on sale for one-third the Israeli price of about $3 a gallon -- is trucked in through military lines by drivers schooled in the art of bribery. A courier gets through once a month from the Beirut government with civil servants salaries that have continued uninterrupted.
Haddad said he negotiated last month with an envoy from the Lebanese Army commander, Victor Khouri, on Beirut's bid to station a contingent of regular Army troops in "Free Lebanon" as a symbol of sovereignty. The plan fell through, however, after Haddad revealed the secret talks and, he said, Syrian troops refused to allow the Lebanese to move through Syrian lines.
"When everything was ready, I had to tell the people," Haddad said in an interview at Mutalla in northern Israel. "You can't keep it a secret. Then when the terrorists and the Syrians heard about it, they went crazy. Now they have stopped everything."
Haddad, a 42-year-old career officer who trained for a year at Ft. Benning, Ga., complains vehemently about the lack of American support for his campaign against the Palestinians, and particularly about U.S. efforts to limit Israeli military support.
Since Washington pressed Israel this fall to halt its shelling of Southern Lebanon with U.S.-supplied weapons, he said, "we feel the American pressure."
"If is forbidden to give us any American-made shells or things," he added.
Haddad, a Christian, has a long history of fighting the Palestinians in Lebanon. He was wounded in the chest in 1963 during the first clash between Yasser Arafat's Fatah guerrilas and the Lebanese Army and was later cited for valor. Four years later, he was said to have refueled an Israeli armored squad that lost its way and ran out of gasoline on a guerrilla hunt inside Lebanese territory.
Haddad seemed at home as he spoke on the terrace of Metulla's Arazim hotel in soft autumn sunlight. Mutalla's confortable trappings -- chalet homes with trimmed lawns and children's swings, tennis courts and tidiness more akin to Europe than the Lebanese villages only a 10-minute drive away -- illustrate the lure Israel seems to hold for Haddad and his followers.
Lebanon's Christians often have emphasized in their struggle against the Palestinians the European character that their education and history had imposed on the country. The three-year civil war in Beirut was in part a conflict between those who wanted to make Lebanon more a part of the Arab world and those -- mostly Christians -- who wanted to preserve its European heritage.
About half of "Free Lebanon" residents, however, are Moslem. These are predominantly from the Shiite sect, traditionally strong-supporters of the Palestinians but increasingly resentful along with their Christian neighbors at the destruction guerrilla raids and Israeli reprisals have brought to their southern villages.