On May 24, 2000, the last IDF combat soldier withdrew from Lebanon, where Israel had maintained a continuous presence since Operation Peace for the Galilee in 1982. The withdrawal, one of three Israel has made from captured enemy territory (the other two being Sinai and Gaza), was the only one that came because of domestic public pressure on the government rather than despite it.
In 1982, Operation Peace for the Galilee sent Israeli troops deep into Lebanon, quickly occupying the capital of Beirut and areas throughout the country. Three years later, however, the IDF withdrew the majority of its troops to a declared security buffer zone along the country’s southern border with Israel. For the next 15 years, Israel’s military presence and operations were primarily limited to the buffer zone, except for a few larger operations that pushed deeper into Lebanese territory.
The logic behind holding the buffer zone along the border was to prevent terrorist infiltrations into Israel and stop rocket fire from raining down on Israel’s northern settlements. While the first objective was largely achieved, Hezbollah continued to find ways to launch rockets at northern Israel. Additionally, deadly clashes between Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah militants were a constant occurrence.
Though casualties slowly and regularly mounted on both sides over the years, one particularly large and devastating tragedy in 1997 sparked a grassroots movement within Israel that played a large part in ending Israel’s presence in southern Lebanon.
On February 4, 1997, two Yasur (Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion) helicopters transporting IDF troops into the Lebanese buffer zone collided over the Upper Galilee, killing 73 Israeli soldiers.
The following day, a small group of mothers of IDF soldiers, some of whose classmates and friends had been killed in the crash, staged a small protest at the Mehanayim Junction north of Rosh Pina. Pushed into action by the tragic helicopter crash, the mothers demanded an end to Israel’s involvement in Lebanon.
The Four Mothers movement slowly grew from the original handful of mothers to hundreds that staged regular protests, including vigils outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv the day after every Israeli soldier died in Lebanon. The Israeli media began giving wider coverage to the movement, whose name holds biblical significance, and it touched on a previously untapped sentiment in the wider Israeli public – that the continued IDF presence in Lebanon was unnecessary.
But in Israel, where the politics of security often trump all other considerations, the latent opposition to the war had been almost completely unarticulated.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post just weeks after the IDF's eventual withdrawal from Lebanon, early Four Mothers member Linda Ben-Zvi recalled, "When we began, Lebanon was a silent war. No one talked about it. There was very little support for a withdrawal, let alone a unilateral withdrawal. We didn't just reflect public opinion, we shaped it."
The public pressure began to have an effect on the political echelon.
In April of 1998, Binyamin Netanyahu, then serving in his first term as prime minister, announced a decision to implement UN Resolution 425, which in 1978 had first called for Israel to withdraw from Lebanon.
As a consequence, while campaigning ahead of general elections in 1999, future prime minister Ehud Barak ran on a platform that included a pledge to withdraw Israeli soldiers from what was increasingly being framed as the Lebanese quagmire. Barak, who won the elections, indeed implemented his campaign pledge within a year of taking office.
While the movement cannot be given the full credit for Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, its significance in bringing about the end to the 18-year military affair cannot be diminished. In less than three years, the movement and the sentiments behind it grew and spread throughout Israeli society before finally penetrating the day’s political agenda.
The Four Mothers movement has since been hailed and studied both in Israel and abroad as an example of a grassroots movement, notably of women, that successfully ended a war. Although by no means exclusively credited to the movement, in the years since, the role of women in peacemaking has become a significant part of conflict resolution studies and practice.
Within Israeli society and among its politicians, however, the movement and its success in bringing about a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon has drawn fire over the years. The withdrawal did not bring an end to the rocket fire from southern Lebanon nor did it prevent cross-border raids, the most consequential of which lead to the 2006 Lebanon War. Following the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the continued rocket fire emanating from that territory, the very idea of unilateral withdrawals has been assailed as one that endangers the security of Israel. Others, however, argue that it is the unilateral nature and not the withdrawals themselves that failed to secure Israel’s borders.