Life and Death of the South Lebanon Army (SLA)
Founded by Saad Haddad and dissidents from the Lebanese army, the pro-Israel militia was active until the Israeli army’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.
Created by dissidents from the Lebanese army, the armed force which numbered 5,000 men, fought both the Palestinian Fedayeen and Hezbollah with the military support of Israel, before disintegrating with the end of the Israeli occupation. Considered traitors, most of its members fled Lebanon and sought refuge in Israel.
The army breaks up
Upon the outbreak of the civil war in 1975 between the Christian Lebanese Front group and the Palestinian and Lebanese Progressive forces, the Lebanese army found itself caught in the crossfire, and ended up breaking apart.
Two months after the pro-Palestinian (Sunni) officer Ahmad el-Khateeb broke away from the Lebanese army and created the Arab Lebanese Army (ALA). 200 Christian officers gathered around Major Antoine Barakat and retaliated by setting up the Lebanese Liberation Army that March. The Greek-Catholic Major Saad Haddad who lead a battalion of 700 men stationed in the base of Marjayoun (South Lebanon), joined the Lebanese Liberation Army.
In October, the Christian militias and Haddad's men, who coordinated their actions with Israel, extended their control over the area around the border with Israel. It was at this point that the South Lebanon Defense Army was created under Israel’s supervision. The latter supported the group because it fought the Palestinian Fedayeen who were controlling South Lebanon, which was an immense threat to Israel. By then, Haddad's forces controlled two enclaves: the areas between Rmeish and the coast, and the area between Marjayoun and the foothills of Galilee. The Israeli authorities encouraged this collaboration by opening the border to residents of these areas.
Saad Haddad being interviewed by L’OLJ (photo published in L’OLJ October 13, 1983)
"State of Free Lebanon"
On the night of March 14-15, 1978, the Israeli army launched operation “Litani”. Its forces invaded Lebanon to a depth of about 40 km, up to the Litani River, an action which saw massacres of civilians take place in some areas. The objective was to repel the Palestinian fighters and establish a border "security belt" that linked the enclaves and was favorable to Israel.
With United Nations Security Council Resolution 425, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) took up positions in the border area, and the Israeli army started withdrawing –in several stages up until June– from the occupied areas, while yielding a portion of these territories to Saad Haddad's forces.
In April 1979, Haddad proclaimed the creation of the "State of Free Lebanon " in the areas he controlled. He made his announcement from Metulla in Israel, near the border with Lebanon.
The Israeli army then started providing support and logistics to Saad Haddad and his 2,000 militiamen. In May 1980, Haddad renamed his militia the "South Lebanon Army" (SLA). It was mainly composed of Christians, but also of Shiites and Druze from South Lebanon.
Saad Haddad (1st row, 3rd from the left) with UN soldiers at the Marjeyun army quarters (photo published in January 20, 1980)
Lahd follows in Haddad’s Footsteps
In June 1982, Israel launched operation “Peace in the Galilee”, and invaded Lebanon in order to destroy the PLO's infrastructure. The SLA militiamen escorted the Israeli army as it entered Beirut. In the following months, Saad Haddad's health deteriorated. He died of cancer on January 15, 1984 at the age of 47, in his native village of Marjayoun.
Back then, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir described him as "a great Lebanese and a true friend and ally of Israel".
Israeli minister Ariel Sharon (2nd from left) standing before Saad Haddad’s coffin, in January 16, 1984. (AP photo)
Antoine Lahd, a former general of the Lebanese army who also defected, took over from Saad Haddad.
General Antoine Lahd assuming office as head of the SLA in April 1984 (AP photo)
The withdrawal of 2000
The SLA, which dreamed of a Lebanese state allied to Israel, started to become disillusioned after the Israeli army’s first withdrawal, which had followed by the assassination on September 14, 1982, of the leader of the Lebanese Forces, Bashir Gemayel. Gemayel, who had been elected President three weeks earlier, at a time when the Israeli military was occupying parts of Lebanon, was in favor of a peace agreement with the Jewish state.
Antoine Lahd (2nd from left) talking to Israeli PM Yitzhak Shamir on July 19, 1985. (AFP archive photo)
After the withdrawal of 1985, the SLA come under scrutiny. Cases of torture were reported in the Khiam prison, which had opened that year. Israel denied all involvement, placing responsibility on its proxy militia. According to ex-detainees, the torture was orchestrated by Amer Fakhury, nicknamed the "butcher of Khiam". In the meantime, the SLA experienced a sectarian upheaval. Gradually, the Shiites, some of whom were enticed by the salaries offered by the militia in times of economic hardship, became the majority.
It was in this context that, in 1988, Antoine Lahd survived an attack perpetrated by a 21 year old militant from the Lebanese Communist Party, Suha Bechara.
In the 1990s, Hezbollah and the Lebanese intelligence services infiltrated and weakened the militia. Their numbers fell by half within 10 years, and morale deteriorated. When Ehud Barak took over the Israeli government in July 1999, he pledged to withdraw his troops from Lebanon.
As a result of Hezbollah's moves, the SLA gradually started withdrawing from the areas it had controlled for 20 years, and desertions were commonplace. With the Israeli withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in May 2000, the SLA finally collapsed.
Fearing retaliation by the Lebanese state and Hezbollah, the majority of SLA members fled to Israel with their families. Some surrendered to the Lebanese army and to Hezbollah which, on May 24, 2000, took down the statue of Saad Haddad that had previously been built in Marjayoun.
Antoine Lahd left Lebanon for France in 2000, before moving to Tel Aviv where he opened a restaurant. At the same time, efforts were being made to obtain an amnesty for Lahd’s men from the Lebanese government , and foreign countries that would grant political asylum to former members of the SLA were being sought out. Lahd died of a heart attack in Paris on September 10, 2015.
Israeli PM Shimon Peres talking to Antoine Lahd in Marjeyun on September 4, 1986. Archives L'Orient-Le Jour
The fate of the Lebanese who settled in Israel
About 7,500 Lebanese, some of whom are accused of collaborating with the Jewish state for having fought in the ranks of the SLA or for having worked on the other side of the border, now live in Israel.
In 2011, the Lebanese Parliament passed a law that was put forward by the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and supported by the Lebanese Forces (LF) and the Kataeb. This law aimed at regularizing the situation of those Lebanese. The law would ensure a safe return for all those who did not have an active role in the SLA, mainly women and children, as well as a fair trial for those who were considered to be collaborators. But the implementing decrees were never passed, mainly due to Hezbollah’s disapproval, despite its 2006 agreement with the FPM, which offered the possibility for both parties to agree on a solution regarding these outcasts.
The case of Amer Fakhury who, in 1996 was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison for collaborating with Israel, raises the question of the statute of limitation of the crimes committed by former members of the SLA. According to an expert interviewed by L'Orient-Le Jour, the Code of Criminal Procedure stipulates a limitation period equivalent to twice the number of years the guilty would serve upon conviction, starting from when the judgment was made, provided that this period does not exceed 20 years.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 18th of September)