Early welcome wearing thin for Israel in south Lebanon

As the Israeli Army lingers in south Lebanon with no early departure in view, the welcome originally extended by many residents is cooling down.

Most southern Lebanese are happy that Israel has rid them of the oppressive military presence of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Though mostly Muslim - Israel's Maronite Christian Lebanese allies are a small minority here - some local Lebanese contemplate lucrative future business deals with Israel, and personal contacts with Israelis are increasing.

But as they face massive problems of reconstruction from this war, local officials are anxious about Israeli interference in Lebanese political life. They worry that they may have swapped one kind of military presence for another.

''Sidon is a Lebanese city, for the Lebanese,'' said the mayor of south Lebanon's largest city, staring directly at an Israeli military officer accompanying two journalists.

Mayor Ahmed Kalash, a short, stocky, multilingual civil engineer, is a man besieged. Operating out of the local electric company - city hall was badly damaged during the Israeli invasion - he handled in quick succession: a father unwilling to believe that five sons died when an Israeli bomb hit their air raid shelter, and a nun concerned that her war-damaged elementary school may collapse.

Sidon is a wealthy merchant town. Few of the 180,000 residents, mostly Sunni Muslims (the predominant stream of Islam) left during the past seven years of Lebanese internal strife. But relief at Israel's ouster of the PLO has been tempered by the massive damage suffered during the Israeli invasion.

An official of an international organization with long experience in the area says, ''People here were fed up with PLO control of their lives, but many feel the level of Israeli destruction was not necessary.''

Mayor Kalash lists the damage to Sidon as ''40-50 percent of the buildings affected one way or another, 1,500 apartments completely destroyed, 660 civilian death certificates issued so far.'' Especially hard hit were the main commercial streets, the poor residential quarters near the harbor - a whole section has been bulldozed away - and low-income housing projects near the Ain Al Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, which was shattered in heavy fighting. Mayor Kalash estimates damage at ''easily $300 million.''

While the fighting continues in Beirut, little outside help has been forthcoming for reconstruction. Resilient locals are drawing on savings or money from relatives abroad. The main commercial street has sprung back to life with new plate glass windows (imported from Israel) and refurbished shops.

But the only outside financial help, Mayor Kalash says, has come from local resident Rasik Hariri. His name is on everyone's lips because he is donating millions made in Saudi Arabia to help rebuild the city.

Until the siege of Beirut is resolved, Sidon's economy stands in tatters. Agriculture, industry, and construction are halted in large part because Palestinian laborers are being held in Israeli detention camps, and fishing has stopped until Israel grants permission to use the coast.

The Israeli role in reconstruction appears limited to issuing permissions and facilitating repair of infrastructure. Israel has taken over half of the Lebanese regional government headquarters building now, labeled the Assistance Unit for Civilians. It is ringed with barbed wire since a recent rocket attack hit the building, apparently from PLO men still at large.

An Israeli military spokesman says, ''The main reason for this unit is to bring life back to normal.'' He says the unit helped in reestablishment of local law and order and in returning electricity and water services.

Mayor Kalash says, ''We do everything ourselves. We cooperate with the Israelis in order to make it easy to work.''

Conversations with local Lebanese officials indicate that resentments over war damage could be overcome. What they find more worrisome are growing signs - despite public Israeli statements to the contrary - that Israel intends to remain in Lebanon for some time or, at minimum, to manipulate Lebanese political reconstruction.

''I think they intend to stay forever,'' says Habib Khalifeh, mayor of Gaziyeh, a town just south of Sidon, and a member of the Shiite Muslim sect that predominates in southern Lebanon. ''I hated the PLO,'' he says. ''We kept them out of Gaziyeh by force.'' But now, he says, ''the Israelis start to act the same as the PLO.''

Mayor Khalifeh, a lawyer, is embroiled in a dispute with Israeli military officials over an iron factory on the edge of Sidon which he says belongs to a Lebanese client.

An Israeli military spokesman in Sidon says this and other factories were actually owned by the PLO. Mayor Khalifeh says the Israelis have been transporting the iron south to Israel although the legal issue has not yet been resolved. ''We have the papers,'' he insists, ''but they want to solve it by force.''

Mayor Khalifeh expressed distress - heard also from other Lebanese officials - at the style of operation of some Israeli military officials. ''In general the soldiers are OK, but when they want something, they get stern. They tell you, 'Do it in seven days or we'll put you in prison.' ''

In the predominately Muslim south of Lebanon, many residents fear Israel aims to expand the power of Lebanese Christians at their expense. Armed militiamen of Maronite Christian leader Bashir Gemayel from east Beirut now stand alongside Israeli soldiers at check points north and south of Sidon. Militiamen of Israeli-backed Christian Maj. Saad Haddad had moved up from their ''enclave'' along the Israeli border to exert their strength in villages across the south. On the other hand, the powerful Shiite militia in the south called Amal (Hope), which fought strongly against the PLO, has largely been disarmed by Israel.

Israel has also disarmed units of the Lebanese Army, whose resurgence is seen by many Lebanese, especially Shiites, as the key guarantee of a strong central Lebanese government. ''A united Lebanon can work only if the Lebanese Army is the sole armed authority,'' says Mayor Khalifeh, ''and so far Israel refuses this.''

To the rear of Sidon stands the headquarters of the Lebanese Army southern command barracks. Its garages and supply depots lie in twisted wreckage from an Israeli bombing raid on the second day of the invasion. Israeli forces subsequently seized the barracks' arms and vehicles. Its 500 men are still not permitted by Israeli forces to carry arms; they must obtain permission from an Israeli liaison officer to leave the barracks in their remaining vehicles. According to Maj. Elias Farhat, an intelligence officer trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, Lebanese Army troops have also been disarmed by Israel at camps at Beit et Din and Rashmayya.

The Lebanese Army disintegrated during Lebanon's civil war in large part because its predominantly Christian officer corps and Muslim links pulled apart. But Major Farhat, a Shiite Muslim, says the Army is busily recruiting Muslim officers and remains the only hope for a united Lebanon.

''Israel made a mistake about us,'' says Major Farhat. ''We fought many battles against the PLO from this barracks. Our men are from the villages of the south and they hate the PLO. We know the area better than the Christian militias who come here after seven years. People here hate the armed militias. They don't want new armed outsiders to replace the PLO.''

Asked about the disarming of the Lebanese Army, an Israeli military spokesman in Sidon said, ''We don't deal with them on a daily basis. They were asked by other Lebanese groups not to interfere. They have no orders.''

Another key source of tension among Lebanese in the south is the detention of hundreds of their men by Israel. Many have come to voice complaints at the office of Mohammed Ghaddar, a businessman who heads the Shiite militia Amal in the south.

One such visitor Abu Ali, an elderly man in a gray safari suit, spoke with passion about the problems in Tfa'tah village south of Sidon. ''Our town received the Israelis without one shot because we thought they were coming to save us from the (PLO) terrorists. We fought a battle with the PLO in Sarafand a few weeks ago. We were shocked when the Israelis took our arms and took 23 men from our village.''

Israeli sources say military awareness of Shiite unhappiness is increasing and they may soon release some Amal men.

One Israeli officer visited Tfa'tah and asked the mayor what he needed. According to Abu Ali, ''Don't take us back to the past. We don't want to be mistreated on the Israeli rifle as on the Palestinian rifle. We just want the legal government of Lebanon.''

''What else do you want?'' asked the Israeli officer.

''That you leave Lebanon.''

''What else?'' asked the officer.

''We don't want anything else,'' says the mayor.

Next: The role of the Shiites

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