JERUSALEM - Resisting demands from the United Nations, Israel has balked at disarming and dismantling its proxy army in South Lebanon in a bid to ensure the safety of militia members and their families.
Far from dismantling the South Lebanon Army, Israel is helping to shore up the militia by turning over heavily fortified outposts as the Israelis slowly begin their withdrawal before Prime Minister Ehud Barak's July pullout.
The South Lebanon Army risks being overrun by Hezbollah guerrillas and other Lebanese forces once the Israeli army pulls out. The Lebanese government has said SLA leaders face the death penalty as traitors.
A security source here suggested that Israel could come to the SLA's defense with air cover if it looked as though the militia were about to be crushed.
An assault on the SLA is one of several possible scenarios for the tinderbox border area, alongside renewed guerrilla rocket attacks on northern Israel and Israeli retaliatory strikes against the Lebanese.
Israel, which has armed, trained and paid the SLA for two decades, doesn't want to abandon its allies, who this year have suffered heavier casualties than the Israeli army. Israel has offered militia members asylum, but most apparently want to stay in their villages.
"For the time being, we're not disarming them," a senior Israeli military official said. "We're waiting to find a better solution for the future of the SLA with the U.N., the Lebanese and the Syrians."
Israel's apparent aim is to pressure the United Nations and members of the Security Council to extract an amnesty pledge for the SLA from the Lebanese government, as well as protection from forces such as Hezbollah that want to take revenge on the militia.
"If the Lebanese government is going to dismantle the Hezbollah, then there are conditions, basic conditions, also for dismantling the SLA," a senior Israeli government official said. "There should be a symmetry, and not asymmetry, in the situation."
The United Nations is preparing to expand its peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon and move in to stabilize the 9-mile-wide occupation zone being vacated by Israel.
But U.N. officials insist that before their lightly armed peacekeepers deploy, the SLA must be disbanded and disarmed. France, a permanent member of the Security Council, has the same view. Britain and the United States favor taking away the SLA's heavy weapons.
U.N. officials have not publicly demanded that the Lebanese government break up Hezbollah, which has remained silent about its plans. However, some security sources argue that once Israel withdraws and the peacekeepers deploy, Hezbollah won't have any reason to carry on the fight.
SLA commander Antoine Lahd has vowed that the militia will defend a strip along the Israel-Lebanon border unless his men are granted amnesty. Hezbollah's deputy secretary general, Sheik Naim Qassem, has suggested that the Lebanese government offer amnesty to SLA members who kill an Israeli soldier or SLA official.
An incentive for Lebanon to cooperate in ensuring the safety of the SLA is the prospect that with Israel's withdrawal, southern Lebanon could stabilize to the point where it could offer a boost to Lebanon's struggling economy.
U.N. envoy Terje Larsen, who is preparing a report to the Security Council, is expected to call for a major redevelopment effort for southern Lebanon totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.
The uncertain future of the SLA is one of two major obstacles in the way of a smooth Israeli pullout. Another is Lebanon's demand that Israel return a strip of territory called Shebaa Farms that Israel occupied when it captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967.
Israel says Lebanon has no claim on the territory because it belonged to Syria, and is therefore part of the land that could be returned to Syria once peace is made with Damascus.
But Syria yesterday backed up Lebanon's claim to the territory. "Syria supports the just Lebanese demands for the restoration of all the occupied Lebanese territories, including the Shebaa Farms," a spokesman quoted Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa as saying.
Syria, which controls Lebanon, is seen as having inspired Lebanon's demand in an effort to complicate the Israeli army's withdrawal from southern Lebanon.