These Young Israelis Were Born in Lebanon – but Don't Call Them Arabs

After Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, many members of the South Lebanon Army and their families fled south for fear of reprisal. Their children, who have grown up in Israel and consider themselves Israeli, explain why the won't forgive the left

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A youngster giving a thumbs-up sign as members of the South Lebanon Army and their families seek to gain entry into Israel, May 23, 2000.
A youngster giving a thumbs-up sign as members of the South Lebanon Army and their families seek to gain entry into Israel, May 23, 2000. Credit: Yaron Kaminsky
Davide Lerner.
Davide Lerner
Davide Lerner.
Davide Lerner

Myriam Younnes was only 5 when she fled to Israel in May 2000, but says the “shock and anxiety” of her sudden flight from Lebanon still haunt her.

Her father was a member of the South Lebanon Army – an ethnically mixed, Christian-dominated militia that worked alongside the Israel Defense Forces for almost 25 years, initially clandestinely and then openly after the start of the first Lebanon war in 1982. It aided the IDF after the latter established what it called its security zone in southern Lebanon in 1985, right up until Israel’s withdrawal from the country on May 22-24, 2000.

The news that then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak was pulling Israel’s troops out may have surprised the world, but it was an even bigger shock to the Lebanese militiamen who had fought alongside Israel against Hezbollah and other Palestinian guerrilla groups.

“My father learned of the news when it was already happening and was terrified of retribution by Hezbollah,” Younnes tells Haaretz from her home in Ma’alot, northern Israel. “We packed everything and rushed to the border, begging Israel to let us in.

“Since then,” she adds, “people in Lebanon see us as traitors.”

A youngster saluting from a bus as member of the South Lebanon Army and their families head for Israel, May 23. 2000.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

Younnes’ memories are similar to those of hundreds of other young Lebanese Israelis who remember little of their homeland. Many grew up in Israel and are integrated into Israeli society, even conversing with each other in Hebrew – although they still speak Arabic to their parents.

According to Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel in his book about the 2006 Second Lebanon War (“34 Days”), Israel expected some 2,000 SLA members and their families to gather at the Fatma Gate crossing near Metula during the withdrawal. In reality, more than 6,000 arrived.

After initial confusion, SLA fighters and their families were allowed to cross into Israel, but their unique situation created a unique problem.

Most Arab Israelis saw the SLA veterans as traitors, too, and gave them a cold welcome – to the extent that, with few exceptions, most settled in Jewish communities. By 2003, Haaretz reported at the time, it was estimated that only 2,500 of the veterans and their families remained in Israel. An estimated 3,500 SLA veterans and their families live in Israel today.

It is easy to see why tensions have run high between Lebanese Israelis and Arab Israelis over the years. Most Arab Israelis regard the SLA veterans as war criminals who perpetrated unspeakable –and well documented – acts of torture on Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners. SLA veterans, meanwhile, reject the suggestion that they are “Arab,” claiming instead to be “Phoenicians” from Lebanon. Indeed, they fought hard with Israel’s Interior Ministry to be registered as “Lebanese,” not “Arab.”

Soldiers from the South Lebanon Army and their families trying to gain entry to Israel, May 23, 2000.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

“This is partly because ‘Arab’ was the word used to refer to the enemy during the Lebanese civil war,” Younnes explains. Although the SLA was initially an ethnically mixed militia, its generally low-ranking Shi’ite members were progressively outnumbered by Christians over the years.

Among Israelis, the group is known as “zadalnikim” – literally “Those from the South Lebanon Army.” After abandoning their lives in Lebanon, many families found themselves in vastly inferior living conditions in Israel. Many former government officials who dealt with SLA veterans believe Israel should have done more for its former allies.

“The SLA veterans received a lot from Israel, but not enough. One big mistake was committed in the early 2000s, when they were divided in two groups based on their importance inside the militia,” says Yossi Peled, 79, a former government minister who was responsible for SLA affairs from 2009-2013. “The main difference was that under this law, those in the elite group received funding to buy themselves a house, which created resentment from the others,” he explains.

Young Lebanese Israelis are fully aware which group their families belonged to, but say they tend to leave disputes over who got what, when and how to their parents. Indeed, they admit that this is a classic topic of debate over dinner tables for their parents’ generation – far more common, the youngsters say, than sharing memories of the war.

Generally speaking, the young Lebanese Israelis are projected to surpass their parents’ socioeconomic positions. Most have university degrees, unlike their parents who were farmers and soldiers in Lebanon, and do not face the linguistic barriers or cultural alienation their parents experienced after crossing into Israel.

A woman approaching the Israeli border with a boy in her arms, May 23, 2000. Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

Among those who spoke to Haaretz for this article, many were recent graduates or young professionals. Myriam Younnes graduated in media and communication studies in Milan, Italy, and speaks four languages: English, Italian, Arabic and Hebrew. She is now waiting for the coronavirus crisis to subside before looking for work in Israel.

Her younger sister, 23-year-old Snow-white Younnes, did her national service with the Israel Police and is now studying architecture at Ariel University in the West Bank. (Not a few young Lebanese Israelis seek work in the Israeli security forces.) Other young Lebanese Israelis Haaretz contacted, but who did not wish to be quoted for this article, have successful jobs in the legal profession and the high-tech industry.

Three options

Jonathan (Nisar) Elkhoury arrived in Israel with his mother in August 2001. “I remember my father frantically speaking on the phone on the day of the withdrawal, to work out whether he could afford to remain in Lebanon or if it was too dangerous,” he recalls, speaking in the garden of the hotel in Nahariya where he works. (Until this week, he was furloughed because of the coronavirus.)

Elkhoury stands out among young Lebanese Israelis, who generally refrain from public involvement in politics or social matters, often struggling to speak with one voice when it comes to the group’s own positions. He is very outspoken and runs an argumentative Twitter account where he espouses right-wing views – indeed, he admits that he votes for a party on the right.

Cars lining up on the Lebanese side of the border with Israel, May 23, 2000.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

Most if not all of the Lebanese Israelis reject outright the idea of voting for left-wing parties, out of resentment toward Barak. They blame him for not warning the South Lebanon Army in advance about Israel’s sudden withdrawal in 2000, leaving the militia in disarray and at the mercy of groups like Hezbollah. Barak has repeatedly said secrecy was necessary for security reasons.

Most vote Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud, like Myriam Younnes, while some support Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, whom they perceive as having advanced their claims for greater state support.

Anti-Palestinian sentiment is also a factor in their choice of the right-wing camp. Support for the Arab-majority Joint List, whose members have opposed granting them citizenship and state subsidies, is virtually nonexistent.

Elkhoury specifically reviles Ahmad Tibi for allegedly claiming back in 2004, when the citizenship law for Lebanese veterans was being discussed in the Knesset, that “the SLA sons should pay for their fathers’ sins.”

“What did we do?” Elkhoury asks while discussing Lebanese and Palestinian hostility toward them.

Hezbollah supporters raising the Shi'ite organization's flag on a former South Lebanon Army position, May 2000. Credit: AP

Elkhoury was 9 when the withdrawal happened, and can vividly recall what happened next. “When the Hezbollah men came looting the houses of families whose men had run away to Israel, they took away our color television – which was the only one in the village – and, most importantly, all my teddy bears,” says the 28-year-old, this detail still nagging away at him 20 years on.

He recalls Hezbollah troops parading through his home village of Ain Ebel, with the Shi’ite group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, even passing “right next to our house.” Elkhoury says Nasrallah gave SLA villagers three options: Flee with the enemy; surrender and face the consequences; or be butchered while hugging their moms.

Most SLA soldiers opted for the first option, after Israeli army officers informed them that “from now on, your fate is in your hands.” When the situation eventually cooled down after the pullout, “many made their way back into Lebanon, paying off Hezbollah for their safety with money provided by Israel,” Peled says. “Others left for third countries such as Australia and the United States over the years,” he adds.

Those who stayed eventually obtained full rights as Israeli citizens and settled in northern Israeli towns like Nahariya, Kiryat Shmona and Ma’alot, close to their old villages across the border.

Joanna Abu Ghanam.Credit: Nicolas Rouger

Lebanon in their hearts

“We will always be Lebanese” is a sentence you hear frequently from these young Lebanese Israelis, now in their twenties. “As much as we consider Israel our new country, our old one will forever stay in their heart,” Myriam Younnes says, summing up the prevailing attitude.

“I joined the Israeli police and my sister joined the IDF, but we will always be Lebanese,” adds Elissa Attieh, 20, from Ma’alot, who was only 10 months old when she left Lebanon with her family.

Attieh calls herself “the spokesperson” of a movement Myriam Younnes and her friends want to establish to promote reconciliation between their two countries, as well as the memory of the SLA in Israel.

“It’s saddening that our fallen are barely considered on Yom Hazikaron [Memorial Day, when Israel remembers its fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism] or on the anniversary of the withdrawal,” she says.

“We need to make it into the history books,” Myriam Younnes adds. “Only now am I realizing that what my parents went through is real history.”

An artwork marking the day South Lebanon Army soldiers and their families were admitted to Israel.Credit: Davide Lerner

Elkhoury agrees. “It’s so frustrating that even now, with the spotlight on the forgotten history of the first Lebanon war because of the 20-year anniversary, our group is still mostly neglected in the Israeli media,” he says.

About 700 members of the SLA died during its 24-year existence, according to “Window to the Backyard” by Yair Ravid. The author was one of the first Israeli agents to build the alliance with Lebanese villagers in southern Lebanon in the late ’70s.

“An SLA memorial in Metula has been discussed for 10 years,” says Elkhoury, referring to the Israeli town on the border with Lebanon. “And now the memorials department at the Defense Ministry is claiming it cannot move forward because of the coronavirus,” he complains.

Joanna Abu Ghanam, who left the Lebanese village of Ain Ebel at age 2, has been listening intently to her friends. “Many Israelis don’t even know who we are – particularly in the south of the country,” says the 22-year-old, who wants to study medicine in Germany. “I find it refreshing that people in Germany don’t ask many questions when I say I’m from Israel but am Lebanese – they don’t think it’s so weird,” she says.

She notes that one of the biggest generational differences is that while young Lebanese Israelis might be keen to visit their old villages, they have no intention of ever moving back there permanently – unlike their parents, who may still miss Lebanon and their old lives. Nearly everyone, of course, still has relatives on the other side of the border, but are only able to hold family reunions in “third countries” like Cyprus or Greece.

A protester during a demonstration by SLA members in front of the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, December 2002. Credit: Lior Mizrahi / BauBau

Abu Ghanam also believes her friends are naive when they say they hope to achieve reconciliation between Israel and Lebanon: “No way,” she says in English, very decisively.

Unanswered questions

Young Lebanese Israelis often have scant knowledge about what occurred in their homeland during the quarter-century civil war or what their parents did during the war. “Every time I ask questions to my parents, they reply, ‘I will tell you later’ – but the moment never comes,” says Abu Ghanam, her friends this time nodding in agreement.

Many atrocities were committed during the civil war. The SLA, for instance, operated a detention center in the village of Khiam that became infamous for its mistreatment of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners, who were detained without trial. Torture was standard practice in the jail, which reportedly operated with Israel’s tacit approval.

British journalist Robert Fisk, who was a correspondent in Lebanon throughout the civil war, claimed in his book “Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon” that the wires to administer electric shocks were still in place when the facility was abandoned after Israel’s withdrawal in 2000.

From left: Snow-white Younnes, Myriam Younnes and Joanna Abu Ghanam in Ma'alot. Credit: Nicolas Rouger

The chilling torture methods employed by the SLA are also detailed in the “Lebanese Politics Podcast,” which describes the prison as the main reason for resentment toward SLA veterans back in Lebanon. (The prison was subsequently bombed by Israel during the Second Lebanon War.)

When Haaretz asks Peled what kind of people the SLA soldiers were, he has a one-word response: “Killers.”

What is apparent from talking to young Lebanese Israelis is that they avoid any criticism of their parents’ past actions. “The Lebanese government did not protect us from [Yasser] Arafat’s PLO, which behaved as the new lord of the land in southern Lebanon,” Elkhoury says. “In any case, we all need to shut the door, leave the past behind us and move forward,” he adds.

His online activism has earned him the hostility of many Palestinians and Lebanese people, which makes his career ambition all the more startling: “My dream is to become the first Israeli ambassador to Lebanon or first Lebanese ambassador to Israel – but we need support for this also from the Lebanon side,” he says.

Attieh adopts a similar line about the SLA’s widely criticized actions in southern Lebanon. “It was a different time, a different universe. There was no state looking after them, and Palestinians were attacking Israel from the villages. They had to do what they had to do,” she says.

Jonathan Elkhoury in Nahariya. Hezbollah "took away our color television – which was the only one in the village – and, most importantly, all my teddy bears."Credit: Nicolas Rouger

There is still a pronounced hostility toward Palestinians among young Lebanese Israelis, a legacy of the civil war, although it is much less virulent than among their parents’ generation. “People in our minority have some friends in the Arab community in Israel – but they are usually Christians, not Muslims,” says Snow-white Younnes.

“And although relations are normally better with Christian Palestinians than with Muslim Palestinians, we still have separate churches – the main ‘SLA church’ being in Acre,” she adds.

When the Younnes siblings’ father passed away in 2013, his body was transferred to Lebanon – as is customary among SLA members – but mourners were only allowed to accompany it to the border crossing. Twenty years after the Israeli withdrawal, Myriam Younnes has one dream: “I wish there could be peace between my two countries and I could go visit my relatives who live in southern Lebanon – mere kilometers away from where I live, and yet so far.”

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