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Don't stop now
Daily Star (Opinion section) Jan 14, 2000

Thursday saw the release of 25 Lebanese from the Khiam detention center
and two more from Israel's Ashkelon Prison, welcome developments from
any point of view. The detainees from Khiam were nominally set free by
the South Lebanon Army, but Antoine Lahd's mob does nothing without
Israel's approval, so the move must be acknowledged for what it is: a small
step in the right direction as the Jewish state tries to demonstrate goodwill
in the context of its continuing negotiations with Syria and its presumably
upcoming ones with Lebanon.

Confidence-building measures like Thursday's are important when efforts
are underway to defuse decades of tension, but this should only be the
beginning. Before Israeli officials start crowing about some sort of grand
overture they would do well to keep in mind that most people consider
Khiam's very existence an affront to international law. People held there
are incarcerated indefinitely without being charged with any crime or
accorded prisoner-of-war status, and many are tortured and/or denied
medical attention. There are still over 120 Lebanese languishing in its
dank cells, so having freed 27 has hardly given Israel the moral high
ground.
Furthermore, if Israeli officials expect an outpouring of gratitude from
the families of those set free, they are in for a rude awakening. The
furrows of resentment dug by their bombs and missiles run deep here,
and the reminders from 21 years of occupation are everywhere. Israel's
long and bloody adventure in Lebanon has inflicted a long list of
offenses against our people: civilians killed and wounded, families
dispersed, children orphaned, public and private property destroyed,
and nerves frazzled. This is not to mention the long-term social and
economic costs imposed by keeping our country from recovering its
reputation for stability.
All of these wounds, old and fresh alike, augur against having the
Lebanese instantly decide that their neighbors to the south have
turned over a new leaf. The Israelis have subjected the Lebanese to
things that most people wouldn't do to a farm animal, so even if
and when they stop altogether, our first reaction will be relief, not
gratitude.
The best thing Ehud Barak can do right now is to take further
measures which, while they could never right the wrongs of the
past and the present, might at least keep them from becoming those
of the future.
Khiam is a fine example: why should anyone still be imprisoned there?
If Israel's prime minister is serious about making peace and about his
vow to pull out of Lebanon, the best way to show it would be to throw
open the doors of that damnable facility and free all of its unfortunate
residents at a single stroke.
Another sore spot is the SLA. The militia and its members have long
served ­ sometimes alternately, sometimes simultaneously ­ as cannon
fodder and bargaining chips. One can understand, if not excuse, Israel
exploiting its "allies" in such a manner when the end of the occupation
was not yet in sight, but now that it is, the Jewish state's policies with
regard to Lahd and his fighters should be altered to reflect changing
circumstances.
Israel's attempt to dictate Lebanon’s treatment of SLA men after
a withdrawal has always been disingenuous to say the least. It now has
a chance to rectify that fact in some small way by volunteering to reduce
the difficulties engendered by its own actions. It should offer to take
these men in, thereby removing an issue made problematic by its own
attempts to undermine the legitimacy and humanity of the Lebanese
state.
Lahd and other senior officers might well have dates with a rope, but
the fate of rank-and-file fighters who place themselves at the mercy of
the Lebanese government after a withdrawal can be deduced simply
enough by the jail terms handed down to those who turned themselves
in after Jezzine was evacuated, but still Israel trumpets its "concerns". If
it really is concerned, than it should have no qualms about offering
sanctuary to the people it corrupted by recruiting or blackmailing them
into a force whose very nature is an insult to Lebanese sovereignty.
Finally, if Barak wants Lebanon to believe in his willingness to achieve
and maintain a genuine peace, he has to start showing some degree of
respect for the legitimate government with which that peace must be
signed.
Hizbullah is indeed a powerful force, but it is also a non-state actor
whose right to negotiate is strictly limited to tactical issues like
temporary cease-fires and humanitarian efforts. The sooner Barak
decides to undo some of the damage wrought by his predecessors,
the sooner the Lebanese and their government will start to take his
claim to the title of peacemaker seriously. Until he does, all of his
flowery talk will be just that ­ talk.