MARJAYOUN, South Lebanon -- These are days of death and dread for the South Lebanon Army, the Christian-founded militia that's been armed, trained, clothed and paid by Israel for more than two decades.
Since the mid-1970s, its members have cast their lot with Israel. Fighting first the Palestine Liberation Organization and more recently Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah guerrillas, they have become pariahs to many of their fellow Lebanese.
Now this joyless collaboration is ending with Israel's announced withdrawal by July from the slim "security zone" it occupies along the Israeli-Lebanese border.
"If Israel leaves us [there will be] big fighting between us and Hezbollah. All the villages will see fighting," said a grizzled Col. Ghazi Aziz Daweh, 59, a deputy brigade commander in the SLA's eastern zone. "We are afraid for our future because we don't know what is our future."
Israel hopes for an agreement with Syria, which controls much of what happens in Lebanon, that would neutralize Hezbollah and allow for an orderly Israeli withdrawal, a peaceful border and lenient treatment for SLA soldiers from Lebanese justice.
But so weary is the Israeli public over the continuing death of its soldiers in Lebanon that the Israeli Cabinet voted unanimously Sunday to withdraw Israel's forces without an agreement.
Israeli officials have pledged to provide security for the SLA, knowing their reputation as allies will be on the line.
"We are strongly committed not only to the SLA soldiers but to the entire population of south Lebanon," said Ephraim Sneh, deputy defense minister. "We are not going to let them down."
But the Israeli government has not said how it will protect the SLA. Yesterday, a court rejected a bid for political asylum by three SLA members. An Israeli security source said recently: "Without an agreement, there is a problem."
This is an understatement, says an SLA brigade commander in the eastern zone, Col. Nabih Abu Rafeh: "Without an agreement, there will be a war. The whole area will become a hell."
Some might argue that south Lebanon already is hell.
Hezbollah killed five SLA soldiers with a bomb attack last week, bringing to 11 the number killed this year, including their deputy commander.
Absorbing a share of hits from Hezbollah is an unspoken part of the SLA's bargain with Israel. Without the SLA, more young Israeli men might be dying here than the seven killed this year.
This unusual pairing of Jewish and Arab fighters grew out of a common purpose in the mid-1970s. Israel wanted the PLO out of southern Lebanon, so it teamed with the Lebanese Christian militia in the south led by a renegade Lebanese army officer, Major Sa'ad Haddad, also fighting to oust the PLO. Haddad died in 1984 and was replaced by Gen. Antoine Lahd.
From Israel's first invasion of Lebanon in 1978, through a later, bigger invasion all the way to Beirut in 1982, the relationship with the SLA survived. When Israel pulled back in Lebanon in 1985, it kept control of a larger buffer zone, running the length of the Israel-Lebanon border.
Since then, its chief enemy has been Hezbollah, which is armed with Iranian-supplied Katyusha rockets capable of raining terror on northern Israel.
The SLA's collaboration spared the Jewish state from becoming enmeshed in the day-to-day running of an occupation zone of the kind that produced so much bitterness among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
"It's not really an occupation. You can't see an Israeli soldier block roads or check IDs," says Brig. Gen. Benny Gantz, Israel's chief liaison officer with the SLA. "You won't see us operating against the local population."
In return, southern Lebanon has benefited from Israel's much larger economy, with SLA soldiers drawing salaries from Israel and getting the privilege of sending family members to jobs in Israel.
"All the money here in this region is from Israel," said the owner of a hardware store in one of the graceful, aged stone buildings surrounding Marjayoun's town square. He asked that his name not be published.
Money isn't the only lure for SLA soldiers. One key officer, who as a 7-year-old watched a Palestinian terrorist shoot his father to death, sees Israel as his only natural ally in the country.
"It's my homeland. I'm defending my village, the people and kids," adds Abu Rafeh.
But so economically attached has the region become to Israel that the SLA's original Christian ranks have expanded to include Muslims and Druze, even among senior officers. Although its leadership remains largely Christian, up to 60 percent of its soldiers are Shiites.
The SLA has plenty of reason to fear for itself if left to the mercy of the Lebanese government.
The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem says hundreds of Lebanese, including some minors, have been detained without due process at the al-Khiam prison, operated by the SLA in south Lebanon.
Rights groups that have taken testimony from former prisoners report "severe" torture during interrogations, sometimes for up to three months.
The forms include electric shock, forcing prisoners to hang from a bar, "beating and kicking, and threats of rape of female relatives of the interrogees," B'Tselem wrote in a January report. Four prisoners have died in the process, according to a Lebanese human rights group.
The SLA's Abu Rafeh says the militia imprisons only those "responsible for bloodshed," and he said human rights groups rely on information supplied from Beirut, making it suspect.
But Col. Akel Hashem, the SLA second-in-command who was recently assassinated, acknowledged in an interview last year in the Israeli Ha'aretz newspaper, "If I were to tell you that there are no beatings going on there, I would be lying." He went on, "A bit of force, a bit of fear. It's an interrogation, right?"
Other abuses noted by B'Tselem include expulsions of families from the security zone for suspected acts committed by relatives, and closure of whole villages. The group also says young men are forcibly conscripted, a charge that SLA commanders deny.
And evidence of Israeli complicity in this conduct also has surfaced. In a pending court case, Israeli commanders have acknowledged that they pay the salaries of officers at al-Khiam and "coordinate" in interrogations.
The casualties Israel has suffered in south Lebanon this year are the main cause for the latest pressure to get out of Lebanon as soon as possible. But the feeling that the whole Lebanon experience has tainted Israel's stature is an underlying factor.
Even if the Israelis and the Syrians were to reach a peace agreement that included provisions for the SLA, those might not be enforceable.
"Those who stay behind may well face sentences of some sort," said Michael Young, a political commentator in Beirut. When the SLA pulled back last year from its stronghold in the town of Jezzine, its soldiers who stayed got prison sentences of six months to two years.
"If there is agreement, the authorities may be lenient," Young said. "More problematic are those who have a beef against the SLA, including Hezbollah members. Personal revenge may be difficult to stop."
Senior officers, those in charge of intelligence and security, might be particular targets of revenge attacks and Lebanese justice. Many are expected to seek refuge abroad. General Lahd's family already lives in France.
As the waiting and killing continue, there have been reports of desertions, which SLA commanders deny. There also has been talk of the possibility that SLA soldiers, fearing abandonment, could turn against their longtime Israeli allies.
This would bring a tragic close to a partnership that hasn't seen many bright moments, but, according to Abu Rafeh, helped blaze a trail for Arab-Israeli dialogue:
"We're the first Arabs to talk with Israelis face-to-face," he said. "We believe we paved the way for Camp David and Madrid."