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SOUTH LEBANESE REFUGEES PROTEST THEIR LINGERING PLIGHT

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SOUTH LEBANESE REFUGEES PROTEST THEIR LINGERING PLIGHT

 

One month later, a group of men are still camping outside the Knesset offices and a meeting with the prime minister's office was scheduled for this morning.

The demonstration began as a deep winter chill settled in Jerusalem on Sunday, Dec. 22. Across from the prime minister's office, 600 refugees, ranging from toddlers to the elderly, gathered and SLA leaders vowed to continue the protest with men camping out in a tent indefinitely, until the government responds to their demands.

After almost three years in Israel, the south Lebanese refugees have had difficulty finding work and making the money needed to pay for essentials. Many now find themselves with no food, no money to pay electricity and rent. And during the Christmas season, parents said their children would receive no gifts this year.

"How am I going to feed my baby?" asked Elias Kassis as he held a wide-eyed toddler Sunday.

When they fled from south Lebanon with retreating Israeli troops in May 2000, the SLA fighters were promised financial benefits and support. Israel did provide emergency aid and housing, along with schooling and Hebrew language classes. But three years later, financial benefits have been reduced and might soon be cut off completely. Without passports, jobs and money, the refugees are calling on Israel to deliver benefits that will sustain them for a time.

"We told them we are going to Jerusalem and we are not going to move from here until we get what we want from Arik Sharon," said Abu Samir, one of the leaders of the Lebanese army refugees in Israel, in an interview with ICEJ News during the demonstration.

"Protesting is not our favorite thing," he said. "We are here to get food, clothes and a place to sleep."

The Israeli government is sympathetic to the demands of the SLA, but has attributed ongoing elections and an overall sour Israeli economy for a slow response to the SLA needs, according to the prime minister's spokesman.

"The government of Israel is taking all the necessary steps to resolve their problems," Raanan Gissin told ICEJ News.

Gissin said the problems are not merely economic, but also social.

"It's a whole host of problems. We want to find a just solution ? not leave them out in the cold," he said, noting that considerations include "integrating into Israel, going back to Lebanon, which is not safe, and feeling estranged (in Israel)."

"The government is not going to leave them out in the cold," Gissin said. "We are well aware of the problems. The prime minister is well-tuned to their voice and we will find the proper way to deal with their requests."

Living mostly in the North, the refugees have assimilated to an extent ? many have learned Hebrew and most of the children attend Israeli schools. But as Chrisitans they feel out of place in Israel and abandoned by world religious leaders.

Pierre Lauka compared the plight of the Lebanese Christians in Israel to the standoff in Bethlehem earlier this year when world leaders denounced the fighting in and around the Church of the Nativity.

"No one asks about our situation," he said.

Beverley Timgren, a Christian aid worker from Canada, said the people feel displaced.

"They've lost their homes, communities, cultural identity," she said. "It's a difficult time for everyone in Israel, but they feel abandoned and betrayed."

Amid the violent Palestinian intifada, a looming US-led war against Iraq and a heated Israeli election campaign, the SLA protestors are hoping someone will remember their many years of sacrifice alongside the Jewish State.

When Israel pulled its troops out of southern Lebanon, many in the SLA also fled into Israel to escape Lebanese imprisonment or Hizb'Allah retaliations. Israel said it would shelter SLA men who feared revenge attacks.

For several decades, the SLA played a vital part in Israel's effort to protect its northern border, patrolling with Israeli troops. They were branded "traitors" by Hizb'Allah and the Lebanese government and Beirut rejected the idea of absorbing the militia into its forces. Those who surrendered were jailed for "collaborating with the enemy."

The SLA was formed by Lebanese Christians sympathetic to Israel at the end of 1975. Its aim was to counter the growing presence in Lebanon of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which was launching cross-border terror attacks against Israel. The militia allied itself with Israeli forces and assisted the IDF when it first invaded Lebanon to attack PLO bases in 1978. Its troops were trained and financed by Israel to help it secure a buffer zone in southern Lebanon set up to protect northern Israel from attack.

Approximately 7,000 SLA troops and family members originally fled into Israel. Now, after a number immigrated to Australia and Germany, about 2,500 remain. When they first arrived in Israel, they were housed in shelters and received assistance and living allowances.

Now, they want jobs, housing and to be considered veteran soldiers so they can receive pensions based on the number of years they served with Israel, some up to 20 to 25 years.

Although they are seeking compensation from the Israeli government, most of the south Lebanese harbor hopes of returning to their homes and families in Lebanon.

Pierre Hashem, 14, like many of the Lebanese children his age, still calls Lebanon ?home.' He is learning his school subjects in a new language, making it difficult to understand science and math, he said. If he ever does return to Lebanon, because of the educational system there, he will be put back in the grade he was in when he left.

"We are strangers here," he said. "There is no future here, no hope for the future."

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NOTE: For more information about the south Lebanese refugees in Israel, please contact Beverley Timgren at:

email: btimgren@compuserve.com
address: PO Box 1290
Jerusalem 91003
ISRAEL