Protests mar joy in south Lebanese city
Sidon, Lebanon — The contrast could not have been greater. Only minutes after the last Israeli tank had left the Sidon area Saturday, completing the first phase of Israel's three-stage pullout from south Lebanon, Lebanese Army units crossed the Awali River to take control of the area.
The Lebanese troops were accorded a tumultuous reception by crowds of jubilant residents who chanted slogans of welcome, pelted them with flowers and rice, and clambered aboard the advancing tanks and jeeps.
In the last Israeli pullout from Lebanese territory -- from the Shouf mountains outside Beirut in September 1983 -- violent battles erupted between Christian and Druze warriors the moment the Israelis began moving out.
The first setback to the prevailing euphoria came on Monday. Hundreds of supporters of the militant Shiite Muslim group Hizbullah (``Party of God'') flooded down to Sidon from Beirut and staged an angry protest. Lebanese Army units watched as they smashed liquor stores and chanted slogans against President Amin Gemayel.
But there was no mistaking the mood of relief that more than 21/2 years of Israeli occupation had ended.
``There was not a single person in the area who was not affected by the Israeli abuses,'' said Dr. Nazih Bizri, Sidon's member of parliament, who stayed in the city throughout the occupation.
``They kidnapped 75 people and killed them. They blew up 500 shops and about 400 houses. They kept 680 of our people in detention. They threatened at least 500 others into leaving the area, and we have had to look after their families.
``Not a ship docked in our port without being taxed, and money was extorted by blackmail. They blocked the roads to travelers and goods. Our agricultural income alone dropped to 40 percent of normal.''
The fact that Israel was obliged to withdraw without winning Lebanon's agreement to the security arrangements it had demanded has been widely viewed by Lebanese as proof that the balance of power has shifted.
Only 13 months ago President Gemayel was in Washington seeking an increased US commitment to his struggle against Syrian-backed Muslim and Druze opposition factions. This weekend he praised the mainly Muslim fighters of the Lebanese National Resistance and urged them to step up their attacks on Israeli forces until they finally leave Lebanon.
Since Saturday's pullout, at least six attacks have been recorded against the Israelis and their local militia auxiliary, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), behind the new, longer, and less-defensible front line.
The resistance fighters appear to need little urging from Gemayel. ``We will keep up our attacks until the last Israeli soldier has left Lebanese soil,'' said Daoud Daoud, leader in the Tyre region of the militant Shiite movement known as Amal.
With Israeli jets circling on reconnaissance missions overhead, Mr. Daoud was sitting last week among a group of bearded Shiite youths, some of them armed and carrying two-way radios, in a partly-demolished house in the village of Toura east of Tyre. One day earlier, the village had been raided by Israeli troops in search of arms and hostile elements. One villager was killed, three wounded, and a score detained.
``We are all wanted by the Israelis, and we all carry arms,'' Daoud said. ``They bulldozed this house yesterday to warn its owner not to let us meet here. And here we are. The Israelis just don't understand us. Our slogan is `victory or martyrdom,' and we mean it. The Israelis are already increasing their pressure on our villages, and we will redouble our attacks on them the more they press us.''
The Israelis plan to begin the second phase of the withdrawal, from the eastern sector of south Lebanon, in April. In the third phase of their withdrawal, which they hope to complete by this fall, Israel wants to leave the SLA in control of the whole area from the border up to the Litani River. But officials of UNIFIL, the United Nations peacekeeping force that patrols the northern half of that zone, say the SLA is disintegrating under pressure of local hostility. Israel is playing with fire in trying to impose its will on the Shiites who predominate in the area, the UNIFIL officials say.
``If they had 10 enemies in Toura before,'' said a longstanding UNIFIL observer, ``you can be sure they have a hundred now.''
One of the first civilians to cross the Awali bridge after the Israelis had gone on Saturday was a Maronite Christian priest, the Rev. Joseph Azzi, from the Christian Kharroub region just north of the river.
``I've come to express coexistence between the Lebanese communities,'' Fr. Azzi said, smiling as he watched Muslims chanting ``Allahu akbar'' (God is great) and swarming over the advancing Lebanese Army. ``Now that the occupation army is gone, we welcome the Lebanese state and its armed forces, since this is the way of bringing together the Lebanese of all sects.''
Sidon's real test had in fact come several days earlier. Israel had already abandoned its last positions in the city itself; the SLA had pulled out of its last strongholds in Sidon a week ago. If there was to be a massacre among the Lebanese, that was the most likely moment.
But nothing happened. Local police units took over the SLA positions and ran patrols through the streets, restoring an official presence until the Army units were able to gather on Saturday.
The preceding weeks had seen rising tension, with explosions and shooting in the streets. Local people and leaders across the religious spectrum accused the Israelis and their local ``collaborators'' of trying to spark sectarian violence.
``They were . . . stirring up trouble,'' said Mr. Bizri. ``But we were vigilant and alert. All the religious groups realized that Israel was plotting for a clash between the sects of the area, and we succeeded in uniting them, and not only preventing fighting, but creating friendships.''