* Twenty years after the IDF left Lebanon, the memories are flooding back
Anna Ahronheim/Jerusalem Post/May 23/2020
جيرازالم بوست/ ذكريات بعد بعد 20 عاماً على مغادرة الجيش الإسرائيلي لبنان
*Twenty years out of Lebanon: The war with no name that would never end
Arieh O’ Sullivan/Jerusalem Post/May 23/2020
جيرازالم بوست/ بعد 20 سنة على الخروج من لبنان..حرب لا اسم لها ولن تنتهي أبداً
*Twenty years after Lebanon withdrawal: Return to the abyss
Seth J.Frantzman/Jerusalem Post/May 23/2020
جيرازالم بوست/ العودة إلى الهاوية بعد الإنسحاب الإسرائيلي من جنوب لبنان
*A four-month coincidence? The Lebanon withdrawal and the Second Intifada
Herb Keinon/ـerusalem Post/May 23/2020
صدفة الشهور الأربعة…الإنسحاب من لبنان والإنتفاضة الثانية
Twenty years after the IDF left Lebanon, the memories are flooding back
Anna Ahronheim/Jerusalem Post/May 23/2020
جيرازالم بوست/ ذكريا بعد بعد 20 عاماً على مغادرة الجيش الإسرائيلي لبنان
Military Affairs: The nameless, forgotten war claimed the lives of hundreds of soldiers and left thousands more with traumatic mental scars, which for many are only now being treated.
Two decades after the IDF withdrew from Lebanon, the forgotten, nameless war has once again grabbed headlines.
Men who served there, either with the IDF or the South Lebanon Army (SLA), are opening up old wounds buried deep inside and are finally telling their stories, stories of bravery, youthfulness, fear and tragedy. For the thousands of soldiers who spent time in Lebanon during Israel’s 15-year presence from 1985 to 2000, the memories are still fresh.
Lt.-Col. (res.) Shay Shemesh served for several years, both as a soldier and as an officer, in the security zone in southern Lebanon until the withdrawal.
“When we returned to Israel for furloughs, we felt a little bit like aliens. After spending 64 days in an outpost deep inside Lebanon, where all I saw were troops, you come home and you see that life continues and no one wants to kill you,” he recalled. “You feel like you didn’t come from another country but from another planet. It got to such a point that when I got home, I just wanted to return to Lebanon because I didn’t feel like I belonged.”
Shemesh, who served as a battalion commander and deputy brigade commander in the Kfir Brigade, said it was a normal feeling for many soldiers. Because, while combat soldiers were told what to expect in Lebanon and how to prepare for their deployment there, it was different when they returned to Israel.
“I would tell my troops all the time to look behind them, to look and see the communities of the north, to Kiryat Shmona, the moshavim and kibbutzim. And then, to look ahead and see Hezbollah. It was that simple and clear and everyone understood that,” he recounted on a webinar held by Alma Research and Education Center, an organization that gives briefings on Israel’s security challenges on the northern border. “At the entrance to every outpost there was a sign that read ‘for the security of the citizens of Israel.’”
Brig.-Gen. Alon Friedman, former chief of staff of the Northern Command, enlisted in the IDF’s Golani Brigade in 1982 and spent years in Lebanon, serving there as a soldier, officer and as brigade commander before the withdrawal.
“I found myself as a very young soldier already inside Lebanon. I grew up fighting in Lebanon, defending the border of Israel,” Friedman said on the webinar.
According to him, the mission was very clear to both soldiers and commanders deployed across the border. “The only way to defend Israel from terrorist attacks was to be in Lebanon and not let anyone close to the border. You know that a few meters from the border are families and children who are sleeping, and we have to be there to protect them.”
IDF TROOPS first entered Lebanon in 1978 to root out Palestinian terrorists. While the Israeli military withdrew from most of the country in 1985, it kept control of a 1,000-sq.km. security zone 20 km. deep, in order to prevent terrorist attacks which had plagued the civilians of the North in the ’70s and ’80s.
Shemesh was a commander of the Taybeh outpost in the Lebanon security zone in the mid-1990s until the withdrawal. He explained that from 1995 until the withdrawal on May 24, 2000, the IDF had gone from being on the offensive to being on the defensive.
“At first we went on the offensive. There were more foot patrols and we always tried to get to where the enemy was. We felt more secure, we would even go out with jeeps that weren’t armored or that were semi-armored. And our outposts weren’t totally armored either. Of course, there was a bomb shelter, but otherwise it was like any other military outpost,” said Shemesh.
But as time rolled on, toward the end of the 1990s, everything changed.
“We went from one event to the next event… from the mortar that fell or the anti-tank missile fired at us. We became more protective, more defensive. We went out less. The outposts all became one big protective zone, everything turned into one big bunker,” he recalled. “We almost never lifted our heads out of our outposts; we would use periscopes or long-range cameras because of the fear of mortars and anti-tank missiles.”
Shemesh told the audience that during his last command post in Lebanon, outside the southern Lebanese village of Taybeh, “we would sometimes get between 100 and 150 mortars and rockets fired at us within 24 hours. We never left our bunkers.”
The commander of the IDF’s Kfir Brigade, Col. Eran Oliel, told The Jerusalem Post that his time at outposts along the Litani River made him realize how important it was to always be ready for the enemy.
“There could be months of quiet and then: Boom! Something would happen,” he said. “I always had to believe that an attack could happen at any moment. Whenever the enemy wanted, they could attack.”
Like Shemesh, Oliel remembered one incident where Hezbollah kept firing mortar rounds at his outpost for 45 minutes.
“I remember the sounds of the mortars striking the roof. There were only two times that we had time to fire back, and there were other troops still outside making sure that Hezbollah operatives would not be able to overrun the outpost. It was a daily occurrence for many troops.”
One thing Oliel always spent time thinking about was an attack by Hezbollah.
“Every night we were warned about Hezbollah. In those days we didn’t have cellphones, we were completely cut off. I remember that feeling,” he said, as we sat in his office at a base in southern Israel. “And in those days our capabilities as an army were not as good as what we have now. I would take a post in the winter, and the fog would roll in and I wouldn’t be able to see anything. But we knew that fog was the best time for Hezbollah to attack us.”
THOSE LAST few years saw officers like Shemesh do everything they could in order not to lose any soldiers.
“You are always being fired upon and you are always worried. But you can’t see the enemy, and it wasn’t like that before. We just never saw the enemy, and we were doing everything possible to not lose any soldiers. That was the big change; we lost the initiative and went from offensive to defensive.”
During his time in Lebanon, Friedman lost 25 soldiers and commanders. He also lost many good friends, such as the commander of the IDF liaison unit to south Lebanon, Brig.-Gen. Erez Gerstein.
“To lose people – each one of them is an entire world – is very difficult, and you take every death personally. On the other hand, it encourages you very much to keep on going and to continue, because you know they fell to defend our country, our people. And someone needs to continue the mission. And when someone fell, we felt like they ordered us to keep going,” he said.
Though official numbers put IDF casualties at 256, with roughly two dozen soldiers killed per year, the unofficial number stands at 675. That number does not include those who were wounded during their time in Lebanon, and, especially, it does not take into account all those who came back with psychological wounds.
“There are people that have been dealing with these issues for years, and there are others where it only came out years later,” Shemesh said. “Now that the country is marking 20 years since the withdrawal, a lot of people are opening up.”
He told the webinar audience that toward the end of Israel’s time in Lebanon, troops were ordered by Col. Shmuel Zakai – who at the time served as commander of the Golani Brigade – not to cry at the funerals of their comrades, in order to show the strength of the IDF.
“He said if you want to cry, cry afterward and alone. During the funerals we had to be strong and not cry,” said Shemesh.
But, he said, the soldiers in Lebanon didn’t fully understand the depth that the pictures of the funerals and wounded soldiers had on the Israeli public. “People didn’t want any more wounded… they didn’t want any more funerals,” he said.
With the number of troops killed in Lebanon increasing, the Four Mothers protest movement was founded in 1997 by four civilian mothers living in northern Israel. Their goal was bringing their boys out of Lebanon.
The movement had a great influence on Israeli public opinion. It was established following the 1997 Israeli helicopter disaster in which 73 soldiers heading to Lebanon were killed after two helicopters carrying troops into the security zone collided.
“I was in the commander’s course when the tragedy happened,” Oliel said. “I remember the names of all the 73 soldiers being read on the radio. Seventy-three soldiers who were heading to Lebanon were all killed at once.”
Two years later, Gerstein was killed by a roadside bomb along with two other soldiers and Israel Radio correspondent Ilan Roeh.
The Four Mother’s movement without a doubt caused a seismic shift in Israel’s outlook on the IDF’s raison d’être in Lebanon.
Even Shemesh’s mother was part of the movement, and he himself didn’t look at it as something political. “It was mothers who wanted to protect their sons. And that’s the most natural thing there is.”
FIFTEEN YEARS after the first IDF convoy entered Lebanon, under intense public pressure, prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak made the decision that Israel would unilaterally withdraw from the security zone.
“In one night they told us we were withdrawing from Lebanon,” Shemesh recalled. “The night of the withdrawal was a celebration because we completed our mission, but at the same time I couldn’t explain to my troops why we were withdrawing. In one night they told us we were going – before we beat the enemy and before peace was achieved.”
It was a decision that would surprise IDF soldiers and leave a feeling of betrayal among troops of the SLA who – for years – had fought shoulder to shoulder with Israeli soldiers against Hezbollah, suffering considerably higher casualties than Israel.
The SLA was an outgrowth of the predominantly Christian Army of Free Lebanon splinter group, which had broken from the Lebanese Armed Forces following the onset of the civil war in 1975. With some 2,500 troops, the SLA was Israel’s key ally in south Lebanon.
Claude Ibrahim, a former officer in the SLA, who also took part in the Alma webinar, said that the people of southern Lebanon who had fled from internal Lebanese conflict to the security zone “really believed in Israel. People believed the words of senior IDF officers like it was the word of God.”
But, Ibrahim said, no one thought the withdrawal would actually take place. There was always talk of a withdrawal, “but no one took it seriously… no one believed that Israel would just pick up and leave.”
As May 23 drew closer, senior SLA officers had a meeting with their Israeli counterparts who told them that the time had come, Israel would be withdrawing.
“They told them they would be alone,” he said. “They told them that there wouldn’t be any help, not financial, not health, no arms. You have to deal with what you have. Not even the border would be open. You can decide if you want to stay and fight or to come to Israel.”
According to him, all SLA officers said they wanted to stay and fight, but then started to think and feel that it wouldn’t be like 1976 where SLA had the support of the country. Things had changed in Lebanon over the years; the civil war had ended, and Syria was occupying the country.
“After the Syrians occupied Lebanon, we became the enemy of the country. Not only the enemy of Hezbollah but the enemy of Lebanon. When talk of the withdrawal became real, we started to ask ourselves who was our main enemy? Hezbollah? The Lebanese Armed Forces? Israel isn’t supporting us,” said Ibrahim.
According to Ibrahim, toward the end of Israel’s time in the security zone, SLA soldiers “couldn’t even fire one bullet” against Hezbollah without the permission of the IDF. “They would be told to ‘watch and report,’ nothing more.”
He said that the time before the withdrawal was also really tough psychologically. “People started getting enlisted into groups against their families…. Hezbollah already had a really strong presence, and they turned us into traitors.”
With the dangers to their families increasing, some 7,000 family members of SLA soldiers and officers fled into Israel, which was expecting only some 450-600 individuals to come.
And while they have been given citizenship, many former SLA fighters who are now between 54 and 65 years old do not speak Hebrew, and with no salary or pension, many have had trouble keeping a roof over their heads. Since 2000, thousands have left Israel for third countries and only 3,000 remain.
“These are men who didn’t serve for just two years; they served for 15-25 years. IDF soldiers who served in Lebanon and came out with traumas, at least they returned home. They returned to their mothers, their girlfriends or their wives. They returned to a warm and loving environment,” Ibrahim said.
Meanwhile, he continued, “after years of serving alongside the IDF, even wearing their uniforms, in one day SLA fighters lost their homes, their families, land, respect and their pride. They lost all of that and left for Israel.”
Jonathan Elkhoury, whose father fought in the SLA, fled to Israel when he was nine years old.
“A few days before the withdrawal, Nasrallah said that SLA soldiers have three options: flee with the enemy to their country, surrender, or be butchered while hugging their mothers. My father fled to Israel the day Israel left, and my mother, brother and I stayed a year and a half under Hezbollah,” he said. “When my father fled, we had to burn everything – his pictures, his uniform, his documents – and we were left with only one photo.”
For the Israelis who served in south Lebanon, many felt like they were running away and hadn’t fulfilled the mission they were sent to accomplish.
For Shemesh, it was a feeling of emotional turmoil when he took that last step from Lebanon into Israel.
“On the one hand it was a feeling of relief because I left Lebanon, I was safe, but on the other hand it was one of failure because I didn’t beat the enemy,” he told the Post. “When the withdrawal happened, it was a feeling of closure, but I felt like I didn’t fulfill my mission, we missed our goal.”
The withdrawal was poorly carried out, contended Shemesh, with soldiers “always looking back to see that no one was firing on us. I felt like we were running away.”
“It wasn’t right what happened there. When we were there, we always told our soldiers that we were protecting our citizens from Hezbollah, and we would leave only when we have peace or when we conquer the enemy. None of that happened. What did we do until now? For what?”
The withdrawal from Lebanon, Shemesh said, sent a message to other terrorist groups – both in Gaza and the West Bank – that this is how you beat the IDF: not through military operations or diplomacy but by wearing them down until they withdraw.
“We lost our deterrence,” he told the Post. And, while in the next war – and there will be one – “we will beat Hezbollah, the price will be high.”
Twenty years out of Lebanon: The war with no name that would never end
Arieh O’ Sullivan/Jerusalem Post/May 23/2020
جيرازالم بوست/ بعد 20 سنة على الخروج من لبنان..حرب لا اسم لها ولن تنتهي أبداً
Like the War of Attrition, the conflict in Lebanon settled in Israeli consciousness.
It was 3 a.m., May 24, 2000. You could hear the distinct rattle of the tanks’ treads approaching in the bible-black night. The earth rumbled. Soldiers swung open the heavy iron Fatima Gate, through which so many thousands of Israeli troops have poured into Lebanon over the past two decades. And suddenly history was being made as the armored column rolled into view and the last of the Israeli soldiers left Lebanon.
They gazed down from their monstrous battle taxis, unshaven and covered in dust from the wildest night ride of their lives, and didn’t even try to hold back their elation. Once through the breech, many shouted, even yelped for joy. Some swapped high-fives, others hugged. One group unfurled the Israeli flag and smiled for the hoard of photographers.
There was no evidence of the feared humiliation of exiting the security zone with their tails between their legs. Only relief that the IDF had managed to stage this complicated retreat under fire without even one soldier getting so much as a scratch.
“I cried the whole way because I was so moved by the situation. Every one of us looked death in the eyes and none of us wanted to die. I never told my parents about it, so they wouldn’t worry,” said St.-Sgt. Gilad Hadad.
I wrote this that night, and now – looking at the battered reporter’s notebooks 20 years later, after burying in my mind all those days and nights and countless stories written during the decades of Israel’s war in Lebanon – it’s all coming back. And not just for me but for many Israeli men, particularly those in their 40s and 50s who lived it (see box).
The IDF presence in Lebanon had become such a given in the national conscience over the 1980s and ’90s that likely none of the soldiers withdrawing that night ever envisioned that when they were drafted a year and a half, two years before that, they’d shut the door on one of the most divisive chapters of Israel’s history.
In the summer of 1982, I was a 21-year-old soldier in an NCO course and was dispatched to Beirut where we mopped up the southern neighborhoods. After Christian leader and president-elect Bashir Gemayel was assassinated, our brigade led the charge into West Beirut, taking over one of the PLO headquarters as the Jewish state completely conquered the capital of an Arab state.
Eventually, I became a journalist, and the IDF withdrew to the south in 1985 and set up a security zone to prevent the PLO and later the Shi’ite Hezbollah from attacking Israel. It established a 2,500-strong militia called the South Lebanon Army as proxies, arming them and setting them up in outposts.
But in a march of follies, the SLA couldn’t or wouldn’t do the job, and the IDF launched periodic operations against the Palestinians and Hezbollah – Operations Accountability, Grapes of Wrath. The IDF eventually set up a dozen outposts in the security zone, whose names would be etched in IDF lore: Rehan, Aishiya, Dla’at, Beaufort, Karkom, Rotem and more. It created the Egoz unit to wage a tough battle of ambushes against a well-respected, growing, Iranian-backed Hezbollah army.
Like the War of Attrition, this conflict settled in Israeli consciousness, and the public was reminded of it and the battles only when the IDF lost and casualties mounted, or when Katyushas were fired.
In late 1996 I spent some time with Golani soldiers at the infamous outpost at Beaufort, a well-preserved Crusader castle overlooking the Litani River. A young lieutenant, Alon Babayan, looked out at his platoon and warned the soldiers to keep their helmets on.
“Every mother of these guys is expecting me to return their son healthy and in one piece. The responsibility is heavy. Just thinking about is hard. But we want to kill terrorists. That’s our job and that’s why we are here. We came here to kill,” the 21-year-old platoon commander said.
This, like other outposts, was placed on a highly visible peak to serve as a deterrent. But by this time the hilltop bunkers and trenches were nothing more than targets. Even to go to the toilet, soldiers had to don their flak vests and helmets. It was a place where every hour outside, a man found himself confined in body armor.
“You can’t know what it’s like, man. At any moment a [mortar] round can hit this outpost. You can go crazy,” said Ra’anan Hartman, a bespectacled 20-year-old radio operator who spent many months on the front.
“If we weren’t here, then we would be in Kiryat Shmona and Hezbollah would be hitting civilians. There is nothing imperialistic about our presence here,” asserted Sgt. Gil Sharabi.
The IDF invested hundreds of millions of shekels fortifying the outposts. All barracks, dining rooms, kitchens, showers and latrines were buried under concrete and iron.
The soldiers were chomping at the bit. But Hezbollah didn’t fight fair. Adopting classic guerrilla tactics, Hezbollah located the IDF weak points – they were the supply convoys, the umbilical cords to the combat troops. Just one foot across the border and you were deep inside Lebanon. Half the casualties in Lebanon were from roadside charges while patrolling or moving in convoys.
The IDF paved alternative, less exposed routes across the security zone. Bulldozers cleared away all large boulders 20 meters from the sides of roads and set up cement walls at sensitive sites to block Sagger missiles. Between the walls, drivers simply sped up.
Every time a convoy moved, it required a military operation of minute detail. Soldiers were sent from their outposts to guard suspected ambush sites. The 20-kilometer ride to Beaufort Castle became a 50-minute roller coaster. Every civilian was suspected of being a Hezbollah gunman, every car a potential suicide bomb.
Just after this, in early 1997, the IDF decided to start ferrying in troops by helicopter, a move that proved to be devastatingly tragic. On February 4 of that year, two transport helicopters collided above She’ar Yashuv, killing 73 servicemen aboard.
As a military reporter I got the news early, and as the young soldier in the IDF Spokesman’s Unit read out the names to me, I checked off nine Golani soldiers I’d recently interviewed in Beaufort, including the young lieutenant Babayan.
I collected the photos I’d taken of him and his troops and paid a shiva call to the family in Jerusalem. I told them how sorry I was for his death, and shared with them the article I wrote, how I’d made him and his soldiers heroes.
Over 112 soldiers died in 1997. In the fall of 1998 the IDF suffered a wave of defeats, as Hezbollah found a chink in its armor, and a squad of the IDF’s top commandos were wiped out. When Shaul Mofaz took over as chief of staff that year, the tactics changed.
Because of casualties and Israel’s increasing hypersensitivity to casualties, he admitted to military reporters that he ordered reduced “initiated actions,” a euphemism for going out and hunting down Hezbollah gunmen, and instead increasing use of warplanes and high technologies.
“If I can kill the terrorists from afar, or if I know how to do it by other methods without endangering soldiers, then I should do it,” Mofaz said. “Don’t judge the amount, but the results.”
The results were that the IDF had been able to extract a heavier toll from Hezbollah, about 45 terrorists a year.
But the IDF also knew that without proving its might from time to time, it could turn into a paper tiger in the eyes of the enemy.
ONE NIGHT, in February 1999, I got a beep about 2 a.m. to inform me that three officers, including the head of a paratrooper reconnaissance unit, had been killed in a firefight with Hezbollah guerrillas up in Lebanon. By 5:30 a.m. I was on the road, headed north.
It was to be one of those days where you keep coming to forks and have to make decisions. It started with the decision to leave home or not. I decided to head to Tel Aviv. Once there I had to decide whether to head north.
The army hadn’t decided if there would be a press conference, but I could see that with three officers dead and not one dead Hezbollah gunman to account for, the army had a lot of explaining to do.
I couldn’t catch a ride since the other military reporters, who formed a small community then, lived north of Tel Aviv and were just then leaving. So I caught a taxi to meet a bus. The bus was filled with soldiers heading to the North, Golan, Lebanon.
I was one of the few people in the country who knew what was happening in Lebanon, because the military censor had prevented the reporting of it until the families were notified.
I spoke to a young lieutenant who was headed back up to his platoon in Lebanon and told him. He was devastated. Unlike in Vietnam, I imagine, officers here are respected, followed and revered.
I got to the town of Rosh Pina and hitched a ride up to Safed, where the Northern Command was located, and walked into the wooden shack just before the briefing started.
Ilan Roeh, the jovial, heavyset Israel Radio reporter for the north, was clowning around as he moved the flags back and forth over the podium.
Afterward I hung around the headquarters, chatting to the officers there, and tried to find out more about the clash. I chatted for a while with a young brigadier-general named Erez Gerstein, the commander of the IDF liaison unit to south Lebanon – a sort of Lawrence of Arabia to the SLA. (He had a hell of a job training that ragtag militia made up of Christians, Druze and Shi’ites. “Don’t judge them by Israeli standards,” he’d say. “Compare them to the other Lebanese militias.”)
I was surprised at his light attitude. I expected depression. He told me and a couple of other military reporters that in Lebanon it’s the luck of the draw. Whoever fires first usually wins. These paratroopers simply “stepped on” the equally surprised Hezbollah gunmen. The fact that they got away was the main screwup.
The Hezbollah gunmen turned up in Sidon later that day not only alive, but with an IDF-issue M-16 and even a bloodied uniform and radio they took from the officers. It was a real insult to the IDF.
A WEEK later I got a phone call: there’d been an explosion in Lebanon. There were wounded. I called the Northern Command, and the speaker could only tell me: “It’s bad, but I can’t say anything else.”
I called the special spokesman’s unit for military reporters in Tel Aviv, and was told that four people had been killed. “It looks like Ilan Roeh was one of those killed,” one of the soldiers said.
My heart jumped. A reporter? Killed? Ilan? It could just as easily have been me on one of my journeys to Lebanon. And then I heard another casualty was Gerstein. I couldn’t believe it. What a blow by Hezbollah. What a loss for us.
The army seemed to be in a mess. Obviously, I had to go to wherever there was going to be news. The army couldn’t say if or when there was going to be a briefing. “It’s still going on, Arieh” was all I could get.
I had to think. The IDF couldn’t sit quietly by as its generals were killed. It was bound to react. Any reaction would draw Katyusha rocket retaliation. It could get nasty. It was Purim. A colleague called and told me he was heading north.
I made a plane reservation and flew from Tel Aviv to the small airfield in Rosh Pina. Joining up with Alan Ben-Ami, the military reporter for Israel Radio’s English news, we grabbed a taxi and sped up the mountain road to Safed. I called ahead and told them to hold the general’s briefing until we got there.
There were so many questions. Did Hezbollah target Gerstein? Did his fearless, swaggering, nothing-can-hurt-me recklessness kill him? What about Roeh? He should be there asking the questions as he always was.
The army made us military reporters sign a waiver every time we crossed the border into that killing zone, so they would not be responsible for any harm that might come to us. Roeh did that afternoon, but when tragedy struck, the army “did the right thing” and posthumously drafted him as a reservist, and he was honored with a military funeral.
It was clear that the army couldn’t let this incident pass quietly, but it was caught in a double bind. If it lashed out at Hezbollah, attacked its leadership in Beirut or in any way struck at civilians, then Hezbollah would start lobbing Katyusha rockets into Israel.
Maj. Oliver Rafowitz, IDF media liaison of the Northern Command, a Frenchman who was the only son of a Holocaust survivor, told us to “stick around. Things are bound to heat up.”
We hitched a ride to Kiryat Shmona, listening to Israel’s leaders on the radio saying that Israel was going to strike back. As we approached the Galilee Panhandle, the cars heading south started to increase and became a constant flow of fleeing residents. The rest were headed to shelters.
We decided to head up to Metulla and checked into the old familiar Arazim Hotel, where journalists used to gather during crises. CNN had arrived, and the foreign reporters, too. It looked like war was brewing. I filed my story only half an hour before we closed the paper.
On the way to my room, I asked the manager where the bomb shelter was.
“Really?! It’s down there, but you won’t be going there,” he said.
He told me to leave the tap running for a bit for the hot water to run. I gave up after 15 minutes and went to bed. It was quite a night. The Israeli Air Force ended up surgically destroying a number of empty cement buildings across Lebanon, claiming they were Hezbollah headquarters. No civilians were killed and by Lebanese accounts, no guerrillas were killed either, and the night passed without Katyushas.
I got up at the crack of dawn because most Katyusha attacks happen then. Nothing. Quiet.
By morning the whole gang was there, eating olives and cheese and drinking cups of coffee like in the good old days of Operation Grapes of Wrath and Operation Accountability. The people of the entire northern border region were still ordered to remain in their shelters.
By noon I realized that the “war” was over.BUT THE incessant guerrilla warfare against Hezbollah was taking a toll on the IDF, and soldiers found themselves for the first time openly saying the IDF should quit the security zone because they don’t want to be the last to die. Ehud Barak was elected prime minister after running on a campaign promise to finally withdraw the IDF from south Lebanon by the summer of 2000. It was getting harder and harder to interview troops in Lebanon. The IDF steadily refused.
Yediot Aharonot and Maariv began splashing large headlines quoting soldiers saying they were scared and that they no longer had any reason to be in Lebanon, and quoting commanders deriding them as sissies.
In what may become for historians a memorable point in the IDF’s Lebanon dilemma, OC Northern Command Gabi Ashkenazi was widely quoted as calling soldiers who voiced these fears “rags and crybabies.”
Israeli soldiers could hardly be characterized as ruthless or brutal, but were they sissies? What did the army expect, since it treated soldiers like children?
For dinner dessert, soldiers were given krembos. If these were just any normal worldly grunts, the soldiers would have thrown them back and demanded whiskey or beer or dames. But not Israeli soldiers.
In Lebanon, soldiers set out into the bush with an ambush mattress so they were comfortable when they lay in pursuit of Hezbollah guerrillas. Their pouches were filled with power food, they had heated underwear and the best radio and night vision equipment money could buy.
Field commanders in Lebanon said there had been an upsurge in appeals by parents not to take their sons to Lebanon. Those whose sons who were already there were asking for them to be returned, and those whose sons were about to go up were asking that they not be taken. They reportedly used excuses, personal problems and illnesses.
“What am I to do when a mother threatens to self-immolate? I am in a bind,” one officer told me.
The grassroots group Four Mothers began gaining momentum, and its pressure was having an effect.
SINCE THE IDF wasn’t allowing reporters into the security zone, I took advantage of an offer to join then-deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh in south Lebanon. We flew north in an old, rusty chopper from the Yom Kippur era. Cruising low, about 230 meters, we landed at the provisional IDF headquarters in Marjayoun and packed into armored Mercedes cars for a short ride from the chopper pad to the base. The old fortress was the French equivalent to the Tegart forts the British built across Israel.
“We don’t allow any SLA guys in here,” said a general. The IDF was becoming increasingly wary of its south Lebanese allies.
Inside, Sneh met with SLA commander Gen. Antoine Lahad, a frail 72-year-old man who spoke little English. There had been a lot of talk about us pulling out of Lebanon unilaterally, and that would basically leave our SLA allies to the dogs.
We soon headed out toward an IDF outpost. I popped open the trunk of our Mercedes and pulled out a flak vest and helmet, and off we went.
“Didn’t Ilan Roeh wear one of these?” I asked, knowing full well that it didn’t help my Israel Radio colleague when the roadside bomb blew his Mercedes to tiny bits.
After a nerve-wracking ride in south Lebanon, we made it finally to the outpost of Shani. A young Ethiopian lieutenant briefed Sneh, a former brigadier-general, in the trenches, and I looked out to the ridges across the Litani gorge, spotting the outposts of Sujud, Rehan and Aishiya.
Mortar shells fired by Hezbollah guerrillas were dropping onto the IDF and SLA outposts, puffing in explosions as they hit and sending pillars of smoke spiraling to the sky. Be we couldn’t hear the explosions. They were so close, yet so far away. Israeli warplanes hit back, turning the horizon into a gouache of fire and smoke. War and a front-seat view. It was almost pornographic.
We then made our way to the SLA outpost of Tel Nahas, where the deputy defense minister assured the officers that Israel had no intention of withdrawing unilaterally.
“We have a moral responsibility here,” Sneh said in Arabic. “The SLA are our allies, our brothers in arms, and we can’t let you down. We aren’t going to turn anyone into refugees. We didn’t fight together for 23 years to get up and abandon you here.”
In January 2000 Hezbollah succeeded in killing Col. Akel Hashem, the unofficial deputy commander of the SLA. “Hezbollah will get their just deserts sooner or later,” Sneh announced. “They won’t go without punishment.”
But the IDF kept its response proportionate, and instead of destroying bridges and plunging Beirut into darkness with a massive air assault, as it did following Hezbollah Katyusha attacks the previous summer, this time airstrikes hit just three Hezbollah targets.
The IDF was being severely restrained by the near-zero casualty tolerance of the Israeli public. Its whole doctrine in south Lebanon was based on preventing casualties. But with Hashem’s death and Israel’s declared intention to quit Lebanon by the summer, soldiers in the SLA sensed they were about to be abandoned.
The IDF was getting out in July. It was to be a withdrawal to the recognized border based on UN Security Council Resolution 425. That was the official version. It was being meticulously planned. The operation was dubbed Orech Ru’ah (Stamina). The army began diluting its positions, so by May soldiers were down to eating battle rations and living out of a small bag.
“Don’t worry,” Ashkenazi told us military reporters. “When we pull out of Lebanon, you will be with the last of the soldiers in the outposts.”
Relations between the IDF and military reporters were tense. The army refused to let any of us into the security zone. Matters had come to a head in what was supposed to be an off-the-record briefing with Ashkenazi. The gruff, Golani-bred general was not known to like journalists at best, and in this case ended up in a shouting match with some of us over just this matter.
Ashkenazi had been critical of then-Channel 1 reporter Alon Ben-David for speculating in a broadcast that the IDF was about to pull out of its outpost at Rehan. After the broadcast, Hezbollah began to heavily shell the position and a number of soldiers were wounded.
But in the third week of May, Shi’ite villagers and Hezbollah gunmen armed mainly with cameras and flags preempted the IDF and converged on the SLA outpost of Taybeh. The SLA militiamen, mostly Shi’ites, fled and set into motion the disintegration of the security zone.
Chaos was starting to appear. The IDF beefed up its forces along the border.
“At this stage, we are adjusting our deployment to the reality on the ground,” Ashkenazi said. “There is not a decision for getting out, and when it is made, we will be found ready.”
Still, while not purely lying to the press, the senior command as well as prime minister Ehud Barak were telling reporters that a withdrawal would take time. June 1 was mentioned. Barak was rebuffing pressure from the IDF echelon to move it forward, even though preparations along the international border were not yet ready.
I was summoned to a briefing of military analysts with IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz in the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on Monday, May 22, and he told us it could take at least a week to get the soldiers out. It turned out that the orders had already been given to be out by dawn Wednesday. We military reporters started feeling like pawns in a disinformation campaign.
Despite the swift and total collapse of the SLA’s 70th battalion, the IDF still had faith in the remaining regiments, which were made up of Christians and Druze.
But like in most wars, the end came like lightning. Tuesday, May 23, I was back up in Metulla hanging out at the Fatima Gate, trying to get a story. Crowds of people started to flood into the village of Kela on the Lebanese side of the border.
Putting on Ray-Ban sunglasses and tucking my polo shirt into my trousers to look like a Shin Bet agent, I slipped across the border and stepped into a human tragedy – streams of refugees fleeing in fear of their lives, carrying battered suitcases filled with clothes, photos and anything else they could grab at short notice. An Israeli man had also sneaked across the border and was handing out bags of Bamba and Bisli to the children.
Sweat trickled down the face and neck of Capt. Suleiman Nahak and slid over the gold cross dangling from a chain. He was clutching two bags of his worldly possessions, as he moved with his wife and two daughters toward a bus that would take them away from his homeland, perhaps forever, to Israel, where they would have to build new lives.
A stream of automatic gunshots rang out not 200 meters away, and the hundreds of panicking refugees shrieked: “Hezbollah! Hezbollah!”
They pressed against Israeli soldiers and riot police in full regalia, who were brought in to keep order, as troops ran off in the direction of the shooting.
“I am not afraid to fight,” said the 36-year-old SLA officer. “But I have my family to worry about. I leave my home. I don’t think I’ll ever return. With Hezbollah we cannot live. They make peace with no one, not with Jews, not with us. Everybody is fleeing. They are bad people.”
While most were Christian, Nahak said there were also Muslim and Druze militiamen fleeing as well, many with the ubiquitous Mercedes vehicles.
The sun was casting its rays over the Rimal ridge, silhouetting the Beaufort Castle and the IDF outposts guarding the Litani gorge. IAF helicopter gunships hovered overhead, as IDF artillery near Metulla fired suppression rounds to keep the Hezbollah guerrillas at bay for as long as possible. The refugees were streaming in from the towns and villages, such as Ain Iblin and Remshe, which were being taken over by Hezbollah.
Just as they were coming over, the IDF called on all residents in the North to return to their bomb shelters in anticipation of a Hezbollah rocket attack. Two rockets slammed into the countryside near Biranit.
Ironically, it was also Lag Ba’omer, and tens of thousands of Israelis, mostly haredim, were converging on the grave of Shimon Bar Yochai at the foot of Mount Meron to celebrate. Police were desperately trying to unravel horrific traffic jams as throngs of people headed toward the mountain, seemingly oblivious to the war taking place just 20 minutes up the road.
My driving thought was to get this story in before the paper went to bed.
By nightfall, we understood that the end was near, very near. Military reporters, all with sheepish grins on their faces and anguished that we were not riding back with the troops, gathered at the Egel Gate adjacent to Metulla to see the convoys return.
THE PULLOUT began at 8 p.m., Tuesday, May 23, for the Golani and Armored Corps soldiers at Rehan, the deepest IDF stronghold. About 19 kilometers north of Metulla, the outpost had been one of the most attacked positions, and suffered a number of casualties the week before from incessant Hezbollah mortar attacks.
“We blew it up,” said Sharon Shetubi, 20, of Ramle. “The flash was amazing, lit up the whole sky.”
Rehan and the rest of the dozen IDF outposts were destroyed by IDF sappers, to prevent them from being used by Hezbollah guerrillas.
“Nothing was left. For three months it was my home. I know this sounds weird, but I’ll miss it. I’m ready to return there right now,” said Avichai Cohen of Ma’aleh Levona.
The IDF planned for a withdrawal under fire, and indeed Hezbollah came through, dropping shells throughout the night. There was also the fear that Hezbollah guerrillas would try to ambush the convoys as they made their way back to Israel.
The convoy from Rehan set out but only inched along, as commanders made sure not to expose their flank. At one point, one of the Nakpadons, a mean-looking, homemade armored personnel carrier designed for the Lebanon conflict, flayed out one of its treads, and that took precious time to fix. A tank fired at suspicious movement. They continued.
“We passed Aishiya and they blew it up. We passed Dla’at and saw that being blown up, too. The explosion from Beaufort was something else,” said Guy Segel, 20, from Hayogev.
He had spent four months operating a Merkava tank at Rehan. Just before they were to end their tour, the army told his platoon they would remain “for the duration.”
“They said we would stay there till we pulled out of Lebanon. That was three months ago,” said Segel, dressed in his Dacron tankers suit. “I’m glad it’s finally over.”
Convoys set out during the night from the other outposts, as warplanes swooped down and delivered the death knells to the vacated IDF and SLA positions. Some posts burned, bathing the night horizon in an orange glow. Throughout the withdrawal, IDF artillery kept up a steady but light barrage at suspected Hezbollah mortar emplacements.
In the distance, another convoy of Artillery Corps soldiers from the Shareife outpost crossed into the country and flicked on their headlights as they passed in through a different gate.
Once in the country, the soldiers made the de rigueur phone calls to the folks.
“That’s it. It’s over, Dad. We’re back in the country,” said St.-Sgt. Moshe Shuni from Sha’arei Tikva. Even at 3:30 a.m., no parent was likely upset to hear this from his or her son in Lebanon.
“Will I miss it? I’ll miss the episodes with my mates, but not Lebanon,” Shuni said.
One soldier from the Golani 13th Battalion said they were careful not to take any needless actions in the end, because no one wanted to be the last soldier killed in Lebanon.
“I’ll miss the days in Lebanon. There is nothing like it. You learn how to be a soldier there. You go through a lot there. There is where a soldier can test himself. There is where friendship is measured,” said the soldier, who refused to give his name but still had the number “26” written on his hand, as each convoy numbered its soldiers.
At about a quarter to seven on the morning of May 24, Brig.-Gen. Benny Gantz locked the Fatima Gate and suddenly became unemployed.
As commander of the IDF liaison unit responsible for the eastern sector of the security zone and the SLA, Gantz was given the symbolic honor, captured by photographers and transmitted around the world.
“I’m happy it was carried out without one injury. We were really anxious about this,’’ said Gantz. “I’ve been in and out of Lebanon since the  Litani invasion. It was a very strange feeling now. I guess I’m unemployed,” said Gantz, who would go on to become IDF chief of staff and then, maybe, prime minister.
I hung around for a press conference with the IDF brass, who tried to paint the retreat as a victory because not one IDF soldier had been hurt. But back in the Arazim Hotel in Metulla a man sat collapsed on a couch, a shadow of himself. He was broken, chain-smoking in the corner. A general without an army.As Hezbollah guerrillas were ransacking his villa a few hills away, Lahad, commander of the now defunct SLA, was full of bitterness toward Israel for its total and complete withdrawal from the security zone.
“The manner in which the retreat was carried out was unfair and unreasonable. The IDF was humiliated because it retreated so fast, and it gave Hezbollah a victory it never even dreamed of,” Lahad said in his characteristic hoarse whisper.
“For over 24 years we were together, and you decided within 24 hours to change direction. What do you want us to do now? Go with Hezbollah? Please, their flags are flying from the fence,” Lahad said. “Israel destroyed in 24 hours relations that were built over 24 years. We worked hand in hand, but suddenly Israel pulled back its hand and shook us off.”
But for Israelis, the withdrawal gave us something strange, even a little scary, something we hadn’t encountered in years: a border. A demarcation, an end we hoped. We go only this far; and from there on, it’s them. And that’s a fact. *The writer was the defense correspondent for The Jerusalem Post from 1996–2006.
Twenty years after Lebanon withdrawal: Return to the abyss
Seth J.Frantzman/Jerusalem Post/May 23/2020
جيرازالم بوست/ العودة إلى الهاوية بعد الإنسحاب الإسرائيلي من جنوب لبنان
Today’s Israeli military and political leaders are in many ways part of the withdrawal generation, learning the time’s tough lessons.
On the morning of May 24, 2000, Lebanese residents of towns near the border with Israel woke up to a new reality. The Israelis were gone.
The residents might have guessed something was happening when a massive explosion rocked the ancient Crusader castle Beaufort at midnight. The explosion lit up the sky. Israeli troops had already left the site, which had been one of Israel’s bases. Artillery and aircraft provided cover.
Lebanese prime minister Selim Hoss reached out to UN secretary-general Kofi Annan at daybreak, even though it was still midnight in New York City. He claimed Israelis might have destroyed the Beaufort in their hasty withdrawal. In southern Lebanon, families, children and Hezbollah members made their way up to see the old Israeli fortifications, now ripped apart and destroyed.
The decision to withdraw from Lebanon 20 years ago this month was part of prime minister Ehud Barak’s policy, one he highlighted during his campaign against Benjamin Netanyahu in 1999. It was a different time. These were the Oslo years of the peace process. Israel was supposed to end its foreign wars and give land for peace. When Israel did withdraw, there was going to be a peace dividend from the Americans.
Barak was praised by US president Bill Clinton, who hoped it would revive the peace process. It occasioned a “collective sigh of relief,” Eytan Bentsur at the Foreign Ministry said. Barak saw the long years of war in Lebanon as ending, closing a bookend on the tragedy.
In the parlance of that time, major Western media saw Hezbollah as “guerrillas.” They launched “raids” on Israel and fired Katyusha rockets. These were the days when Israel was seen as the problem, not the religious extremists in command of Hezbollah. But Hezbollah did listen to Barak initially and there were fewer attacks in the period leading up to the withdrawal. However, beginning in May 1999, there was renewed rocket fire on Kiryat Shmona and northern Israel.
Israel’s partners in southern Lebanon, the South Lebanese Army (SLA), suffered attacks by Hezbollah as well.
It is extraordinary how from the view from 20 years later, the characters of 2000 are roughly the same as today. Netanyahu may have lost the election, but his brand of using strength in the face of enemy threats was still his brand then. Hassan Nasrallah was the Hezbollah leader, predicting in 2000 that Israel would lose the war.
FROM THE perspective of 20 years later, it is worth looking back at this important decision to leave Lebanon. It came in the wake of Israel leaving Sinai; the Oslo Accords; the 1997 Hebron Protocol; and the Wye River Memorandum of 1998.
Land for peace. Israel had withdrawn from Egypt and peace had taken place. Israel was going to withdraw from more parts of the West Bank, giving Palestinians more power, more police, more ability to have autonomy and weapons, and peace was supposed to result. The withdrawal from Lebanon would be icing on the cake. Israel’s years of wars and “Greater Israel” pretensions and occupying Arab land and even Arab capital cities was at an end.
With the peace process came a belief that Israel could manage a withdrawal and achieve peace in Lebanon. Syria, which occupied parts of Lebanon, had clashed with Israel in the past. But by 1993, Syria had lost its Soviet patron and was ready for talks over the Golan. Israel cemented control over southern Lebanon along the Israeli border in a security zone that had around 200,000 people, 55% of whom were Shi’ites, with smaller populations of Druze, Sunnis and Christians. The Christians and some others, including Shi’ites, joined the SLA of 2,500 fighters to work with Israel.
Syrian president Hafez Assad thought his country could work with the Americans after the Gulf War and get the Israelis out of Lebanon and the Golan, a “two-for.” Syria told the Americans that Israel must withdraw to the 1967 border, abandoning the Golan, and Syrian supported Lebanon’s position that Israel must withdraw to the international border of 1923, negating an area called Mount Dov or Sheba’a farms, which is disputed between Syria and Lebanon and Israel.
Syria had sent Gen. Hikmet Shihabi to discuss an agreement with Israel in the 1990s and he met with Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, former IDF chief of staff. Barak would task Uri Saguy, former head of military intelligence, to deal with Syria’s then-foreign minister Farouk al-Sharaa. Could Syria be lured away from Lebanon? Israeli chiefs of staff told US diplomats they thought it could. Syria’s Assad was weaker in the 1990s, his army falling apart without Soviet aid, and he was concentrating on chemical weapons and ground-to-ground missiles. Israeli military experts suggested it was a mistake to withdraw from Lebanon without a Syrian agreement.
WE NOW know that the Palestinians were watching Lebanon closely, with both Yasser Arafat and Hamas leaders gambling that they could remove Israel with a little violence, the way Nasrallah had appeared to do in Lebanon. Hezbollah hadn’t killed thousands of Israelis, but it had killed just enough to make Lebanon a quagmire. Two hundred and thirty five Israelis had been killed in Lebanon between 1985 and 2000. Palestinian groups thought that Gaza and Ramallah could become a quagmire for Israel, too. It was “wind in the sails” of the Palestinians, Brig.-Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser would later conclude.
Indeed, IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz would tell the army matter-of-factly in 2000 that Israel had left. It was not a victory. Israel was ready to declare non-victories. It was “historic” and that is what mattered. The boys had come back home. Hezbollah was chuffed. Nasrallah would give a speech a year after celebrating how much stronger Hezbollah was. Iranian weapons were flowing in. Syria, momentarily deterred by the US invasion of Iraq, would grow bolder as well.
But Hezbollah would eventually become even more powerful than the Syrian regime in some ways. Hezbollah would plot and assassinate Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, leading to Syria’s withdrawal. Later Hezbollah would launch an attack on Israel in 2006, launch street battles and assassinations against Lebanon’s other parties between 2007 and 2009 and put its own man at the seat of power in Lebanon, before intervening in Syria’s civil war.
The success of Hezbollah after the Israeli withdrawal was known to US officials. In 2003, US diplomats sought to reach out to Syria via Moscow, according to US diplomatic cables, and warn Syria of its role in letting Iran move long-range rockets to Hezbollah. “The growing stockpile may likewise enhance Hezbollah’s perception of its deterrent capacity and embolden it to increase border attacks against Israel,” the US said.
Hezbollah was also providing training to the Palestinians, equipping them with explosives training with Iranian IRGC members in the Beka’a Valley. Hezbollah was accused by the US of coordinating a March 12, 2003 attack in Shlomi that killed six Israelis and of sending operatives to the West Bank. It also helped the Palestinians coordinate the Karine A shipment from Iran, filling a ship with missiles and weapons. And, as early as 2001, it had helped the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command smuggle weapons from Lebanon. Nasrallah, a growing celebrity after the Israeli withdrawal, would tell the London Sunday Times that three Hezbollah members had even sought to move weapons via Jordan.
WHY DIDN’T Israel see the writing on the wall? Why wasn’t it clear that the withdrawal from Lebanon could lead to ramifications across the region, emboldening Hezbollah and the Palestinians, helping fuel the Second Intifada that broke out just months later, and then the Second Lebanon War that took place in 2006?
In many ways, today’s Israeli military and political leaders are part of the withdrawal generation who have learned the tough lessons of what happened. That doesn’t mean they think Israel should go back into Lebanon, or Gaza from which Israel withdrew in 2005. It means they understand that Hezbollah and other groups have to be deterred and that they can be easily emboldened if they feel they can import weapons freely and use them.
We know some of the discussions that went into the withdrawal from news reports and published accounts, such as Amos Gilboa’s book The True Story of How Israel Left Lebanon. Barak had to face down complaints from within the security establishment about his policy. Maj.-Gen. Amos Malka was critical. Ronen Bergman notes in a 2016 piece at Ynet that the IDC command at the time was “portrayed as being closed-minded for its continued opposition to a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon.”
Barak could rely on rising stars in the IDF during the withdrawal and the complexities that led up to it. At his side would be Gabi Ashkenazi, who would go on to be chief of staff from 2007 to 2011 and rebuild the IDF after the failures of the Lebanon War; as well as Gadi Eizenkot, who would be in charge during some 1,000 Israeli airstrikes in Syria as chief of staff from 2015-2019, interdicting shipments to Hezbollah; as well as current vice prime minister Benny Gantz, who would also go on to be chief of staff from 2011 to 2015, beating back Hamas in the 2012 and 2014 wars.
Barak’s plan was to move out quickly and not give Hezbollah or the Syrians the chance to bleed Israel anymore.
“What interest does Israel gain from the fact that it continues to hold the security zone?” he asked in March 2000. By leaving, Hezbollah would lack legitimacy, no longer being able to say it was the “resistance.” Israel’s logic was that the buffer zone on the border wasn’t bringing security, but was pinning Israeli soldiers to posts and empowering Hezbollah. Barak had initially wanted Syria on board, but sought out the UN instead. The prime minister believed, according to reports, that an agreement would bring quiet and that Israel could withdraw properly.
The problem was that Damascus wanted Israel to pay, and it saw that Israel was in a corner, having made promises to leave. US efforts to beg Assad didn’t work, even when Clinton met the Syrian dictator in Geneva. The New York Times said Clinton bet Assad would bend – but the Syrian didn’t. It was now March 28, and Israel was stuck.
IT APPEARS that in the last weeks leading up to withdrawal, the IDF was perplexed by the way the political echelons had handled it. The IDF’s assessment was that Hezbollah would be able to attack Israeli civilians along the border. At the time, the Ynet article reminds us, far-Left Israeli politician Yossi Sarid was helping push the plan. Israel tried trusting in the UN to shepherd the repositioning of forces. Israel would withdraw in line with UN Resolution 425 and no longer be seen as occupying Lebanon, which would supposedly end any need for Hezbollah to “resist” Israel.
But Hezbollah was smart. It invented a new need to “resist” based on Israel holding on to Mount Dov, even though it wasn’t part of Lebanon.
Israel’s withdrawal was made possible partly by deceiving its former SLA partners, who were not told of the plan. This worried Benny Gantz, who was running a Lebanon Liaison Unit, according to Bergman’s account. Ashkenazi was also concerned. In the end, the SLA fell apart and disintegrated. The decision to leave by May 24 was made on May 22. The Israelis were out by the morning of the 24th and posts had been blown up. Eighteen years of being in Lebanon had ended.
The withdrawal looked like a retreat, but Barak was praised at the time for his efforts to bring peace and work within the UN framework.
The problem is that the withdrawal, while successful and not leading to any casualties, did appear to be a Hezbollah victory. The enemy took over former Israeli and SLA posts. They celebrated, and continue to make merry. Barak gambled on reducing Israel’s exposure to terrorism in Lebanon and returning to the border, protecting several hundred kilometers of winding roads along the border where Hezbollah might lie in wait to ambush Israel.
But the real changes in Hezbollah’s posture came not just with its missile program or plotting attacks, but its international role. At a February 26, 2006 Joint Counterterrorism Group meeting between Israel and the US, the diplomats and experts looked at how Hezbollah was inspiring Hamas and other groups on how to confront Israel. It posed a “multi-layered threat,” the meeting members noted. “It has deployed activities around the globe,” including strategic units in Argentina, and was developing drones with Iranian help. Brig.-Gen. Dani Arditi concurred, according to US diplomatic cables. Hezbollah had supported five attacks against Israel in 2005.
Other issues were impacted by the withdrawal. Some countries reduced support for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) on the border. The force declined from 5,000 to 2,000 personnel and from 15 countries to seven participants by 2003. Hezbollah also leveraged its claims of “victory” over Israel to expand its political role, increasing seats in parliament from nine to 11 and then to 13. The movement also increased its clout over time, invading parts of Beirut in 2008 clashes and holding the presidency hostage from 2014 to 2016, until pro-Hezbollah Christian Lebanese politician Michel Aoun could be brought into power.
One man who appeared on the scene during the Israeli withdrawal was Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah’s second in command and a key link with Iran. According to the Bergman account, his presence was noted by Israelis on May 22. He was “Israel’s No. 1 most-wanted target” and he was in “Israeli intelligence crosshairs.” He was coming to southern Lebanon to watch Israel withdraw and perhaps stir up trouble. Israel left 24 hours later.
On February 12, 2008, Mughniyeh was killed in Damascus. His car blew up. He died – one of many whose lives were transformed by Israel’s withdrawal.
A four-month coincidence? The Lebanon withdrawal and the Second Intifada
Herb Keinon/ـerusalem Post/May 23/2020
صدفة الشهور الأربعة…الإنسحاب من لبنان والإنتفاضة الثانية
While then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak downplayed the connection between the two events, officials who were deeply involved in diplomatic events at the time do connect the dots.
The headline on May 24, 2000 in The Guardian, a paper not known as particularly friendly to Israel, told the tale: “Chaos and humiliation as Israel pulls out of Lebanon.”
The prime minister at the time, Ehud Barak, the architect of the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon some 18 years after Israel launched Operation Peace for Galilee, had hoped it would happen in a very different way.
Two years prior, campaigning for his 1999 election against then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Barak had promised a withdrawal from Lebanon within a year of coming into office. This promise followed the helicopter disaster that killed 73 soldiers being ferried into Lebanon, and as the Four Mothers anti-war protests picked up steam. His message resonated with a public increasingly weary of the cost of the seemingly endless war in Lebanon and looking for a way out.
A fan of big, brash moves, not only did Barak propose to withdraw all the troops from Lebanon, but he also promised to negotiate a permanent status deal with the Palestinians – skipping over various interim steps.
Barak, the former head of the Sayeret Matkal (the IDF General Staff Reconnaissance Unit), was nothing if not bold and daring. He was hell-bent either on making peace with Israel’s enemies through dramatic steps, or “pulling back the curtain” so the whole world could see that while Israel showed a willingness to take giant steps toward moving peace forward on various fronts, there was no partner on the other side.
And the withdrawal from Lebanon on May 24 was a result of the realization that, at least regarding Syria, there really was no partner on the other side.
Just six months after coming into power in July 1999, talking initially with and about the Palestinians before shifting gears to a Syria-first policy, Barak met with the Syrians at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in the hope that a deal could transpire with Syrian president Hafez Assad, terminally ill at the time and represented by his foreign minister, Farouk a-Shara. Barak hoped such a deal would then facilitate and make possible a withdrawal from Lebanon.
IT DIDN’T work out that way. Assad’s representative didn’t budge at Shepherdstown, and Assad himself did not move when he met then-US president Bill Clinton in Geneva some three months later. A deal was not in the cards, which meant that if Barak was committed to leaving Lebanon – as he promised the public – he would be doing it unilaterally, without a deal.
In an interview last month with Maariv, Barak said that he met with then chief-of-staff Shaul Mofaz shortly after his government was established.
“I made it clear to him that if there will be an agreement with the Syrians, it is reasonable to think that the Lebanon issues would also be solved through an agreement. But even if there will not be an agreement, I am determined to leave Lebanon by July 2000.”
And leave by then he did.
But rather than doing so in an orderly fashion, it was done overnight and in a chaotic manner, as Hezbollah had overrun positions Israel had handed over to the Southern Lebanon Army (SLA).
Barak wanted to avoid the perception that Israel was leaving Lebanon under fire, and – as The Guardian reported at the time – “badly wanted an orderly withdrawal with an expanded United Nations peacekeeping force taking control of border areas. But with the SLA in disarray, a refugee influx that has taken the government by surprise and the rapid arrival of Hezbollah well before Israel has had time to complete its electrified border fence and other defences, that prospect has evaporated.”
In a word, the withdrawal was a mess.
BARAK, WROTE veteran US diplomat and Mideast negotiator Dennis Ross in his book The Missing Peace, understandably “sought to make withdrawal look like Israel’s decision, made out of strength and conviction. But Hezbollah had other ideas.”
Ross wrote that while on a logistical level, carrying out the withdrawal in 20 hours when things started to look bad was “another source of pride” for the IDF, in the region “particularly given the collapse of the SLA, the withdrawal looked like a defeat.”
Barak admitted that tactical mistakes in carrying out the withdrawal might have been made.
“These types of tactical errors could happen as well to good people, and I take full responsibility,” he told Maariv. “We paid the price in unpleasant headlines and photographs. But [of] what [importance] is that in the face of ending a tragedy that lasted 18 years. And without any wounded!”
All of a sudden, Ross wrote, “there was a new model for dealing with Israel: the Hezbollah model. Don’t make concessions. Don’t negotiate, Use violence. And the Israelis will grow weary and withdraw.”
While Barak had hoped that the withdrawal would put an end to the bloodletting in Lebanon and show that Israel would take matters into its own hands and not remain anyone’s hostage, the message that reverberated throughout the region was starkly different.
Israel, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said in his victory speech on May 26 at Bint Jbeil, less than 48-hours days after the IDF withdrawal, is an easily defeatable “spider web.”
“We offer this noble Lebanese model to our people in Palestine,” Nasrallah declared. “To free your land, you don’t need tanks, a strategic balance, rockets, and cannons; you need to follow the way of the past self-sacrifice martyrs who disrupted and horrified the coercive Zionist entity. You, the oppressed, unarmed and restricted Palestinians, can force the Zionist invaders to return to the places they came from. Let the Falasha go to Ethiopia, and let the Russian Jews return to Russia.
“The choice is yours, and the model lies right in front of your eyes,” he continued. “An honest and serious resistance can make the freedom dawn arise. Our brothers and beloved Palestinians, I tell you: Israel, which owns nuclear weapons and the strongest war aircraft in the region, is feebler than a spider’s web – I swear to God.”
Nasrallah’s message to the Palestinians who had engaged for the previous seven years in long, drawn-out negotiations with Israel was loud and clear: Don’t waste your time, just blow hard on the spider web – and it will disappear.
And there were definitely those who heard that message. Four months later, on September 28, the Palestinians launched the Second Intifada.
IN A PBS documentary in the spring of 2002 called Shattered Dreams of Peace: The Road from Oslo, Mohammed Dhalan, who was the Palestinian security chief at the time, said the minute the Palestinians saw Israeli soldiers “running away and allowing the Lebanese to liberate themselves, they ask, ‘Why don’t we do it their way?’”
In the same documentary, Israeli negotiator Uri Savir quoted Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei as saying to him after the withdrawal from Lebanon, “The message to every Palestinian will be clear: Kill and get the land.”
An article last week in Makor Rishon cited a survey of Palestinian public opinion quoted in a 2010 book by the pollsters Yaakov Shamir and Khalil Shikai, Public Opinion in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Public Imperative During the Second Intifada, that “as a result of the unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon, 63% of the Palestinians believed that they needed to adopt the violent methods of Hezbollah.
“For the first time, the Palestinian public totally lost confidence in diplomacy, and was willing to adopt violence as an alternative means to ending the occupation,” they wrote. “The young militants wanted to force Israel to withdraw unilaterally from the occupied territory, like what happened in southern Lebanon in May 2000.”
Barak, however, still cautions against drawing a connection between the two events.
“And those who think that leaving Lebanon strengthened the Palestinians, I say, if we had stayed in Lebanon and continued to bleed without contributing to our security, then what? The Palestinians would have raised a white flag? Gotten on their knees and begged for mercy?
“No. On the contrary, had we stayed in Lebanon and kept a force there of a division or more, it would have been difficult to effectively carry out Operation Defensive Shield [in 2002, the turning point in the intifada].”
While Barak downplayed the connection between the two events, officials who were deeply involved in diplomatic events at the time do connect the dots.
“In a textbook case of unintended consequences, the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon fostered an environment supporting increased radicalism, not moderation,” Ross wrote. “Hezbollah was celebrated for forcing the Israelis out. Resentment toward the Israelis, the West, the ‘haves,’ spilled out and expressed itself. The latent desire to humiliate those who humiliated the Arabs was once again apparent.”
And Yasser Arafat felt the sucker for negotiating with Israel. He was haggling over deployments and land percentages with but spotty results, while Nasrallah was fighting Israel… and winning.
THEN-US AMBASSADOR to Israel Martin Indyk wrote in his book on the period, Innocent Abroad, that on May 27, the day after Nasrallah’s “spider web” speech, Arafat traveled to Egypt to consult with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and “the Egyptians found him deeply troubled by the impact of Hezbollah’s triumphalism.”
Arafat, according to Indyk, “complained bitterly to Mubarak that Nasrallah was exporting his violent ideas to the streets of the West Bank and Gaza.”
Two months after the Lebanon withdrawal, Barak met Arafat at Camp David under Clinton’s watchful eyes. There Barak laid down a peace proposal for the Palestinians whereby they would get about 90% of the territories, administrative control over most of the Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem and all the villages surrounding the capital, and joint administration over the holy sites in the city.
Yet it was not enough for the Palestinian leader, who was unwilling to budge from his maximalist demands. And he was influenced in remaining calcified in his positions by seeing what had transpired just two months earlier in Lebanon.
Shlomo Ben-Ami, who at the time was internal security minister and a negotiator at Camp David, said in a Channel 13 television interview in 2017 that Arafat told him at the summit that the Lebanon withdrawal was imprudent.
“Complete foolishness,” Ben-Ami quoted Arafat as saying. “How foolish you were when you left Lebanon unilaterally. There were 500 fighters there … and they managed to throw you out of Lebanon, and here I am negotiating with you.”
In other words, why negotiate, why make concessions, when a small number of fighters forced Israel to withdraw completely to the international border in Lebanon – it made no sense.
Ben-Ami was quoted in Makor Rishon as having written in 2005 that he had “no doubt” that the withdrawal from Lebanon left a “deep impression on Arafat’s consciousness.”
“He felt humiliated and embarrassed that he had to negotiate with us on border changes, while 500 guerrillas forced Israel to withdraw to Lebanon’s international border,” he said. “The Lebanonization of the struggle against Israel, he believed, would break Israel’s will. The lesson he learned from Israel’s defeat in Lebanon was that the Israeli people are worn out and have doubts about its ability to absorb losses in a low-intensity conflict.”
Arafat’s conclusion: launch his own low intensity conflict.
In the 15 years that Israel held the security zone in Lebanon, it lost 559 soldiers, an unsustainable situation that the public in 2000 was no longer willing to tolerate and which Barak was determined to change. Israel needed to withdraw, he concluded.
The question that remains 20 years later for most Israelis is not whether Israel should have left Lebanon – most believe it should have – but rather how it should have done so. Few look at the manner in which that pullback was carried out, and its aftermath, as a model to emulate.