For Gabriel Avner, the Second Lebanon War was a formative experience, if one that’s still a bit hard to get his head around, even a decade later.
“I’m looking around to feel something and I’m not sure what it’s supposed to mean to me. I remember after the war, coming down to Tel Aviv and there was such a disconnect between what I went through and what people in the rest of the country went through that it seems like a personal experience, I’m not sure that the rest of the country can connect to that,” he says.
“What really depresses me, and you see it every time there’s an operation in Gaza, is that nothing changes. So you have kids [soldiers] who go get killed every time, and you don’t see anything change politically to honor that sacrifice, so 10 years later I don’t see anything different, just minor technical things, maybe the army has gotten a little bit smarter, but I don’t feel that the leadership has.”
Avner was a 21-year-old infantryman during the war, serving in the heavy weapons company of the Nahal Brigade’s 50th Battalion.
He spent about two-and-half weeks inside Lebanon during the 34-day war, all of it on foot, with his company’s orders constantly changing from one moment to the next.
Avner made aliya from Maryland 14 years ago and today he’s a tech journalist in Tel Aviv.
For the most part, his war wasn’t one of firefights and chasing Hezbollah gunmen through south Lebanese wadis, but one of moving from village to village and back into Israel, holding houses that were left deserted by Lebanese families that fled as things heated up.
More than a conventional war, the fighting resembled the IDF’s operations in the West Bank – where the line between soldier and police officer are blurred.
“I think that the war showed the country that the army was in without people realizing where we’d gotten to. In the [Palestinian] territories we’re basically like a glorified police force and all they’d known to do basically was patrols, ambushes, arrests, but the army hadn’t thought about how to operate a field army, how to run supply lines, get infantrymen to take land and clear it and hold it. It showed the army didn’t have a clear vision for how they wanted to run an actual war.”
Avner adds, “They made it up as they went along and would change their minds constantly, so it left us more than a little confused. It can show that the occupation kind of destroyed the way the army knew how to function as an army.”
For the most part the approach in Lebanon was similar to that used by soldiers in the West Bank – take and hold civilian buildings, running from house to house, without a wider plan about maneuvering or supplying infantrymen in the field.
By the time Avner left Lebanon for good, his unit had only been in two armed encounters, and was left relatively unscathed.
To this day, though, the lessons of the war linger, and anytime Avner is called to do reserve duty he carries cans of tuna, just in case the army again fails to supply his unit.
As for the million dollar question – whether the war was a success, he says, “Any idea that they’ll root out Hezbollah would be an irrational goal, but there has been 10 years of quiet in the North and you didn’t have that before. I think it also returned some sense of deterrence, because I don’t think anyone in the decision-making circle in Hezbollah expected that sort of response.”
The army has internalized many of the lessons learned in the war, which have been applied in subsequent wars and operations in Gaza, he says.
Benayahu Carmi was a 21-year-old paratrooper who’d only been out of advanced training for a few months when the war started and his unit was sent from Nablus to northern Israel to await orders.
Like many soldiers, Carmi experienced much of the classic army “hurry up and wait,” being sent in to south Lebanon and then back to northern Israel to bivouac, sometimes in the span of 24 hours.
They first went in for a night to search for Hezbollah weapons stores and then again on another night looking for weapons, before returning again for a week and a half spent in villages including Maroun a-Ras and Bint Jbail.
They then spent the night resting at Kibbutz Ginossar on the Kinneret, and were back the next day for a week and a half patrolling in villages in south Lebanon.
Carmi says they’d spend the days hiding in bushes waiting to ambush Hezbollah fighters, and then the nights maneuvering on foot.
When he looks back on the three weeks he spent inside Lebanon, he remembers the way orders would often change at the last minute, and is still pained by the decision made by the Israeli leadership to launch a ground offensive in the last days of the war, at the same time that cease-fire talks were under way, a decision that cost the lives of 34 IDF soldiers.
“It was obvious to me that the last operation that they decided to do was not necessary and would result in many casualties, this was the thing that hurt me the most.”
Ben Ben-Ari says that on the day the war broke out, he was stationed on a moshav in the North, when he started hearing artillery shells and seeing mushroom clouds rising from the mountains of Lebanon.
The men his unit rushed to get their gear together to head to the front, with the understanding that they would be sent in to extract the bodies of a tank crew that had been killed in the pursuit of the kidnappers of reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Edad Regev, whose cross border abduction (and, it emerged, slaying) by Hezbollah had triggered the war.
He says he grabbed his MAG machine gun and plenty of ammunition, “and wanted my unit to get its baptism by fire,” only to see another unit get the call. Ben-Ari’s unit was then sent to the Hula Valley to await orders, part of a routine during the war of getting ready only to see orders change at the last minute.
They did a lot of nothing he says, waiting to be sent in with combat engineers to extract people or to help units in distress, meanwhile taking in the surreal surroundings.
“We had a beautiful view of the Hula Valley, and could see some of the fires started from the rockets landing in Israel. It had a surreal quality to it.”
By the end of the second week Ben-Ari says he “started to question what the hell the government was doing,” and that “I felt we were wasting precious time and political capital.
Even Saudi Arabia wanted us to wipe out Hezbollah, and we were pussyfooting around pretending this was Kosovo or something.”
Ben-Ari, a 34-year-old native of Arizona who served with the Nahal Brigade’s 50th Battalion, says that he never got his baptism by fire, and that during a meeting between then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and IDF soldiers he expressed his disappointment about this to the PM.
Asked what he makes of the war 10 years later, Ben-Ari says that “even though Israel views the Second Lebanon War as a failure, the Lebanese border has been the quietest Israeli border since 2006. So at the very least a strong sense of deterrence has been established.”