The Israel Defense Forces marked its extended, contentious cooperation with the South Lebanon Army on Tuesday night, inviting members of the Maronite Christian militia to the Lebanese border in honor of the 20th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from its northern neighbor.
The event, “Appreciation and Honor for Former SLA Commanders,” was held at an army post along the Lebanese border and was presided over by IDF Northern Command head Maj. Gen. Amir Baram; commander of the Galilee Division Brig. Gen. Shlomi Binder; the former deputy commander of the Lebanon Liaison Unit Col. (res.) Shaul Kamisa Raz; and other senior IDF officers, along with some 20 former SLA officers.
From the mid-1980s until the summer of 2000, Israel maintained a series of outposts in southern Lebanon, dubbed collectively the Security Zone, which were there to both assist the SLA to maintain control over the region and prevent terror groups in Lebanon from attacking northern Israel. This remains a hotly debated period in Israel’s history in which hundreds of IDF soldiers were killed for vague and largely unachieved goals.
The SLA, generally commanded by Lebanese Maronite Christians, was formed during the country’s bloody civil war with training and support from Israel, which hoped to see the formation of a Lebanese government with which it could make peace. Israel and Lebanon have formally remained at war with one another since Israel’s creation in 1948.
“Twenty years after the end of the fighting in the Security Zone, [IDF] commanders gathered in order to mark the cooperation and loyalty between the IDF and the SLA and to express appreciation for the actions of the SLA commanders and fighters,” the military said.
Following the IDF’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, thousands of SLA soldiers came to Israel out of fears of persecution and reprisals from their countrymen, in large part due to the militia’s brutal tactics in southern Lebanon during that period, particularly in its notorious al-Khiam prison, where torture was rampant. Thousands more SLA members remained in Lebanon or were exiled following Israel’s chaotic withdrawal.
The question of what to do with former SLA fighters remains controversial in Lebanon, where some parts of the country see them as traitors for collaborating with Israel. Earlier this year, a former senior SLA member suspected of being a warden at al-Khiam prison was gunned down in southern Lebanon by unknown assailants.
“The [IDF’s] operations in the Security Zone represents a formative period in the history of the IDF and Israeli society and — I admit — for me personally,” said Baram, who served in southern Lebanon during this period.
“Twenty years since the withdrawal from Lebanon, Israeli society has learned that it must appreciate the fighters and commanders of the SLA, who operated shoulder-to-shoulder with IDF fighters and commanders and were full partners in our operations in the Security Zone,” Baram said.
“Without a doubt our shared past and actions in the Security Zone will remain an important memory for us all, militarily and diplomatically, along with the painful and heavy price we all paid together,” he added.
During the ceremony, Kamisa Raz, the former deputy commander of the IDF liaison unit that served as a bridge between Israel and SLA, praised the cooperation between the two militaries.
“The period was complicated and challenging, but at the same time it was successful and had significant accomplishments that created true, mutual and shared friendships, which we can see to this day,” he said.