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