South Lebanon braces for Israeli rule
Sidon, south Lebanon — The long line of Lebanese cars was waiting under the hot sun at an Israeli checkpoint on the Lebanese coast road north of Sidon. One car's engine died. The driver approached the Israeli soldiers to tell them he was leaving the car to look for a mechanic.
But the Israelis, suspicious of a possible car bomb, waved him and other cars away. Then they fired into the stricken auto's gas tank and blew up the car as its owner left in frustration.
Such incidents increase the uncertainty in south Lebanon about how Israel's military redeployment will affect the population's travel to and business with the rest of Lebanon.
Now that Israel has completed its long-awaited pullback of troops from Beirut and nearby mountains to new bases in south Lebanon, the 600,000 residents of the southern region, including about 200,000 in the regional capital of Sidon, are waiting nervously to learn the impact on their lives.
The Israelis insist they are not dividing Lebanon. They say their presence is not a military occupation but a temporary stay pending arrangements that will protect northern Israel's security.
The people of Sidon fear a long-term occupation that could split the south from the rest of the country and tie them economically to Israel. And, despite Israeli assurances to the contrary, some still fear an outbreak of sectarian violence spurred by Israel's sometime Christian Phalangist militia allies against local Muslims.
''Their 'security measures' affect our daily lives and work,'' says Sidon's Mayor Ahmed Kalash. Adds a Sidon merchant, waiting anxiously to see whether his shipment of auto parts has cleared Israeli checkpoints on the road from Beirut, ''A year ago they were welcome when they pushed out the (armed) Palestinians. But enough is enough. There's going to be trouble if they stay.''
In the daytime, the port city of Sidon, with its many tall apartment buildings and harborside Crusader castle, looks almost normal. Shops on its main street are filled with clothing and electronic goods, much of last year's war damage has been repaired, and the worst-hit central square has been remade into a greenspace.
But the grass and palm trees mask a martyr's cemetery for 80 unidentified bodies out of 600 Sidon civilians killed during the Israeli invasion. And the streets of Sidon, once filled with restaurant- and cinema-goers in the evening, are eerily silent after dark.
''No one wants to be caught next to an Israeli patrol at night in case someone throws a bomb,'' explains one Sidon resident, referring to the occasional deadly assaults by Lebanese or Palestinian assailants on Israeli troops. Even in daytime, the occasional Israeli patrol glances nervously from side to side while marching, machine guns at the ready, up Sidon streets. It is in stark contrast to the carefree abandon with which Israeli soldiers explored Lebanese shops a year ago.
Many of Sidon's fears stem from uncertainty as to who will rule them in the future and how.
Israeli military sources in Sidon insist their operation in south Lebanon is ''totally different'' from the 16-year-old Israeli occupation of the Palestinian-inhabited West Bank of Jordan. Some Lebanese now call south Lebanon ''the North Bank.'' But one Israeli military source insists ''this is not a military administration like the West Bank. We are in de facto charge of the south, but we don't control local administration of services.''
For local Lebanese officials, such distinctions are often blurred. Israeli military authorities occupy most of what was south Lebanon's regional administrative headquarters. Local Sidon officials have little control over their security or economy. ''Their military measures affect how we can work,'' says Mayor Kalash who still operates out of the local electric company after his office was destroyed during the Israeli invasion. ''We don't know their intentions,'' he says.
Sidon officials have minimal contact with and get little funds from their central government and none from Israel. Almost all of the budget for repairing city housing, sewage, electricity, and water mains has come from a Sidon Lebanese Muslim philanthropist Rafik Hariri, who made millions as a contractor for the Saudi royal family and is apparently being used by them as a conduit for Saudi redevelopment money.
Relations between Sidon officials and the Israeli military authorities are often confusing with clashes of style. ''They tell us to drop by for coffee like friends,'' reports one notable, ''but if you don't go, they'll order you by force.'' Sidon residents note with approval the correct behavior of Israeli soldiers toward local women, unlike the Syrians or Palestinian fighters, but several tell of expensive cars being commandeered by Israeli soldiers.
Sidon residents talk about the jumpiness of Israeli soldiers, which they say could preview future trouble. When Lebanese merchants struck on the anniversary of the Israeli invasion on June 4, Israeli soldiers opened shops by force. ''Most of the merchants were halfhearted about the strike,'' one businessman recalled, ''and if the Israelis had just ignored it, it would have fizzled.''
Many Sidonites, who are predominantly Sunni Muslims with a reputation as merchants, might grudgingly tolerate the Israeli presence were it not for fears about the economy. Sidon businessmen say Israeli security restrictions make importing from or traveling to Beirut extremely difficult. Some fear the south will become by fiat a captive market for Israeli goods, like the West Bank, which absorbed 25 percent of Israeli exports.
Traditionally Sidon has been the central marketing city for southern Lebanon through which the south's agricultural produce passed on its way to Beirut and the Arab world and to which imported industrial goods arrived from Beirut. Sidon has been badly hit by the current explosion of near civil war, which also limits exports to the Arab world via Syrian-controlled east Lebanon.
Locals worry that Israel may impose new travel restrictions on movement to or from the south in order to control potential anti-Israel infiltrators. Rumors are now flying about the possible issuance by Israel of special identity cards to residents of the south.
Mayor Kalash, who must cope with the complaints of irrate merchants, explains , ''to bring goods from Beirut you must get an Israeli permit. You can wait a week to 10 days for it, assuming it is not refused, and another three days for a permit for your driver.'' Trucks must be hired in Sidon and sent north to Beirut empty, doubling trucking costs. Until now goods have been inspected at Israeli checkpoints on the road to Sidon, with anything suspicious - for example, melons which could hide a bomb - dumped on the road or turned back to Beirut. Sidon merchants fear the situation will worsen as security tightens at the checkpoints at the three entry roads in south Lebanon.
''If people complain,'' says Dr. Nazih Bisri, Sidon's deputy to the Lebanese parliament, ''the Israeli officials tell them 'why buy things from Beirut which you can bring more easily from Haifa (an Israeli port)?' ''
''Maybe people wait three hours to reach Beirut,'' responds one Israeli military source to Lebanese criticism, ''but at least at Israeli checkpoints no one shoots their women like the Syrians and Palestinians used to do.''
Israeli exports to Lebanon, mainly to the south, have averaged $3 million to Industry, a drop from the boom time of summer 1982 when Israel hoped that Lebanon would be a commercial conduit to the Arab world.
This figure is not critical to Israel - it about equals trade with Greece - but Lebanese farmers in the south complain bitterly that Israeli fruits and vegetables have undercut their prices. Israeli trade officials say they have forbidden exports like oranges, apples, and olive oil which hurt the farmers, though south Lebanese say such produce still finds its way in.
Israeli fish are also exported to the fishing town of Sidon and the south. ''Israeli fish are cheaper because they have larger boats,'' explained one Sidon businessman, ''and Israel prevents Sidon fishermen from going out during the best night hours, for security reasons.''
But Lebanese merchants have not been shy to take advantage of the new trade. They can be seen offloading goods from Israeli trucks onto Lebanese trucks just inside the Lebanese border. The Israelis have helped by allowing Lebanese traders to use Haifa as a ''free port'' bringing sealed containers off ships in Haifa duty-free across the Israeli-controlled southern border of Lebanon. This undercuts the struggling central Lebanese government's efforts to raise funds by collecting customs duties at Beirut port.
As intercommunal fighting flares in the mountains around Beirut almost every Sidon resident one talks to worries out loud whether Israeli policy may foster similar violence in the south.
The Israeli coordinator of Israeli activities in Lebanon, Uri Lubrani, stated on Tuesday Israel, ''would not tolerate violent intercommunal clashes'' in south Lebanon.
The fears in the predominately Muslim south - only about 20 percent of the population is Christian, while outside Sidon about 70 percent is Shiite Muslim - centers on the Maronite Christian militiamen of the Lebanese Forces, popularly known as the Phalangists. A few hundred armed Phalangists - some local and some from other regions - moved into the string of Christian villages above Sidon in the wake of the Israeli arrival, at a time when Israel and the Phalangists were still close allies. ''The Israelis brought the Phalangists in, who then misbehaved brutally against Lebanese and Palestinians,'' charges Deputy Bisri.
Sidon residents say that until a couple of months ago Phalange militiamen would swagger through the Sidon market, take goods, and commandeer workers off the street for negligible pay. Phalangists were blamed by locals and Israeli authorities for a series of killings and evictions of Palestinians. They were also suspected of several shop bombings in downtown Sidon.
While many Sidon Lebanese dislike the Palestinians, these particular attacks were mostly against the Palestinians tied into the community by marriage or business, and they frightened Sidon businessmen. Sidon notables were also outraged when Phalangists based in Kafar Kalus above Sidon stole the construction equipment from a massive hospital-university project undertaken by Mr. Hariri, totally halting the work, and unrooted palm trees planted there, allegedly because they were ''Muslim symbols.''
Israeli authorities, who didn't disguise their anger at Phalange unruliness, apparently realized the potential danger of the situation and shut down the Phalange base at Kafar Kalus last month. The Phalangists no longer wander the streets of Sidon at night. A recent visit to Kafar Kalus revealed Phalangists were still present, along with Israeli soldiers, but were not allowed to wear their uniforms. However, local residents say Palestinians are still picked up and harassed occasionally and some Sidonites remain uneasy about the Israeli's commitment to control ethnic outbreaks.