The South Lebanese Army

The South Lebanese Army:
A Social and Military Quandary

Andrew Smith
Anthropological Perspectives
Gad Yair
Spring 2009

From 1978 through 2000 Israel operated or retained a military presence within the borders on Lebanon. In the history of the country, the northern border with Lebanon has always been somewhat problematic. The possibility of terrorist attacks and other threats on the security and safety of Israeli citizens caused the Israeli government and military continuous headaches and necessitated active presence and attentiveness on the border.
As part of this military action and presence on the border, after Israel’s Litani Operation of 1978 and more fully following the general withdrawal of Israeli personnel from Lebanon in 1985, Israel enlisted the help of local militia forces to assist in creating a buffer zone to provide greater security for the Israeli population on or near the border who were the victims of repeated threats and attacks from Muslim militants within Lebanon. These locals acted in tandem with and were actively supported by the IDF, and to some degree acted not only as a geographic buffer but also a casualty buffer absorbing the violence and death from terror activities instead of active IDF personnel or Israeli civilians. [1]
As allies of Israel, these troops, eventually dubbed the South Lebanese Army, came to rely upon the help of Israel. Israel in turn felt that they owed them for their assistance. Following the full withdrawal of Israel even from the buffer zone in 2000, many of these troops, along with their families, were granted asylum and refuge within Israel because of perceived threats and expected attempts to penalize them from within Lebanese legal channels for their collaboration with Israel.
This paper will assess the history of the relationship of the South Lebanese Army (SLA) with the Israeli government and by extension the Israeli public. It will cover the role that the SLA played within the overall buffer policy as put forth by the Israeli military, as well as the decline in public support for the presence of the IDF there and the eventual withdrawal from Lebanon with its attendant consequences for the SLA.

Israel’s attention to the issues regarding the border with Lebanon arose in tandem with the state itself. “Israel’s geopolitical situation dictated from its very birth a security concept that sought to constantly broaden the state’s strategic depth.” [2] The general existential anxiety and fear that grips the nation leads to the necessity of greater protection and stronger military might as well as greater controlled area to grant a greater depth to the country ensuring the safety of internal cities and lands. Originally, Israel adopted a policy of retaliation against threats coming from outside its borders. Heavy retaliation was meant to force the neighboring states to take greater control over their sovereignty and punish terror groups attacking Israel. This policy worked well regarding Egypt and Jordan. However within Lebanon it simply exacerbated the local political situation as the PLO and the Christian Phalangists fought for political control.
As that conflict worsened, Israel decided to aid those who were also fighting against their common enemy: the PLO. “In June 1982 Israeli forces entered Lebanon with the declared objective of finally eliminating the PLO’s military threat to Israel’s northern border.” [3] Following UN intervention, the IDF withdrew. “However, when the last phase of the Israeli withdrawal was completed in June 1985, Israel maintained a buffer zone along the border, between 10 km and 20 km wide, to be policed by the pro-Israeli South Lebanese Army.” [4] Yet, Israel’s relationship with the SLA had been established earlier than this- “By late 1977, Israel had officially stated and practically assumed a military patronage over the Christian enclaves and their militias, including a growing presence of IDF officers and armored units in south Lebanon, in addition to extending civil services to the Lebanese villagers on Israel’s side of the border.” [5] This patronage and relationship was strengthened to the point that the IDF was intimately involved not only with equipping, funding, and training, but also incorporating the SLA into IDF military plans. [6]
In its history, two men, both Christian, led the militia: Major Saad Georges Haddad and Major General Antoine Lahad. The second of the two, Lahad, took control of the militia in 1984 and changed its name from the Free Lebanon Militia to the South Lebanese Army. This was an important move politically because he “claimed that it was no longer just for Christians, but for all the freedom-loving peoples of South Lebanon.” [7] This was an important move intending to broaden the support for its actions as a military buffer and presence in southern Lebanon. Indeed, this move seems to have assisted in strengthening the relationship of the SLA with Israel by creating not just a military relationship, but also a social contract. “The SLA has become a main focus of Israelis who contend that they must keep their long-standing relationship with their only ‘true friend’ in the region and with those who maintain that peace with Arabs is possible, whether Christian or Muslim.” [8]
As such, the development of the security buffer and its importance for Israel increased.
The continued Lebanese crisis and de facto division of the country between various militias seemed to vindicate the Israeli concept of defending its border from within the Lebanese territory rendering the security zone an indivisible part of Israel’s security doctrine. Israel took comprehensive responsibility for administering the security zone’s civil life while underwriting all its financial and infrastructural military needs. Israel also sought to ‘normalize’ the region’s social and economic life, including the movement of people and goods across the region’s lines. Similarly, residents of the security zone were allowed to cross the border into Israel for work, medical treatment, and visits.” [9]
Viewing the south Lebanese as important allies increased the acceptance of Israeli society for them. They were able to interact somewhat normally with the population of Israel’s north economically and socially.
Because of this social contract binding Israel and the population of south Lebanon, the military relationship lasted much longer than its utility. Partly this was because the buffer zone worked so well in preventing ground assaults on Israel. The ability of guerilla attacks and terrorists to enter Israel proper was severely limited by the actions of the SLA as “time and time again, the SLA [had] captured or killed terrorists who have tried to infiltrate Israel’s northern border.” [10] However, this success was small in comparison to the overall failure of stopping attacks on Israel altogether and endangered the population of south Lebanon as well. Changing political realities (the full withdrawal of Israeli troops as well as Syrian) within Lebanon proved to undermine the effectiveness of the SLA as well.
The effect of the SLA decreased as this new political situation proved fertile grounds for the growth of Hizbollah. The rising Shiite militia “adopted the fighting against the ‘security zone’ as a compelling rallying cause of holy war against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon’s territory, which boosted the movement’s rise to a mass social movement.” [11] Thus, the SLA, as “collaborator” with Israel, became a target itself and saw its power and influence begin to erode. It’s strength was apparently overrated somewhat by Israeli intelligence as well as “it became clear that the SLA failed to repel Hizbullah’s attacks, forcing Israel to rush its own forces into the area to prevent a total collapse of the SLA.” [12] The SLA’s utility was also undermined as Hizbollah shifted tactics with regard to attacks on Israel proper. Seeing that they were effectively kept out physically, the militia shifted to a rocket based attack system. “By late 1993, attempts to infiltrate Israel’s territory came completely to a halt while a massive use of rockets against civilians in northern Israel was employed in the course of the 1990s, stressing the irrelevance and obsolete nature of the ‘security zone’ concept.” [13]
However, because of the military and social contacts that had been made, the Israelis continued to favor their relationship with the SLA- “the decade-long mutual interest and collaboration with the SLA and the Christian Lebanese population along the border through routine encounters rendered the option of giving up on this ally inconceivable.” [14] Even this position though had its end as continual and increasing numbers of Israeli casualties led to growing domestic pressure to leave Lebanon completely. Following a particularly lethal accident (two helicopters carrying troops to the ‘security zone’ crashed in Northern Galilee killing 73 soldiers), the ‘Four Mothers’ movement coalesced. By careful utilization of the media, this movement was key in the public debate on the use of the ‘security zone’ and crystallization of the eventual public sentiment for complete withdrawal. [15] “Prime Minister Ehud Barak won a sweeping victory in the May 1999 elections with his pledge to pull Israeli troops out of Lebanon within the year.” [16] Public opinion was behind the move, and on 5 May 2000 the Israeli government voted to fully withdraw from Lebanon to defensive positions solely within Israeli territory.
Sadly however, as this planned withdrawal was put into action, unrest began in the “security zone.” In essence, “Israel did not choose the timing of the withdrawal. As preparations began, the S.L.A. crumbled.” [17] Clashes and civilian movements within the southern Lebanon territory instigated this collapse of the militia. “On 22 May, by which time many Israeli troops had already been withdrawn, Hizbollah units attacked and overran a number of defensive positions manned by the SLA. As Hizbollah, followed by thousands of Lebanese civilians, proceeded to advance…the SLA totally collapsed and disbanded.” [18] The Israelis hastened their full-scale retreat and by 24 May 2000 were completely out of Lebanon. Commenting on this action, PM Barak stated, “From now on, the government of Lebanon is accountable for what takes place within its territory, and the Lebanese and the Syrian governments are responsible for preventing acts of terror or aggression against Israel, which is from today deployed within its borders.” [19]
The Israeli withdrawal though left a power vacuum to be quickly filled by Hizbollah and left the SLA in a tough position. Many within the ranks of the SLA feared for their lives amid the possibility of reprisal attacks by Hizbollah (none of which actually occurred). Roughly 7000 south Lebanese sought and were granted asylum and refuge in Israel, “these included many former SLA militiamen and their families, and other people who were never in the SLA but many also have feared being branded as ‘collaborators’.” Members of the SLA who remained were arrested and eventually turned over to the Lebanese authorities for trial. [20]
Responding to the plight of the SLA and their families, Israeli officials announced that the state was “morally and politically committed to the safety and security of the soldiers of the South Lebanon Army (SLA) and the civil administration officials who worked alongside Israel for many years to protect the southern Lebanese population from the encroachment of terrorist organizations.” Similarly, it was announced “Israel is prepared to absorb any SLA soldiers or civil officials who choose to relocate to Israel, together with their families.” [21] Speaking for the government, FM David Levy also responded to negative reports about its quick withdrawal: “With regard to the South Lebanese Army, I would like to reiterate: Israel did not abandon the SLA and their families. Our doors are open to them, if they so desire. Regarding those who choose to stay there, we are working with elements, including the UN Secretary General, to ensure their safety, and that no harm will come to them.” [22] PM Barak went so far as to send his personal thanks and commitment to support the SLA in need [23] and a minister (Haim Ramon) was appointed as being responsible for handling matters related to the SLA and their absorption and protection. [24]
The Israeli populace reportedly supported these governmental efforts giving credence to the fact that it was not simply the government trying to save face.
Israelis generally voiced sympathy for the SLA families left in the lurch by the sudden withdrawal and approved the government’s efforts to admit all SLA affiliates requesting shelter. Stung by SLA accusations of having been sold out by the unannounced pullback, Israel argued that the safety of its own men during the withdrawal necessitated the difficult decision not to forewarn the SLA…While there was no obviously graceful way to terminate the security zone and the relationship with the SLA, the disintegration of the SLA and the mad dash across the border for many of its members are not something of which Israelis can be proud. [25]
Similarly, “although most Israelis expressed sympathy for the SLA’s post-withdrawal plight, the government significantly underestimated the number of refuges who would demand sanctuary, and while providing them with temporary accommodations, healthcare and stipends, appears to have no long-term plan for what to do with them.” [26]
After being accepted into Israel, it seems that the worry about the wellbeing of their Lebanese allies stopped. It would seem that the majority of those who came to Israel did not find a life that they could accept and moved elsewhere. “’Out of 7,000 people who moved from Lebanon to Israel, only 2,600 remain,’ Claude Ibrahim, a former advisor to SLA Commander Lahad, told Ynet” in 2009. Those 2,600 are spread through Nahariya, Ma’alot, Carmiel, Tiberias, Kiryat Shmona, Safed and Haifa. [27] While only a small handful have, reportedly, returned to Lebanon, [28] many still within Israel dream of returning; it can be safely assumed that the rest have immigrated elsewhere in the world.
More sociological studies would be necessary to understand exactly why the Lebanese didn’t feel accepted fully in the Israeli community (and where they did end up). Though perhaps it can be surmised or extrapolated from the experience from other Palestinian Arabs within Israel. More than likely the SLA members felt that they would have a better bond with Israeli society as having been their allies against the PLO and Hizbollah. However, it would seem that once within Israel they encountered a situation of seeming “double” marginality- being rejected from mainstream Israeli society because they were Arabs and not Jewish Israelis, and being rejected from the Arab populace because of their “collaboration.” Ironically, it would seem that because they chose to fight with Israel to protect their homeland, the members of the SLA and their families lost their homeland and became refugees.

Anti-Defamation League (ADL). “Israel’s Withdrawal from Lebanon.” From
British Home Office Country Assessment: Lebanon, Oct 2001. from
Eisenberg, Laura Zittrain. “Do Fences Make Good Neighbors?: Israel and Lebanon after the Withdrawal.” Middle East Review of International Affairs. Vol. 4. No. 3. Fall 2000.
International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), “Stuck in the Lebanese Mud: Israel’s Withdrawal from South Lebanon,” Vol. 6, Issue 3, April 2000.
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Letter from PM Barak to IDF Chief-of-Staff – 24 May 2000.” From
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “PM Barak at Cabinet Meeting – 24 May 2000.” From
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The Israeli Withdrawal from Southern Lebanon- Background Points.” From
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The Israeli Withdrawal from Southern Lebanon- Press Briefing by FM Levy, 23 May 2000.” From
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The Israeli Withdrawal from Southern Lebanon- Special Update, 24 May 2000.” From
NOWLebanon. “Some Lebanese who fled to Israel in 2000 have returned, more expected.” 29 May 2009. From
Reich, Bernard (ed). An Historical Encyclopedia of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Westport, CT; Greenwood Press, 1996.
Sela, Avraham. “Civil Society, the Military, and National Security: The Case of Israel’s Security Zone in South Lebanon,” Israel Studies, Vol. 12, Num. 1, 2007.
TIME Magazine Europe, “Courage Under Fire,” Vol. 155, No. 22, 5 June 2000. From
Ynet News. “9 years after pullout, SLA veterans still dream of Lebanon.” 27 May 2009. From,7340,L-3722197,00.html.

[1] International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), “Stuck in the Lebanese Mud: Israel’s Withdrawal from South Lebanon,” Vol. 6, Issue 3, April 2000.
[2] Avraham Sela, “Civil Society, the Military, and National Security: The Case of Israel’s Security Zone in South Lebanon,” Israel Studies, Vol. 12, Num. 1, 2007. pp. 53-78.
[3] British Home Office Country Assessment: Lebanon, Oct 2001. Taken from
[4] British Home Office Country assessment, 3.18.
[5] Sela, “Civil Society,” 59.
[6] Bernard Reich (ed), An Historical Encyclopedia of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, (Westport, CT; Greenwood Press, 1996), 490.
[7] Reich, Encyclopedia, 491.
[8] Reich, Encyclopedia, 491.
[9] Sela, “Civil Society,” 60.
[10] Reich, Encyclopedia, 491.
[11] Sela, “Civil Society,” 64.
[12] Sela, “Civil Society,” 63.
[13] Sela, “Civil Society,” 64.
[14] Sela, “Civil Society,” 64.
[15] Sela, “Civil Society,” 66-70.
[16] Anti-Defamation League (ADL), “Israel’s Withdrawal from Lebanon,” from
[17] TIME Magazine Europe, “Courage Under Fire,” Vol. 155, No. 22, 5 June 2000. From
[18] British Home Office Country Assessment, 3.52.
[19] Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), “The Israeli Withdrawal from Southern Lebanon- Special Update, 24 May 2000,” taken from
[20] British Home Office Country Assessment, 3.53-55.
[21] Israel MFA, “The Israeli Withdrawal from Southern Lebanon- Background Points,” from
[22] Israel MFA, “The Israeli Withdrawal from Southern Lebanon- Press Briefing by FM Levy, 23 May 2000.” From
[23] Israel MFA, “Letter from PM Barak to IDF Chief-of-Staff – 24 May 2000.” From
[24] Israel MFA, “PM Barak at Cabinet Meeting – 24 May 2000.” From
[25] Laura Zittrain Eisenberg, “Do Fences Make Good Neighbors?: Israel and Lebanon after the Withdrawal,” Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Fall 2000). 24-25.
[26] Eisenberg, “Fences,” 27
[27] Ynet News, “9 years after pullout, SLA veterans still dream of Lebanon,” 27 May 2009. From,7340,L-3722197,00.html.
[28] NOWLebanon, “Some Lebanese who fled to Israel in 2000 have returned, more expected.” 29 May 2009. From