My Life in Israeli Exile
By: Joel Beno Translated from Yedioth Ahronoth (Israel).
Exactly twelve years ago, we fled Lebanon together with father, who had been an officer in the South Lebanese Army (SLA). [The SLA was an Israeli-backed militia in Lebanon that fought Hezbollah until 2000, when Israel withdrew from the country.] My parents had been partners in the defense of Israel, and today we also continue in their path. We demand only one thing: allow us to live lives of dignity and well-being.
About This Article
Twelve years ago, after Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, Jonathan Nizar Alhuri, 19, fled to Israel with his father, an officer in the pro-Israeli millitia South Lebanon Army. Today, they are viewed as traitors by Arabs, and as Arabs by Israelis. Alhuri says it's time for former SLA fighters to be treated with dignity.Publisher: Yedioth Ahronoth (Israel)
The moment in which my entire life changed
Author: Joel Beno
First Published: May 23, 2012
Posted on: May 29 2012
Translated by: Sandy Bloom
The date: March 23, 2000 in Lebanon. The hour: 11:00 am. Outside, terrible pandemonium rages. Cars with suitcases on their roofs drive by, opposite our house. Someone comes out of one of the cars, approaches father and tells him briefly that he has to leave. At 6:30 pm, a white car stopped opposite the house. Father bent down to talk to the driver and after a moment he ran into the house, grabbed a bag with the few belongings that he’d managed to pack, and hurried to get into the car. “You don’t even want to say goodbye?” mother asked. So father went back into the house, hugged us and whispered, “Don’t worry, everything will be OK. I love you,” and disappeared in the direction of the border [with Israel]. Israel withdrew from Lebanon and our lives — the SLA families — were turned upside down.
At 3 am I woke up from strange, scary noises. I heard three explosions outside the bedroom window. “The bunker is going to explode, run!” screamed mother. Before we were able to escape, there was a tremendous explosion and pieces of glass flew in all directions. We ran in our pajamas to the most distant part of the house, and then we heard an even stronger explosion. “Everything will be all right,” mother tried to calm us and herself, without success.
The hours passed and the explosions continued. It turned out that the bunker was purposely detonated so that the firearms would not fall into Hezbollah hands. Thick black smoke enveloped the area. It was hard to breathe and I was scared. I was very scared. The man who had transported father returned, called father and gave me the phone. “Calm down,” father told me. “Everything will be OK. Listen to everything that mother will tell you.” I saw mother sitting on the living room couch, white as a sheet; her eyes, filled with tears, surveyed the destruction surrounding her.
Two hours later I saw him, the man with the stupid garment who was responsible for everything that happened. Everyone is silent, or they bless him and throw rice and flowers on him. Grandmother is uttering curses in the background and my uncle rushes to silence her before she comes to harm.
On August 27, 2001 we entered a jeep and left for the airport. Without understanding why, I found my eyes filling with tears. Perhaps I already understood deep inside that this was it, here we were parting. My hands held two stuffed bears that grandmother had bought for me as presents. My brother was holding his darbuka (goblet drum). Mother was stressed, she was afraid of people asking us questions. Around us, everyone was crying. At 3 am, we landed in Israel.
Father was waiting for us in the airport, but after the year and three months that I hadn’t seen him, my eyes filled with tears and I didn’t recognize him. We hugged each other powerfully and cried, this time — in happiness.
The date on which our lives changed beyond recognition will remain forever engraved in our memories. We packed in haste and escaped quickly in order to save our lives and also the lives of those dear to us. We preferred to give a hug and one last kiss, and allow our tears to speak for us. We parted without words, without explanations.
Twelve years have passed and nothing has changed; the promises have remained suspended in the air. We do hard, manual work for every shekel, otherwise we will not have food or drink at our modest, unbearable holiday meals. We are here, and everyone else is there — within walking distance. “Next year, with God’s help we will celebrate together with everyone,” we bless ourselves each year with trembling voices. We hope that, over time, things will change for the better. If only we could see them at least one more time before they depart from this world.
And meanwhile everything is the same, we go to work in the morning and come home tired in the afternoon, yearning more and more for our families who remained behind. They say that time heals, but that is a lie.
The time has come to make a change. Our voices must be heard. We lost ourselves in the enthusiasm that took control of everyone, as if hunger strikes and demonstrations [that were held by SLA families last year] frighten Knesset members and ministers. Look around you, what changed from the summer until today? Nothing.
In the last 12 years, the responsibility for former SLA fighters has been bounced from hand to hand and nothing has come of it. Then they [the government] decided to split the care of [SLA veterans], according to rank and seniority in army service, between the Defense Ministry and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry. Those under the care of the Defense Ministry receive economic support, appropriate housing and employment placement services. But on the other hand, those of us under the care of the Absorption Ministry receive only symbolic help — and even that will cease in a few months.
My father is one of those "supported" by the Absorption Ministry. Every single day he gathers his strength for another long, exhausting workday; we hardly see him. Mother underwent a long process of integration in Israeli society, she worked hard to learn Hebrew and works devotedly in taking care of children with especially severe disabilities. Even though she herself has medical limitations, her work involves strenuous physical labor that she performs in order to help support the family.
The government’s split of the former SLA community led to tensions and splits [among us]; the categorization itself was not always carried out according to accepted criteria. For example, my own father fought from age 14 in the Army of Region of South Lebanon which then turned into the Free Lebanon Army (FLA) and only later to the South Lebanese Army (SLA), in which he served as an officer. He fought valiantly next to IDF soldiers and defended the borders of the State of Israel. Several of his friends were killed while carrying out their duty, and every day I thank God that father safely survived.
Thanks to [my parents’] efforts, my brother and I reached the place where we are today. We have earned full bagrut (high-school matriculation) certificates, my brother does full army service and I am doing national (civilian) service. When we saw the tremendous efforts that my parents made in order to create decent lives for the family, my brother and I began working from age 17.
Many SLA fighters forfeited their adolescent, youthful periods because they placed the defense of the homeland and the peace and well-being of their families above their own needs and dreams. They fought alongside IDF soldiers in order to remove terrorist organizations, for the welfare of the residents of South Lebanon and northern Israel. We, their children, try to continue the legacy on which we were raised. As one of those children, I was raised to love Israel and I do feel gratitude to the country that opened its doors to us.
On the other hand, I feel that the treatment of my family and myself has reached an impasse. In a few months, the support we receive from the Absorption Ministry will stop, and what will happen to us then? The Arab society views us as traitors and subjects us to humiliating exclamations of contempt, while Israeli society views us as Arabs. Until Israelis hear our story — and who even bothers to listen to us — we are not welcome. Sometimes, during distressful periods, we experience increasing opposition and rejection.
The duty to contribute
I have told the story of my life and the lives of SLA fighters innumerable times. Each time the question arises: After everything that has happened, why have me and my friends from South Lebanon chosen to remain and contribute to the State of Israel.
My name is Jonathan Nizar Alhuri, 19 years old, from Haifa and I am now doing national-civilian service in a volunteer association in the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. Despite the disfavor exhibited by the Arab sector to national service, the decision for me was simple: The State of Israel protected us, gave us refuge in its territory, helped us acquire an education, become absorbed, and develop social lives. Despite the fact that I am not required to enlist, I feel an obligation to contribute to the state.
Yet, I also feel that the time has come to make the change so that we will receive equal rights. My parents despair the [empty] promises and words they were told to us in the past and the present, thus we — the second generation — feel the need to say what our parents do not dare say: Our parents were involved in defending the State of Israel and today, we continue in their paths. We feel that we share the same fate as the State of Israel. Thus, the time has come for this issue to be resolved. Former SLA fighters earned their rightful place, and they are entitled to live lives of dignity and well-being as much as possible.
Benjamin Disraeli [British Prime Minister, 1804 –1881] said, “We make our fortunes and we call them fate.” Thus, the time has come that we, too, determine our own fate.
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