'We Owe SLA Families Support'

We have a moral obligation to 600 families of South Lebanon Army veterans in Israel, according to Yossi Peled, now responsible for the refugees.

Nissan Ratzlav-Katz, | updated: 16:08

At a protest by SLA veterans in Israel, 2008
At a protest by SLA veterans in Israel, 2008
Israel news photo: (INN TV)

Israel has a moral obligation to continue extending assistance to the 600 families of former South Lebanon Army (SLA) soldiers currently living in Israel, accordng to Minister Yossi Peled. He was appointed this week to take responsibility for the remaining refugees who fled here in the wake of the unilateral IDF withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000.

The SLA was an anti-Islamist, anti-PLO army of Lebanese Arabs, primarily, though not exclusively Christians, heavily supported by Israel. The IDF and the SLA collaborated against the Iran-backed Hizbullah and PLO terrorist forces before and during the years that Israel operated a Security Zone in southern Lebanon, 1982-2000. When the IDF withdrew without prior warning, under then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the SLA collapsed and many of its fighters fled into Israel. The jihadist forces of Hizbullah then took over southern Lebanon.

Approximately 6,000 SLA refugees, including soldiers and their families, initially arrived in Israel. Of those, Minister Peled told Arutz Sheva Radio on Monday, about 1,500 subsequently dispersed to various countries around the world. However, he noted, most receiving states were only willing to accept SLA veterans who had first-degree relatives already living in those nations. There are currently about 2,400 expatriates from southern Lebanon remaining in Israel today, while the remaining 2,100-or-so SLA refugees voluntarily returned to Lebanon.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu assigned Peled, a former head of the IDF's Northern Command with decades of contact with the SLA, to settle outstanding issues regarding the Lebanese veterans and their families. Peled told Arutz Sheva that he sees the matter as a moral imperative of Israeli society - to provide all possible assistance to SLA veterans who served alongside the IDF in the battle against Hizbullah and PLO terrorists.

"The SLA men [in Israel] are divided into two groups," Peled explained. "One group of about 200 [families] is being well cared for by the Ministry of Defense. This group includes 64 disabled SLA veterans who are treated according the Disabled IDF Veterans Law."

Responsibility for the second group, as per a decision passed by the Sharon Administration more than five years ago, was passed to the Absorption Ministry and then to the Industry and Trade Ministry. The "strange" decision led to 400 families receiving far less assistance, with some possibly finding themselves in the streets if the situation is not rectified, Peled said.

Several dozen of the latter families and their supporters protested in Tiberias on Sunday against the discriminatory policies. They said the Defense Ministry was only caring for senior SLA veterans, with the rank-and-file former soldiers being shifted from ministry to ministry.
He sees the matter as a moral imperative of Israeli society.

"My goal now is to provide the same conditions for the second group as are enjoyed by the first group," the minister declared.

Despite some justifiable criticism of the treatment received by some SLA veterans in Israel, Peled pointed out that "we did a lot for them, but not enough. Several hundred of them a receiving rent subsidies from the state. We see to it that others of them can purchase homes." A Red Cross representative observing the early days of the SLA absorption in Israel expressed amazement at Israel's generosity. "He said he was unaware of any other country in the world that absorbs refugees in this way," Peled related.

SLA veterans who chose to return to Lebanon were given several hundred dollars by the IDF. Peled said he was genuinely surprised by the relatively moderate reception the former SLA men received. However, in part, he implied, it was a function of the low ranks of the returnees and their ability to bribe the right officials. Life is still not completely pleasant for them and they suffer some harassment, but the SLA veterans who returned to Lebanon from Israel have not faced death sentences.

About 50 to 70 of the SLA families still in Israel would like to return ro Lebanon if they could, but their fate in Lebanon would be far worse than those who already returned, Peled said, without explaining. "It would be, of course, preferable for everyone to return to his land, but we have no intention of forcing them to do so. The danger to their lives there is very great," Minister Peled said.