Make your own free website on Tripod.com
Haaretz, Friday, October 29, 1999
 

                                    Thanks for your cooperation

                 Colonel Akel Hashem, the tough-talking western brigade commander
                 of the South Lebanese Army (SLA), is a leading candidate to succeed
                 General Antoine Lahad. In a wide-ranging interview Hashem tells why
                     he thinks Israel should bomb Syrian bases and blames Israeli
                            democracy for IDF and SLA failures in Lebanon
 

                     By Ronen Bergman

                     Twenty-three years of close cooperation with Israel have
                     taught Colonel Akel Hashem a lot about Israelis. His
                     Hebrew is fluent, he is well-versed in Israel's political
                     intrigues, and he even has an opinion as to which is the
                     best French restaurant in Tel Aviv. He's also become
                     proficient at hiding his feelings behind a smile, a smile that
                     remains on his face even in difficult moments. Once, in the
                     course of an elegant luncheon organized for him and
                     Brigadier General Giora Inbar (then commander of Yakal,
                     the South Lebanon liaison unit), Hashem was informed of
                     the death of an SLA soldier. He stopped eating and was
                     quiet for a moment, then went right back to telling jokes to
                     his companions.

                     Colonel Akel Hashem is the commander of the SLA's
                     western brigade and chief of the Mabat intelligence service
                     in South Lebanon (the name is an acronym for mangenon
                     ha'bitachon). For several years now, Israeli observers have
                     been predicting that SLA commander General Antoine
                     Lahad will soon retire and that a battle to succeed him will
                     ensue. Hashem is said to view himself as the natural
                     candidate to inherit the commander's position, supposedly
                     envisioning himself ensconced in Lahad's well-appointed
                     office in Marj Ayoun. Hashem denies the rumors. He says
                     the matter doesn't concern him at all, and he turns the
                     conversation to what he considers a much more pressing
                     topic - the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.

                     "If it is accompanied by a peace agreement that preserves
                     the honor of SLA soldiers, annuls all the court verdicts
                     handed down against us in Beirut (Hashem and other
                     senior SLA officials have been sentenced to death in
                     absentia), incorporates the SLA into the Lebanese Army,
                     preserves the dignity of the residents of southern Lebanon
                     and removes all foreign forces from my country, then why
                     not!? Of course, I'd be in favor," he exclaims.

                     Hashem says, however, that Syria will not make such a
                     solution possible, and that it won't rein in the Hezbollah.
                     "Heavy bombing of the Syrian bases is the only thing that
                     will convince them to control the Hezbollah. Meanwhile,
                     they're only profiting from their presence in Lebanon. By the
                     way, what I'm proposing for the Syrians also goes for the
                     residents of the villages from which this organization
                     operates. If it were up to me, I'd distribute flyers warning that
                     we'll hold the residents responsible the next time Hezbollah
                     operates from within their village and that if it happens
                     again, we'll fire on the village. This is not an easy thing to
                     say or to do, but it's for everybody's good. Once or twice,
                     and they'll learn, and chase Hezbollah out."

                     What is the response to your ideas in Israel?

                     Hashem (angrily): "They didn't accept them. Ask your
                     government and your army why."

                     Basically, what we have here are Lebanese fighting other
                     Lebanese. After such a bitter confrontation, how can you
                     ever live together in peace in the same country?

                     "I'm not sure that's the right way to describe the situation.
                     The identity cards of the Hezbollah men may say that
                     they're Lebanese, but, essentially, they're emissaries of Iran
                     - receiving money, weapons and instructions from the
                     Iranians, and not true Lebanese fighting for the good of their
                     country."

                     Hezbollah would say the exact same thing about you. They
                     would say that you're a tool in the hands of Israel and that
                     you're not a Lebanese patriot.

                     "That is what they would say. It's also true that I am
                     collaborating with Israel, but only in order to protect my
                     villages. You say my enemy has changed since the 1970s
                     and I say to you that it is precisely the same enemy, just
                     with a different name. [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah
                     was a communist before he decided to return to the faith
                     and train with the Palestinians. Many other senior
                     Hezbollah officials are just like him. When they were on the
                     PLO's side and fought against Lebanon, I defended my
                     home and my villages. So you tell me who's a patriot and
                     who's not."
 
                     Akel Hashem, 47, was born in the southern Lebanese
                     village of Dibel to a family of farmers. In 1970, he enlisted in
                     the Lebanese Army. He served in different positions in the
                     infantry and was later posted to the intelligence branch
                     division dealing with illegal domestic organizations.

                     When the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1976, Hashem
                     was one of a force of 600 fighters who went to southern
                     Lebanon to protect their families at home. He and his
                     friends brought their weapons and posted themselves at
                     their home villages. The enemies then were the
                     Palestinians from the PLO who were seeking to establish a
                     canton of their own in southern Lebanon. Hashem is not
                     fond of the Palestinians. To this day, in conversations with
                     associates, he uses the Arabic word kirahiya (strong
                     hatred) to describe his feelings toward them. "They wanted
                     to come into our villages in order to fire on Israel from them.
                     We didn't want to become targets for IDF guns. We
                     defended the villages with everything we had. The
                     Palestinians imposed a harsh siege on us. For four months,
                     we were almost completely cut off from supplies, while they
                     were trying to kill us at every opportunity."

                     In June 1976, the Lebanese Army appointed Major Sa'ad
                     Hadad senior commander in the southern region of
                     Lebanon, and he asked for the army's help in the war
                     against the Palestinians. In 1979, the Lebanese Army
                     stopped paying the salaries of the renegades in the south.
                     Hadad, with the enthusiastic support of his men (led by
                     Hashem), announced that he was breaking off from the
                     central government and founding "The Free Lebanese
                     Army," which, in time, came to be known as the SLA.

                     When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Hadad's forces
                     provided some assistance to the IDF. Hashem, who was
                     then in the Free Lebanese Army's intelligence branch, says
                     he worked on various intelligence assignments for Israel in
                     the Tyre area. Hadad died of cancer in 1984. Israel brought
                     in General Antoine Lahad, who had retired from the
                     Lebanese Army, to replace him. Rumor had it that Hashem
                     and other senior SLA personnel were not pleased with this
                     choice, believing that someone from their own ranks was
                     capable of commanding the militia. Hashem denies this
                     version of events; he professes to have an excellent
                     relationship with the general and says he holds him in very
                     high esteem: "I know him from back when he was a private
                     in the Lebanese Army. He's a person with a lot of
                     experience and good judgment." After assuming his
                     position, Lahad instituted reforms, organizing the units into
                     the western brigade, the eastern brigade, the intelligence
                     service and command. Since 1985, Hashem has served as
                     commander of the western brigade.

                     Hashem and his wife Lia have five children. Rita, 23, is
                     planning to marry soon and lives in southern Lebanon.
                     Daughter Udin, 20, also lives in southern Lebanon. Elias
                     will soon turn 18. He recently completed a preparatory year
                     at one of Israel's top universities and has been accepted for
                     regular studies in a highly competitive department. He lives
                     near that university. George is 16 and Chantal, 8, goes to a
                     convent school. The Hashem family spends a large part of
                     its limited leisure time in Israel, especially in Tiberias.

                     Directly under General Lahad are three colonels - eastern
                     brigade commander Nabih Rifa', western brigade
                     commander Hashem and deputy SLA commander,
                     Kamallah Sa'id. The SLA today numbers approximately
                     2,300 soldiers. Hashem says he has had to turn away
                     many residents of South Lebanon who wished to enlist.
                     "Last year, in spite of all the talk about a withdrawal and in
                     spite of the harm that your democracy is causing you and
                     us, there was an increase in the number of people wishing
                     to join the SLA. I had to say no to most of them."

                     Shi'ite soldiers were first inducted into the SLA in 1988;
                     today they make up 30 percent of the army. In Hashem's
                     western brigade, 50 percent of the soldiers are Christian
                     and 50 percent are Muslim, both Shi'ite and Sunni. Eastern
                     brigade commander Nabih Rifa' is Druze and his troops are
                     comprised of a large number of Druze. The Hezbollah and
                     Amal movements put a lot of pressure on the Shi'ite
                     soldiers either to desert from the SLA and come over to
                     them, or to work as their agents inside the SLA.

                     If you were an 18-year-old Shi'ite, eager to join the army
                     and wanting to defend your homeland - wouldn't Hezbollah
                     seem to be a reasonable choice?

                     "Not every Muslim or every Shi'ite is Hezbollah and Amal.
                     Sometimes, the line passes down the middle of one family.
                     I was once present at an encounter in Kfar 'Aytaroun.
                     Deputy unit commander Abdel Karim Mansur was leading
                     the force. We killed three terrorists. After we got to the
                     bodies of the terrorists, he gave the order to fire. Someone
                     was killed in the first volley. When Mansur came closer and
                     saw the [dead man's] face, he saw that he had mowed
                     down his cousin. I asked Mansur if he would have pulled
                     the trigger had he known whom he was shooting at. He
                     answered in the affirmative - without any hesitation."

                     But some of your soldiers have deserted to Hezbollah, and
                     in Israel, some claim that a lot of information is flowing from
                     the SLA to the terrorist organizations.

                     "A very small number of soldiers deserted to Hezbollah. It
                     happens in every army. By the way, many soldiers from the
                     Lebanese Army have enlisted with us. Last year, only three
                     soldiers from my brigade deserted. Three out of a thousand.
                     That's nothing. And they didn't even take their weapons."

                     How many soldiers are there in Hezbollah today?

                     "The number has gone down recently. They let a lot of
                     people go because of money problems. They don't have
                     more than 1,500 men. A regular soldier in Hezbollah earns
                     from $200-400 a month and receives additional assistance
                     for his family."

                     While Ehud Barak is indicating clearly that the historic
                     alliance with the Lebanese Christians will soon come to an
                     end, the IDF recently inaugurated a new SLA post in South
                     Lebanon and raised its soldiers' salaries. At present, a
                     private serving on the front line makes $500 a month.
                     Others earn $380 a month. With each year of seniority and
                     each increase in rank, the salary goes up by $10 a month.
                     Also, relatives of SLA soldiers are usually the ones to
                     receive a permit to work in Israel - a significant economic
                     bonus. SLA men also may receive permission to visit Israel
                     with their families - trips that usually include shopping in
                     Haifa or Nahariya, or a visit to an amusement park or
                     cinema.

                     The way things are depicted in the media, we appear to be
                     losing the war against Hezbollah terror.

                     "I don't think that we're losing. It's very tough. You've got a
                     regular army facing small terrorist cells, and army posts and
                     convoys up against ambushes and roadside bombs.
                     Nevertheless, we've recently prevented dozens of terrorist
                     actions in our area. We found that 95 percent of all the
                     terrorist activity in the past year was long-range shooting,
                     usually from inside villages near Lebanese Army and
                     United Nations posts. This means that we've learned their
                     methods and access routes and they're not managing to
                     penetrate inside."

                     In Israeli intelligence, they say that neither they nor you are
                     successfully recruiting serious agents from within
                     Hezbollah.

                     "It's incorrect to paint the Hezbollah as a group of fanatics
                     who could never be persuaded to collaborate. We have two
                     problems nowadays. The first is the Lebanese government,
                     which is assisting Hezbollah and using trials and death
                     sentences to scare anyone who even thinks about
                     cooperating with us. The second problem is the Israeli
                     media. Write this down: Israeli democracy is what killed the
                     IDF and the SLA in Lebanon - much more than Hezbollah
                     and Syria and the Lebanese government combined.
                     Obviously, if your newspapers constantly talk about
                     withdrawal, it will have an adverse effect on our soldiers
                     and on our ability to recruit agents. People that I want to
                     press into cooperating laugh in my face. They say, 'What
                     will we get out of it? Anyway, the Israelis won't be here in
                     another year.' You have to understand that all around you
                     are dictatorships. Democracy is terrific, but you shouldn't
                     talk so freely all the time about what you're planning to do."

                     If you were [Israeli Chief of Staff] Shaul Mofaz, what would
                     you do from a military standpoint - withdraw the IDF to the
                     international border, or stay in Lebanon and remain
                     exposed to Hezbollah terror attacks?

                     "I knew Shaul Mofaz when he was a colonel. We have a
                     long history together. If I were Shaul Mofaz, I would ask
                     myself - What about the 150,000 people who cooperated
                     with Israel over the past 23 years? If the Jewish nation,
                     which suffered so much, is ready to throw away the people
                     who helped it, and who paid with their blood - a lot of blood
                     - for it, then I say, from the military standpoint, the
                     international border is the right solution. The IDF can
                     withdraw. In such a situation, it would be very easy for
                     Mofaz to order that every time the north is fired upon from
                     inside a village, that village should be taken out.

                     "Everyone says you have to kill the head of the snake. But
                     we know where the head is - in Beirut and in the Bekaa.
                     That's where you find the people who are propelling the
                     terrorists to attack Israel and the SLA. Besides responding
                     with artillery to every shelling, you have to know how to
                     take care of Nasrallah and his dirty friends in Beirut. You
                     also have to remember that Hezbollah and Iran don't want
                     Lebanon. They know they won't be able to establish an
                     Islamic state here. They say openly that their objective
                     doesn't stop at the border fence. They want Jerusalem."

                     Asked if he can't find a good word to say about Hezbollah's
                     professional capability, Hashem initially grimaces and
                     curses, but then relents and mentions Ali Dib, who died in a
                     car bomb explosion several months ago, and Khalil Harb,
                     Hezbollah's commander in South Lebanon and Hashem's
                     declared enemy.

                     Khalil Harb was trained in Iran and is the man behind the
                     Hezbollah blitz on SLA posts. After his men killed SLA
                     security service commander Hussein Abdel Nabi, Hashem
                     became Hezbollah's number one target, after (some would
                     argue, before) General Lahad. In January 1995, one of
                     Khalil Harb's men detonated a powerful bomb at a
                     pharmacy where Hashem had gone to buy some eye drops
                     for one of his daughters. Four people standing near him
                     were killed. Hashem escaped without a scratch. Ever since,
                     Hashem has been provided with heavy 24-hour security by
                     people from Mabat. "Everything is from God," says
                     Hashem.

                     Despite his harsh criticism of Israel, Hashem is careful not
                     to disparage Ehud Barak: "I've never heard Barak - or
                     anyone else important in the defense establishment - talk
                     about a withdrawal without an arrangement. I'm sure that
                     Barak will not abandon his Christian allies and that he will
                     not accept any agreement that does not include a just and
                     honorable solution for the residents of the south."

                     Some in Israel claim that all that really needs to be done to
                     solve the problem is to set up 500 families of senior SLA
                     people and others identified with the Israelis inside the
                     Green Line.

                     "First of all, it's not 500 families, but 3,000 or more. Aside
                     from that, as long as I'm alive, there's no way that I'll look for
                     'rehabilitation' (shikum), as you call it, in Israel. I'm not one
                     of your 'collaborators' from Gaza. I'm not willing to be
                     treated that way and I'm not ready to let happen to me what
                     happened to them. I'm staying here - until the final drop of
                     blood."

                     What do you think of The Four Mothers organization?

                     "I definitely understand them. Obviously, every mother
                     wants her son to be near her, to get a good job and not to
                     go to war. It's completely natural. On the other hand, if
                     everyone stays back, who will defend the border? The sons
                     of these mothers give Israel peace.".

                              © copyright 1999 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved