Committed to Liberation: Remembering Soha Bechara’s Clandestine Mission
Introduction by Sintia Issa
In 1978, at the age of 11, Soha Bechara witnessed a momentous event that forever changed her life and set it on a course of militantism — the Israeli invasion of south Lebanon. From then on, Deir Mimas, the village from which she hails, was occupied; many southerners went into exile to escape bombs and humiliation at the hands of the Zionist army.
Descending from a predominantly leftist family and a communist father whom she loved, she soon joined the Union of the Democratic Youth, though not without opposition, and became a student-activist at Fakhr al-Din, her deeply politicized school. As the civil war claimed more and more lives, she volunteered as a first-aid respondent across demarcation lines.
In 1982, from her home in Chiyah, she experienced another pivotal moment — the Israeli invasion of Beirut. Once again, leaflets, these infamous sheets that the Israeli Airforce “benevolently” releases from the sky moments before bombing, fell in West Beirut. Packed into a small Peugeot, her family went east into exile.
“As the 1980s began, after five years of fighting, something had become clear to me,” she said, “Lebanon had only one real enemy, one occupying power: the state of Israel.” And so, she joined the resistance wing of the Communist Party.
In 1988, she shot Israeli collaborator Antoine Lahd in the house he requisitioned in Marjayoun. She would spend the next decade of her life captive in al-Khiam, a torture prison run by the South Lebanon Army (SLA), an Israeli proxy militia, that Lahd was heading.
In 1998, Bechara was freed and became an icon of the resistance that liberated the south after 22 years of occupation. On May 25, 2000, the day of Liberation, the last remaining Israeli soldier withdrew from most of south Lebanon and all prisoners were liberated. Al-Khiam became a memorial to the thousands who were imprisoned and tortured in its tiny cells, in the shadow of the sun. In a not so veiled attempt to erase the memory of the prison, Israel bombed the site in 2006. Following the liberation of south Lebanon, many collaborators were allowed to escape with their overseers across the Lebanon-Palestine border, including Lahd and Amer al-Fakhouri, the butcher of al-Khiam.
In 2000, Bechara wrote her memoir, “Résistante” (Paris: JC Lattès), which was translated into and published in Arabic “Muqawama” (Beirut: Dar al-Saqi, 2002), then English “Resistance: My Life for Lebanon” (NY: Soft Skull Press, 2003). It details evocative scenes from her childhood in Deir Mimas, her emerging political consciousness, activism, militantism, and detention in al-Khiam.
For Liberation Day, we are republishing Chapter 7 “Preparations,” from the English edition, to honor those who struggled, perished, and languished in al-Khiam for liberation.
Their radical memory endures against all attempts of erasure.
In just a few years, the occupation had transformed South Lebanon.
Traditions and whole ways of life had been turned upside-down. Since Lebanese began to work in Israel, the holidays had changed. Weddings were now held on Saturdays, the obligatory Sabbath, rather than on Sundays as before. And money, even more than the presence of Israeli troops, helped to destabilize social relations. By working for the Israelis or the occupying army, young women earned much more than what was offered in Beirut. They were heavily courted, not for themselves, but for their spending power. Marriages became less stable and divorces increased.
South Lebanon was a classic lawless zone, open to any kind of traffic. At the dinner table, bottles of arak were replaced by bottles of Johnny Walker. Drugs in transit, cars stolen in Europe—any type of product could be found there. For those who had problems with the law in their native country, South Lebanon became an ideal refuge, especially since the South Lebanese Army, run by Antoine Lahad, had few scruples about who they would hire.
This was the strange world I discovered on my first visit, shortly after making contact with M.A. in Beirut. I was reunited with friends and relatives, and I tried hard to blend into my surroundings, hoping to learn as much as possible. Of course, mentioning the resistance directly was out of the question. The subject was completely taboo. Security forces were everywhere, either linked to the SLA or directly controlled by Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security agency.
I couldn't have said that the Lebanese I met there were particularly pro-Israeli. In fact, they were all very attached to their country, and to their families, who were often settled on either side of the demarcation line. People even tried their best, when they had enough money, to buy a pied-a-terre in Beirut. But above all, they tried to profit as much as possible from their situation. Buffeted by history and by the fortunes of war, faced with a society knocked off balance, they worked to make the most of it. Each looked after his own interests, not worrying about how much compromise or collaboration with the occupying powers this really meant. No one thought the situation could last. But at the same time, people found it difficult to imagine that, someday, Israel might pull back inside its borders. The ridiculous Lebanese phantom state, with its army, its military, and political leaders, clouded people's vision. Why couldn't South Lebanon separate from Lebanon, becoming a kind of buffer state between Israel and its Arab neighbors to the north? The SLA soldiers, who had served in the Lebanese Army before becoming Israeli auxiliaries, thought that even if Lebanon were to regain its sovereignty over this conquered region, they would be able to return to their old jobs via an amnesty. No choice seemed to be past recall.
As the daughter of a notorious Communist militant, and having grown up in a leftist village known for being critical of the government, I had to be careful to avoid suspicion.As the daughter of a notorious Communist militant, and having grown up in a leftist village known for being critical of the government, I had to be careful to avoid suspicion. At this point in my service, I had no specific mission. I was just expected to report back to Beirut, to increase my contacts with South Lebanese and, if possible, with members of the security services in the occupied zone. I did everything to look like a sociable young girl: athletic, happy, totally uninterested in the political and military issues at stake in the occupied zone. I juggled the requirements for permission to go to and from the zone, applying alternately in Beirut and in the South, covering my tracks by asking both the SLA and the Israelis. I traveled sometimes through West Beirut and sometimes through the East. Eventually, I officially began to look for a job in the South. In the capital, I still used my supposed love affair as an alibi. To any observer in the occupied zone, I was just looking to profit from all the riches diverted to flow through the controlled region.
During the time when I had lost contact with M.A., I had asked myself if I was ready to have a relationship with an Israeli, in order to draw him into a trap. With a Lebanese friend, I even forced myself into a kind of "exercise in seduction" to see if I was able to go that far. In the end, the result was pitiful. Put to the test, I couldn't cross the line. I had gone back to his place ready for anything, but face to face in the intimacy of his room I couldn't do it. My unlucky friend must have wondered what came over me that day, especially since as a militant Communist I had the reputation of being a liberated woman, making me an ideal partner for free and easy amorous exchange.
I learned from Rabih the basics of gathering information. You had to be able to identify troop movements, evaluate their strength, note down the unit numbers, and draw their positions. It was also important to protect yourself, to use the utmost caution in contacting the resistance, and to work with total discretion. I thought I would be quickly trained and then go marching out to war. Instead I learned patience, and the need to return again and again to the South in order to understand the workings of the SLA.
I thought I would be quickly trained and then go marching out to war. Instead I learned patience, and the need to return again and again to the South in order to under stand the workings of the SLA.I had one temporary disagreement with my mentor. An Israeli office had been quietly set up in Ashrafiya, in East Beirut. He suggested I take a look at it. I could guess what he was getting at—organizing a bombing—but I was not interested in any kind of operation in Beirut. I managed to win my case.
For me, the war had to be carried out in the occupied zone.
Starting in July 1987, my trips to the South became part of a specific mission. I had been given three targets: the men of the SLA security forces, the Israelis, and Antoine Lahad himself. At that time, the idea of South Lebanon's secession was very much in vogue. Targeting its supposed leader seemed like the best way to ruin Israel's plans. Israel had already pushed Antoine Lahad's predecessor, Saad Haddad, into declaring the parcel of land he controlled to be a "Free State." I was supposed to work on the ground to find out which target would be easiest to hit. To this end, I maintained all kinds of contacts, and accepted invitations to various parties and ceremonies. I became progressively closer to the security forces in the village of Hasbaya, near Marjayoun. I don't think anybody I talked to was fooled by my attitude. Was I just ambitious, or was it something else? Underneath the pat phrases laden with politeness and civility, everyone watched each other, sized each other up. Weeks passed. I saw no clear way forward. I split my time between Deir Mimas, staying with my aunt since my aging grandparents had joined their children in Beirut, and Marjayoun, at my cousin Issam's.
At that time, the idea of South Lebanon's secession was very much in vogue. Targeting its supposed leader seemed like the best way to ruin Israel's plans. Issam was married, and he tried to shelter his two children from the strange events that spun around them. He had good relations with most of the local militiamen and with the Israelis, but his attitude was more complex than it seemed. In order to preserve his interests, he worked to win the Israelis’ trust. But deep down, as a dyed-in-the-wool Communist, he was opposed to the occupation. His wife, Jeannette, had even once been tempted to join the resistance. He knew my family's—especially my father's—reputation, and so on my arrival he tried to sound out my intentions and beliefs. One day, during a car trip, we passed by a well-known spot where some members of the resistance had orchestrated a devastating attack. He asked me offhandedly what I thought about that kind of behavior. Naturally, I took care not to give away my real thoughts. On the contrary—I said that I couldn't understand or accept such violence, and made a plea for mutual goodwill and understanding. My cousin seemed quite satisfied with this answer.
After that, he treated me like a somewhat naive girl, plainly out of touch with the political realities of the day.
As of June 1988, I settled full-time in the South. Once there, it was hard to keep in touch with Beirut. Already, in 1987, I had been given fifteen days advance notice of an Israeli military offensive on Kfar Tibnit, a village bordering the occupied zone, but I was unable to pass the message along.
When I returned to Beirut, I was advised to work in contact with the resistance network in the South. I refused, knowing that I was probably under surveillance. We worked out another solution: the exchange of coded messages by telephone. A little while later, I had some information to verify. A party was supposedly being planned. It was to feature a recital by a famous Lebanese singer, and Antoine Lahad and some Israeli officials might attend—a good chance for a military operation. But nothing on the ground confirmed the news. Planning anything was pointless. I went to the telephone exchange and called a friend in Beirut, telling him to "keep my chemistry and physics textbooks with my notes." He knew what I was talking about.
Already, in 1987, I had been given fifteen days advance notice of an Israeli military offensive on Kfar Tibnit, a village bordering the occupied zone, but I was unable to pass the message along. During our last few meetings, Rabih had given me only one piece of advice: to keep my distance from the Hasbaya security services, whom he mistrusted. I could not accept this. Though I was focusing my efforts on Marjayoun, where Antoine Lahad lived, I felt that I couldn't stop going to visit the people I knew in Hasbaya, even if it were just to muddy my tracks. I decided to find a job in a strategic place. The idea of working as an operator in the telephone exchange appealed to me, and I asked lssam to recommend me to the manager. Hadn't he already made me an offer one day, in lssam 's presence? But when I asked Issam, he cried out in protest. I had to admit that the people working at the exchange did not have the best reputation, to say the least. They were completely tied up with the security services, and, according to lssam, their morals were quite suspect.
"Unbelievable! You just don't get it. You're too naive," cried my cousin, truly indignant. I replied that I absolutely needed to find work, and I offered to help out at the Marjayoun sports and cultural center. Since I had a taste for this kind of activity, the idea made sense, and it quickly calmed Issam down. He eventually gave his full approval, assuring me that he himself would put me in touch with the director.
We made an appointment. Issam came with me to the center. The interview went off without a hitch. The director was sympathetic, and I had no trouble convincing him of my passion for sports. I offered to give ping-pong and gymnastics classes. He was delighted. He even went beyond my wildest dreams by telling me, there and then, that, as it happened, the leader of the SLA's wife was looking for an aerobics instructor. I quickly saw my opening. I assured him, peppering my words with impressive French expressions, that I happened to be quite familiar with this kind of training.
The wife of the head of the army in the occupied zone! That kind of position couldn't be easy. Minerva Lahad was said to be an attractive and energetic young woman from the chic Beirut suburb of Ashrafiya. She was bored, more often than not, by this artificial universe supported by Israeli generosity. There, everyone knew and watched one another, each vying with the other in gossip and unkind words, and she was not spared. At one time I had thought of going more often to the Marjayoun hairdresser, hoping to meet her—she was always there. But my personality didn't fit with that kind of a project, and my behavior would have been suspicious. Although I had made progress in terms of fashion since I had come to the South, no longer wearing my usual Beirut outfit of T-shirt and jeans, I still resisted styling my hair or using make-up. On the other hand, the idea of giving aerobics lessons was a perfect fit.
From the beginning of our talks, Rabih and I had raised the possibility of an attack against Antoine Lahad, and now it seemed to be taking shape. An interview with Minerva Lahad was arranged. Issam went with me to her house, helping me pass quickly through the security checkpoints where I was searched only lightly. The house had been requisitioned by Antoine Lahad, himself originally from the Bekaa valley. It was spacious and well furnished. Minerva, who was indeed very pretty and much younger than her husband, made a good impression on me. She was intelligent and cultivated, and had obviously been well educated. She spoke to her children only in French. She struggled to live up to the somewhat ridiculous title that history had provided for her: First Lady of South Lebanon. At the same time, I felt that she had difficulties gaining the acceptance of Marjayoun society. Minerva described her problem to me. She was presently under the thumb of a dance teacher who was continually squeezing money out of her students, making outrageous profits from the situation. She hurried to trot out a list of nearly thirty candidates for that voluntary torture called aerobics. If I gave an acceptable demonstration of my talents, they could all be my students. I would be judged by a friend of Minerva's, the French wife of a Lebanese doctor. I said I was delighted by the opportunity, and that I would be ready to start giving lessons as soon as I had time away from university in Beirut, which would be very soon. Actually, I was eager to tell my superiors what had happened, and I wanted to minimize the risk by going to Beirut myself.
I was quite content. Finally, a stroke of luck, a real opening. I was on the verge of placing myself at the heart of the SLA, a unique vantage point for gleaning maximum information on the habits and movements of the army's leader. From the beginning of our talks, Rabih and I had raised the possibility of an attack against Antoine Lahad, and now it seemed to be taking shape. When I met Rabih a few days later, I was proud of what I had achieved, and my superior was enthusiastic. But at that point neither of us knew what might be targeted, nor by whom. While visiting Beirut, I got a friend of mine to make copies of some of Jane Fonda's workout tapes. I asked my sister, a fitness instructor, a few innocent questions, and then headed for Marjayoun to get ready for the big test. I took advantage of the absence of lssam and his wife to replay the tapes on their VCR. The illusion had to be complete. I fine-tuned a kind of ballet, stringing together various exercises to a soundtrack of pounding music.
Two days after my return, I passed the most important test of my life.
My classes got off to a rough start, but I made the most of it. I had to return several times to Antoine Lahad's house to work out all the details. We quickly agreed on a salary. I had to make a plausible request, not too high and not too low, since I had supposedly come South to find work. With thirty students, five dollars per student seemed reasonable. All we had to do was find them. When we met for the first time, Minerva had assured me that, considering the lack of activities in the occupied zone, we wouldn't need to do any publicity. All her friends had encouraged her to find an instructor. But we soon had to change our tune. The other women did not follow through on their promises, and it threw Minerva into a rage. She was obviously being mocked—they were dead set on keeping her isolated.
Far from being discouraged, she plunged into the search. It took on an unexpected importance; she simply refused to let it go. Antoine Lahad, when asked, offered his unconditional support. The lessons started with a small group, only five students, but nevertheless, they started. There was still the question of money. With so few students, I was far from my hoped-for pay.
Minerva turned to her husband to solve this delicate question, and so I met him for the first time.
Rabih had already shown me a photo of the former Lebanese Army Officer, but he looked quite different than I remembered. In just a few years, his features had greatly altered. He did not seem particularly unlikeable. He worked hard to humor his wife. He even offered to fill the gap in my salary out of his own pocket. I accepted, telling him how devoted I was to this project.
After I said goodbye, a decision slowly began to ripen in my mind. From then on, I would be there, in place, near our target. So it was up to me to do it, to perform the most ambitious mission that we could then imagine —to kill Antoine Lahad.