What is likely to be the last annual party thrown by Israel's army for the Lebanese militia that it runs in southern Lebanon was a strange affair. The festivities started Thursday night with Christmas music and ended, much later, with belly dancers and congratulations all around. But the important question--the one eating at the Lebanese fighters--was never raised, and never answered.
It is: What will happen to the Lebanese who fought for the Israeli army once Israel reaches a peace agreement with Syria and Lebanon and no longer has a need for them?
With Syrian-Israeli negotiations underway and Lebanon likely to join soon, the 2,000 members of the South Lebanon Army face the prospect of going from well-paid soldiers backed by the region's strongest military to being considered traitors and members of a former mercenary army. And a worse future than that if the Lebanese guerrillas they are fighting every day in southern Lebanon's Israeli-held zone hold a grudge.
So the soldiers were wondering how peace might change their lives as they were serenaded by Israeli schoolchildren dressed in white and singing of love. Then, with a band striking up zesty Arab music, Israel's deputy defense minister entered the large reception hall in this northern Israeli town along with the South Lebanon Army commander, Gen. Antoine Lahad.
Most Israelis and Lebanese, along with U.N. peacekeepers near the border, think of the South Lebanon Army as a tool of Israel, a force to keep Lebanese guerrillas away from the Israeli border. But its soldiers say they are patriots fighting the Lebanese government because it is a pawn of Syria and fighting the Islamic guerrillas who are their countrymen because they are controlled by Iran.
Israel, they say, is only helping them.
Israel's problem now is how to disband the army. Israel does not want the South Lebanon Army looking for refuge in Israel. The men at the party have been told they must reintegrate into Lebanese society. Most may accept that, although they see dangers to themselves and to peace in Lebanon.
Mohammed Khader has been an officer in the army for 11 years. Thinking about the Lebanese guerrillas who will still be around if Israel leaves, he said, "We have weapons. We will fight if attacked."
There has been a war in south Lebanon since the mid-1970s, and some of the people in the South Lebanon Army have been under arms since it started. First, they fought the Palestine Liberation Organization in cooperation with Christian militias in Beirut. Since the early 1980s they have been under Israeli command fighting other Lebanese, the Hezbollah guerrillas whose organization is supported by Iran and Syria.
This has helped Israel occupy a strip about nine miles wide along Lebanon's southern border, which Israel describes as a security zone designed to prevent attacks on its northernmost towns.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has promised to withdraw from Lebanon within about six months, either through a peace agreement with Syria or unilaterally. Essentially, he wants Syria and Lebanon to guarantee to prevent attacks on Israel from Lebanese soil. Syria controls the guerrillas in Lebanon, according to Barak.
But the peace talks are complicated and the deadline is short. The men at the party were listening for guarantees that they will not be left unprotected. They got promises they would be safe, but no details.
"In any agreement we will be sure to protect you," Israel's deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, told them.
"It is crystal clear," he said later in an interview. "We do not abandon our allies."
Still, Sneh said it is too early to reveal how the soldiers and their families will be protected if Israel pulls out and the soldiers must stay. Lahad said he also is unsure how that is going to work, but that he accepted Barak's promise that his people will be safe.
The South Lebanon Army withdrew from the district of Jazzin last summer, leaving behind some 200 fighters. The Lebanese government arrested the men, charging them with various offenses depending on their rank and length of service. But many of them are already out of prison, and there have been no reported revenge attacks by Hezbollah.
As belly dancers provided by the Israeli army shimmied through the hall and encouraged the soldiers to join them on the dance floor, Lahad said, "I am not party to the negotiations. I will be informed of the results of the discussions."