Good Neighbors: When Israeli and Lebanese Communities Helped Each Other

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Lebanon, as seen from the northern Israeli town of Metula.
Lebanon, as seen from the northern Israeli town of Metula.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

To many Israelis, Lebanon is a gaping wound. Years of rocket attacks, incursions and more than 1,000 Israeli soldiers and civilians killed have left their mark. Yet it wasn’t always like this, and some academics and residents of Israeli border towns remember more cordial times.

During the 1920 battle of Tel Hai, in which Israeli commander Joseph Trumpeldor was killed, 10 Arabs were also killed. According to Prof. Mustafa Abbasi of Tel-Hai Academic College, the Jews feared revenge. But the leader of the Lebanese Shi’ites, Kamal Asaad, sent his men to gather the Jewish residents of the “Galilee Panhandle” into his village of Taiba to protect them.

“They entered the Asaad palace compound and other homes in Taiba and some went to Sidon,” said Abbasi, who has studied the ties between the residents of Metula and their Arab neighbors from 1896 until the War of Independence in 1948. “Even at that difficult stage, when one Arab party was attacking Tel Hai, we see that a different Arab party provided assistance, took the evacuees into his village’s homes and gave them all the help they needed to return them safely to the Land of Israel.”

The battle of Tel Hai was on March 1. By March 4, 65 Jewish men had returned to the northern kibbutz of Ayelet Hashahar. According to the late researcher Nakdimon Rogel, they returned on mules lent to them by Kamal Asaad.

Asaad, who died in 1924, had no sons and the leadership passed to his nephew, Ahmad Bey Asaad, who maintained the tradition of good relations with the Jews. Documents in Kfar Giladi’s archives quote Tova Portugali – a member of Hashomer who visited the Asaad family during the Arab revolts of the 1930s. “He told us that when the mufti arrived in Beirut, he invited him and demanded that his men join the gangs. Asaad refused,” she wrote.

But in May 1948, Palmach fighters (the elite strike force of the Haganah, the underground Jewish militia) invaded Taiba and torched the Asaad family palace, along with seven other homes in the village. Residents of Kfar Giladi and Metula had opposed the Palmach operation.

“There were a lot of arguments about who would prevail – the central force or the locals,” says Guy Maayan, a doctoral student in Middle Eastern Studies at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan. “Yigal Allon decided that the Palmach had to determine policy.”

The attack on Taiba on May 23 led many Lebanese village residents to flee deeper into Lebanon, and they only returned months later.

Yet despite the attack on Taiba, relations remained good, Maayan said. “In November 1948, Ahmad Bey Asaad even ordered cooperation with the Israeli army after it took control of 15 Shi’ite villages in south Lebanon, including Taiba. He sent his brother-in-law, Sabri Hamada – the speaker of the Lebanese parliament who in the 1930s sent Lebanese laborers to work for [Jewish construction firm] Solel Boneh – to meet with the Israeli representatives.” Maayan says the area’s elders claim that Asaad made sure Lebanese forces didn’t attack Kfar Giladi because of the alliance between them.

Ehud Neistein, a farmer and fourth-generation resident of Metula, built vacation cottages in the village 20 years ago and says visitors started “asking for stories.” He purchased a video camera and starting filming testimonies from Metula residents. Since the town doesn’t have an archive, these historic testimonies about the warm relations between residents on either side of the border are stuffed into drawers in his home.

“There were instances where Jewish women didn’t have milk to give and Lebanese women would nurse the children,” he recounts. Neistein and his six sisters had Lebanese caregivers, and before Metula had a doctor, residents were treated by Dr. Majle, a Lebanese physician from Marjayoun “who arrived on a donkey.”

But all these ties were severed by the War of Independence. “We had relations with [the Lebanese], the War of Independence was imposed on us,” says Neistein. “Suddenly they closed the border and there was no help.”

According to Abbasi, the subsequent rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1970 led to a weakening of the Asaad family’s position, and this signaled the end of good neighborly relations. But Neistein says that when Israel operated the so-called “Good Fence” along the border during the Lebanese civil war in the late 1970s, some ties were restored. He clearly recalls “there were some Lebanese who spoke Yiddish.”

Neistein also, after 30 years, met one of his old babysitters, Lila, when she came to his house crying one day. “She told us about her two children being held in Al-Khiam Prison [controlled by the South Lebanon Army] and asked us to help free them.”

During the 1980s, Neistein had Lebanese laborers working in his orchards. “We would eat our morning snack under a tree,” he recalls. “I would say to them, ‘See how we get along – Jews, Druze, Arabs.’”

But in 2000, after Israel withdrew from Lebanon, the era of neighborly relations ended for good. “The descendents of the Shi’ites who helped us then are our enemies today,” says Neistein. “Both sides made mistakes, but I think we want peace more.”

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