At the border, chaos and uncertainty
Metulla (Israel), 24 May 2000, ST PETERSBURG TIMES

Seen from above Tuesday, the scene at the border between Israel and Lebanon must have looked like a giant game of musical chairs played to a particularly jerky and stressful tune.

More than 24 hours into the dramatic collapse of the 440-square-mile strip of southern Lebanon that Israel calls its "security zone," anxious people massed with their suitcases near barbed-wired fences trying to get through in both directions, unsure how long the border would stay open.

In a double line of cars stretching as far as the eye could see, several hundred pro-Israel Lebanese fighters and their families waited nervously to be allowed south, into the sanctuary of Israel. Scores of Lebanese seasonal workers in Israel hurried into Lebanon to be with their families. Israeli troops were sent north to reinforce the border. And thousands of Israeli residents of border towns, who discovered with a shock that their victorious enemies, Hezbollah guerrillas, were practically in their back yards, packed up and drove toward the center of Israel for safety.

"Hezbollah is across from my kitchen," said Simcha Cohen, a resident of Menara, a small Israeli town on the border. Until Monday afternoon, when she and the other residents of northern Israel were ordered into shelters for the night, Cohen had planned to lead a group of tourists around the scenic, pastoral area. "Everything went so fast," she said in an interview with Israeli army radio.

Israel had vowed to pull its troops out of Lebanon by July 7 and had begun handing over outposts to its Lebanese allies, the South Lebanon Army, in preparation for an orderly withdrawal. That plan disintegrated over the weekend when Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim guerrilla group backed by Syria and Iran, and convoys of Shiite civilians moved into the security zone, reclaiming villages they abandoned two decades ago and forcing the SLA to surrender its military positions in most of the western and central part of the fast-disappearing "security zone."

The result was a panicky flight toward the Israeli border for SLA militiamen and their families. "We expected 500 people this morning," said Natan Sharansky, Israel's interior minister, standing at the gate of the Amnun Beach resort where Lebanese refugees were being bused. "But there are 1,400 already," he said just before noon. Thousands more are expected to find asylum in Israel in the next few days.

Each arriving family was registered, issued one-year tourist visas and granted
financial and medical assistance by the Israeli authorities at Amnun Beach, a windsurfing resort on the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee. The area was kept off-limits to reporters, presumably because of concerns for the families' safety should they choose to return to Lebanon one day. Considered traitors by many Lebanese, some SLA fighters risk the death sentence back home or being killed by avenging civilians. Men covered their faces with caps and drew curtains on the buses that brought them into the improvised refugee camp. Mothers with children on their laps stared out, looking startled.

A handful of Lebanese workers in Israel waited outside the gates for a chance to see if their relatives from southern Lebanon were safe. Hashem, a 40-year-old Lebanese worker in Tel Aviv who refused to give his last name ("What, you want to get me killed?"), hoped to see his sister, his brother-in-law, an officer in the SLA, and their two children. Hashem said the family decided to leave Monday morning and waited all day at the border for authorization to come through. "They have come temporarily, until the situation up there clarifies," said Hashem. "It would be very painful not to go back to Lebanon."

His family owns land there and he has been putting most of his salary into a house in Dibil, a few miles north of the Israeli border. "It all depends on the U.N.," he said. "The sooner the U.N. troops come in, the sooner we'll go back."

Hashem collared Sharansky, pleading: "I want to know what's going on with my family." Sharansky pledged to help with food, lodging and medical aid for anyone connected to the SLA. "Israel has a moral obligation to do it and we will definitely do it," he said.

Such reassurances would have gone a long way an hour north of Amnun Beach, at the Metulla border crossing, where many hundreds of Lebanese were waiting to be allowed into Israel, uncertain of their fate. The seemingly endless convoy of Mercedes-Benzes in the harsh midday sun provided an eerie scene of exodus. The luxury cars, often stolen in Europe, are available cheaply in Lebanon.

A boy cried "Oh my God!" as the thud of outgoing Israeli fire aimed at Hezbollah echoed in the hills nearby. And, as reporters tried to yell questions across the tall border fence, a disturbed man waved a pistol, threatening to shoot the foreign witnesses of his suffering and humiliation.

On the Israeli side, dozens of Druze Lebanese men, recognizable by their baggy trousers and red felt hats, were hurriedly moving toward the border loaded with heavy bags. One, carrying a crate of freshly picked cherries, was crying nervously. Another, a 38-year-old construction worker, paused under a tree with bags full of tools and clothes. "They'll take care of us like all other Lebanese citizens," he said optimistically. He decided to leave his seasonal job near Haifa and return to Hasbaya, a Druze village in southern Lebanon, to be with his wife and five children.

Until recently, thousands of Lebanese workers used to transit daily through the Metulla border crossing, also known as the "Good Fence," between their homes in the Israeli-occupied security zone and their jobs in Israel. The arrangement was meant to provide an economic outlet for the families of SLA soldiers in the war-ravaged zone. That arrangement will no doubt disappear as the Lebanese re-establish their sovereignty over southern Lebanon, 22 years after Israel first invaded the area.

For the next few days, however, the Metulla crossing, and a few other points along the border, represent for the Lebanese lining up on both sides a brief chance to join the camp of their choice.

A Lebanese textile worker who came to work in Israel on Monday wasn't sure on which side he would end up; he hoped his wife and three children were in the convoy of cars lined at the border but had no way of knowing. "I'll wait here until tomorrow," he said, planning to sleep in his car on the Israeli side. "If they aren't in the line, I'll go back to Lebanon." An informer for Israel, he said he was sure it would be safer for him in Israel. "No one can imagine what might happen in Lebanon," he said.

That uncertainty was echoed in northern Israel as residents were allowed out of their shelters at 10 a.m. Tuesday only to be ordered back in at 2 in the afternoon because of renewed fighting between Hezbollah and the Israeli army. Calling in to hourly radio shows devoted to the news, people complained of being left in the dark by the Israeli government. Seventy percent of the 20,000 people in Kiryat Shemona, the largest Israeli town within rocket-range of the border, had packed their belongings and fled south by the end of the day, according to some estimates.

On a sidewalk in Kiryat Shmona, a family of six with a small poodle in tow was busy fitting large suitcases into the trunk of their car. "We're running away," said Ilana Furlander, 32. She and her family moved to Kiryat Shmona 10 years ago because of subsidized housing in the border town. Now they've booked rooms at a bed and breakfast a half-hour down the road, without knowing how long they will stay.

"What kind of life is this?" asked Misha Furlander, Ilana's husband. During security alerts, the factory where he works is closed, the children are frightened by the sounds of explosions and his apartment risks getting hit by a rocket.

The precipitous pace of the last few days' events is drawing criticism from many Israelis who compare the mayhem to the last days of the U.S. military presence in Vietnam.

"Retreats aren't photogenic," Amikam Rothman, a radio newsman, commented flatly. "It's not comfortable, it's not pleasant," said Israeli President Ezer Weizman in a radio interview. "But it's an interim period in a changing situation that Israel itself initiated. I would recommend patience."

© Flore de Préneuf