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Israeli troops scurried out of southern Lebanon under cover of
darkness in a scene reminiscent of the disgraceful U.S. withdrawal from
Saigon.

With the pullout, Israel consigned to death or permanent refugee
status thousands of the only friends it has ever made in the Arab world
– Lebanese Christians who had placed their trust and hope for freedom
in the Jewish state.

It was a tortured and complicated history leading up to this week’s
withdrawal by Israeli Defense Forces. Because of my own Lebanese
ancestry and the time I have spent dodging mortar fire in southern
Lebanon, I think I bring a certain perspective to this tragedy.

Thirty years ago, Lebanon was a bustling enterprise zone of freedom
in the Arab Middle East. Beirut was a cosmopolitan oasis — the Paris of
the Arab world. With a population roughly equally divided between
Christians and Muslims, divided representative government worked fairly
well — meaning inefficiently.

As the Muslim population increased, civil war broke out in 1975. The
Palestine Liberation Organization, having been forced out of Jordan by
King Hussein’s “Black September” raids on their camps, set up shop in
southern Lebanon as a launching pad for attacks on Israel. In 1978, PLO
guerrillas based in Lebanon attacked a civilian bus near Tel Aviv,
killing more than 35 men, women and children. Three days later, Israel
invaded southern Lebanon.

A year later, Maj. Saad Haddad, a true hero whom I was privileged to
know, declared the territory in the south “Free Lebanon” and openly
allied his forces with Israel. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon on three
fronts in an effort to drive out the PLO guerrillas who used their bases
to launch artillery and terrorist attacks on northern Israel. Israel
later redeployed its forces to create a small protectorate near its
northern border.

In the 1990s, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas were Israel’s
new adversary in southern Lebanon. They also represented the new threat
to the mostly Christian Lebanese strongholds in the south.

For 20 years, Israel’s best friends in the Arab world clung to the
hope that Jerusalem would continue an alliance that was the difference
between life and death for them. In February of this year, Israeli Prime
Minister Ehud Barak pulled the rug out from under them by suggesting he
would withdraw Israeli forces and support from the south without any
thought to security arrangements.

This was appeasement — pure and simple. Just as the South Vietnamese
were betrayed by the cutoff of support from the U.S. Congress in the
1970s, the Lebanese Christians could see the handwriting on the wall.
Earlier this month, Christians began fleeing for their lives — thus
forcing an even earlier withdrawal of Israeli troops than Barak had
envisioned.

“Before, we had some kind of protection,” said Fadi Skaff, who ran a
computer shop in the south. “Now we don’t. We’re trying to leave, to
just go anywhere. By the time the government comes, it will be too
late.”

Not all the Christians in the south understand their certain fate.
Bishop Elias Kafouri of the Greek Orthodox Church greeted Hezbollah
guerrillas as liberators.

“We thank God that the occupation has ended,” he said. “There is
nothing more sweet than freedom.”

Kafouri is either a fool or is suffering from an acute case of
wishful thinking. Hezbollah and the radical Shiite Islam sect it
represents are the antithesis of freedom and liberation. For Christians
of any stripe, they mean only death or slavery.

That’s why 3,000 Lebanese refugees have already settled in a
temporary tent camp on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and in Jewish
hotels along the border.

This is the end of the dream of a “free Lebanon” — at least for the
near future.

But, even worse, this tactical and moral blunder by Barak means more
trouble for Israel. In a short time, southern Lebanon will be fortified
by more Hezbollah guerrillas and more artillery and rockets. Northern
Israeli towns like Metullah and Kiryat Shemona will be under siege.
Israel’s only options will be another invasion or air retaliation.

I’ve walked the streets of these towns as I have in the Lebanese
village of Marjayoun — now controlled by Hezbollah. It’s a tragedy that
Israel provided false hope to a handful of Arab allies for 20 years,
then walked away.

How likely is it that other Arabs will take seriously Israel’s
promises of friendship and protection? And, given the history of the
Middle East, how likely is it that Israel’s enemies will be anything but
encouraged by Jerusalem’s capitulation in the face of relentless attack?

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