Israeli army helps Lebanese man cross border into Israel

The 40-year-old had spent 17 years in Israel before returning to Lebanon two years ago

A picture taken on December 26, 2018, from the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Kila, shows United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) patrolling the border fence with Israel.  / AFP / Mahmoud ZAYYAT
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A Lebanese man who spent 17 years in Israel and was jailed in Lebanon after returning two years ago managed to go back across the border last week with help from Israeli soldiers.

The incident, which was reported by the state-run Lebanese National News Agency (NNA), is highly unusual in the tense border area between two countries that are technically still at war and recalls the fate of thousands of Lebanese who fought in an Israel-backed force during its occupation of Lebanon and fled there when it ended.

Jihad Ahmed Shebli Saleh, originally from the Lebanese border town of Ayta Ash Shab, “crossed the barbed wire and entered the occupied Palestinian territories after an Israeli soldier opened a gap to help him cross", the NNA said. The man was unarmed and was arrested by the military for questioning on Thursday after crossing, according to Israeli media.

The border area is patrolled by the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), a peacekeeping mission created in 1978 which monitors the ceasefire between the two countries.

In addition to an existing fence, Israel started building a concrete wall in 2012 at several points along the so-called Blue Line, which both countries have agreed to respect in the absence of an official border, though some areas are still disputed.

Mr Saleh, 40, had initially fled to Israel in 2000 with his father, who was described as a “collaborator” in the NNA report. After 17 years in Israel, he came back to Lebanon alone through the border fence for reasons which were not explained. He was arrested by the Lebanese army and tried in court. After spending an unspecified amount of time in prison, he moved back to Ayta Ash Shab where he faced “no harassment”, the NNA said.

Thousands of Lebanese fled to Israel as its forces retreated from southern Lebanon in 2000 after 22 years of occupation. They were afraid of being targeted by Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese party whose militia fought Israel during its presence in south Lebanon and then again during a 33-day war in July 2006. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah recently admitted that his group had built the cross-border tunnels discovered by Israel late last year.

Most Lebanese living in Israel were once part of the South Lebanon Army (SLA), which was trained, funded and equipped by Israel.

Formed in 1975 at the beginning of the Lebanese civil war, the SLA fought Palestinian groups and also Hezbollah in the 1980s and 1990s. The SLA ran the notorious Khiam prison where "systematic torture" was used, Human Rights Watch said in a 1999 report.

The paramilitary group disintegrated with Israel’s withdrawal, which transformed nearly 6,000 Lebanese into refugees overnight, according to Ben Herzog, assistant professor at Israel's Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

A former captain in the SLA told The National he was paid US$1,800 (Dh6,600) a month in the 1990s, a significant sum considering that minimum wage in Lebanon today is $450 a month.

The SLA comprised some 2,500 soldiers, mostly of Shiite origin, although senior officers were almost exclusively Christian, Mr Herzog wrote in a 2009 article. Its members were allowed to work in Israel, an important incentive in south Lebanon which was economically isolated because of the 1975-1990 civil war.

"Fourteen months after the withdrawal from Lebanon, 1,378 people returned home, 377 emigrated to other countries (mostly Germany and Australia), and approximately 3,900 SLA men and women remained in Israel", Mr Herzog wrote.

Former SLA soldiers in Israel receive pension payments and retirement grants equivalent to those of the Israeli army.

Those who stayed in Lebanon all served prison sentences for collaborating with Israel, the former SLA captain said.

A Lebanese group called Hakkoun Yarjaho, which means "it is their right to return" in Arabic, was formed in 2011 to campaign for the safe return of former SLA members. A proposed general amnesty law that would include them as well as Islamist fundamentalists facing terrorism charges has not been discussed since April last year.

There have been several other illegal border crossings recently. In early February, a Lebanese man who had entered Israel was sent back after two days of interrogation, days after two other Lebanese men were arrested while trying to smuggle drugs into Israel, the Times of Israel reported. An American citizen who entered Lebanon from Israel was arrested in the coastal town of Tyre on January 17.