AT the core of the latest flare-up of violence in southern Lebanon is this hilly strip of border territory that the Israelis call their "security zone."
Its 850 square miles and 270,000 or so people are kept under firm control despite the fact that only about 500 Israeli troops are stationed here, and have minimal direct contact with the local population.
It was their presence and control that attracted the recent escalation of attacks on the zone by the Iranian-backed radical Shiite Hizbullah. Israel's assassination of the Hizbullah leader, Sheikh Abbas Musawi, Feb. 16 has dramatically raised the stakes and produced a potentially explosive situation out of a conflict that had apparently been simmering.
Israel's control here is very different from the manner in which it maintains its occupation of the other Arab territories - the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan Heights. The most obvious instrument of that control is the local militia, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), headed by
a former Lebanese Army general, Antoine Lahd. Its 3,000 men are armed, trained, paid, and directed by the Israelis.
The SLA does the bulk of routine military chores - patrolling, manning checkpoints, checking the roads for mines and bombs - and takes the bulk of the casualties, since the Israelis keep their own exposure to the minimum.
With their Israeli-supplied khaki uniforms, the militia is virtually indistinguishable from the Israeli military, even to local eyes.
"One of the few ways to tell them apart is on the road," a resident said. "If you see a lone jeep, you can be sure it's SLA. The Israelis travel only in well-guarded convoys."
Not knowing the rules of survival can be fatal. Anyone encountering an Israeli convoy must immediately pull over until it has passed. Lone drivers are banned and liable to be shot on sight as potential suicide bombers. All vehicles in the zone must have special license plates.
No civilian traffic can move on the roads until the SLA has run early-morning patrols to check for roadside bombs - the most common form of Hizbullah attack.
General Lahd does not regard the SLA as a proxy, puppet, or sandbag for the Israelis. "The Israelis have an interest in the existence and operation of the SLA, and they are pursuing that interest, which is normal," Lahd says in an interview at his Marjayoun headquarters. "But we have an equal interest in maintaining security in this area, and we believe it is our duty to do so, since the Lebanese government has never been able."
"In fact, people in the Lebanese government and Army, with whom I have regular contacts under the table, know very well that our position is much more Lebanese than theirs, but they cannot say it, because of Syrian pressure," he adds. "When I demand the withdrawal of both Syria and Israel from Lebanon, I believe I am acting as a Lebanese, not as an Israeli puppet. Also, I have never tried to build a mini-state here."
The SLA helps Israel control the area also by providing one of the few sources of employment in an economically-depressed area. Recruits are paid only $260 per month, while a Lebanese Army private earns $480. But having a close relative in the SLA qualifies other families to cross the border to work in Israel. "Very few members of the SLA are there out of conviction," says a well-placed resident.
Around 2,500 people go to work in Israel daily, using four strictly-controlled civilian gates in the "good fence" along the border. Most do it without enthusiasm.
"I would prefer to find work in Lebanon, but there is none," says a Christian mechanic from Marjayoun.
Withholding or granting permits to cross into Israel for work or travel abroad, and to cross into the rest of Lebanon, are another effective method of control. "This is one way of pressuring people to join the SLA, or the village committees set up to liaise with the Israelis," a resident says.
The SLA is supplemented by a local intelligence network, the General Security Service (GSS), linked to Israeli intelligence.
The SLA is often described as a Christian militia. But although many of its officers are Christians, about 60 percent of its men are Shiite Muslims, 15 percent Druze, and 5 percent Sunni Muslims.
The same goes for the GSS. A key figure in it is Riyadh al-Abdullah, son of a leading Shiite clan in al-Khiam. "We don't collaborate with the Israelis, we share a joint objective with them," he says. "I don't care who else benefits from that, as long as I personally, my Shiite people, and the people of the south can enjoy that security."
Government officials in Beirut accuse Israel of harboring designs on Lebanese territory and, above all, the Litani River. But, so far, no land has been annexed.
Lahd's political adviser, Cezar Saqr, is convinced the Israelis have no long-term ambitions. "The way they deal with us and with the people is definite proof that they know they are here for a while, which may be shorter or longer, but that they have no intention to remain forever," he says.