My Word: Out but not over

Israel left Lebanon 10 years ago, but can the Lebanese experience truly be removed from the Israeli psyche?

May 30, 2010 05:35
lebanon war 88 298

lebanon war 88 298. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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When Israeli forces crossed into southern Lebanon on June 5, 1982, in what was optimistically called Operation Peace for Galilee, I was a newly demobilized 21-year-old. In the army, I had matured. During the Lebanese campaign, I aged.

My brother and nearly all my male friends were serving either in the regular army or the reserves. Not all of them made it out alive. The son of one neighbor, Zachary Baumel, has yet to make it out at all.

Baumel, along with Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, has been missing since the Battle of Sultan Yakoub in the first week of the war; IAF navigator Ron Arad has been missing since 1986.

More than 1,200 soldiers were killed between June 5, 1982, and May 31, 1985, the partial withdrawal to the security zone.

When Peace for Galilee started, I was in London, staying at the same residence as an Israeli bodyguard of ambassador Shlomo Argov. When the guard was informed of the assassination attempt on Argov, I realized war was on its way.

The fateful bullets obviously signaled the start of a major campaign. We would respond with an attack on the terrorist forces in south Lebanon; they would throw even more Katyushas at northern Israel and we would react by sending in ground forces.  Like most Israelis, I couldn’t have guessed just how serious the situation would be.

I did, however, get a glimpse of the new direction of world opinion.

I was working in a temporary job which I was given by a Christian Lebanese immigrant to England. During my interview he asked me when Israel was going to “come over and save us.”

“Shhh, that’s next week,” I quipped.

The day after the tanks rolled in, I got the job, which became more temporary than planned.

Shortly before I left, a colleague told me: “You’ve got to feel sorry for poor Arafat, being forced into a bunker.”

I didn’t feel sorry for him. I pitied the residents of the North who had spent the best part of the previous year in shelters and under threat of terrorist infiltration.

LEBANON HAS been called Israel’s Vietnam. Israelis still refer to “habotz halevanoni” (the Lebanese mud). It was the war in which everyone knew how it would start – and roughly when – but no one knew how it would end. And arguably, 10 years and another war later, it is not yet over.

Israel left the south Lebanon security zone in a hasty overnight operation on May 24, 2000.

When it became clear that all the IDF soldiers were safely back on the Israeli side of the border, the country collectively let out a sigh of relief – those who had opposed the unilateral withdrawal and those who had been in favor of it – because among the many things that had changed during the 18 years in which Israeli forces controlled the southern strip, perhaps the most significant is the change in attitude toward military losses.

After the withdrawal, Hizbullah head Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah likened Israel to a spider’s web, saying it would be too scared to hit its enemies.

Ehud Barak, architect of the pullback and defense minister both a decade ago and now, threatened that Israel would strike hard at anyone who attempted to hurt the country. But he didn’t follow through: not when more soldiers were abducted and killed and not when more missiles fell. Instead, Nasrallah, living in hideouts – but don’t pity him – has managed with Syrian and Iranian backing to turn Hizbullah into a heavily armed fighting force right on the Israeli border. It’s also a significant presence in the Lebanese parliament.

Hizbullah did not even exist when the IDF went into Lebanon in June 1982.

Thousands of South Lebanese Army soldiers and their families scrambled to cross the border into Israel before the IDF closed the gates 10 years ago – not a positive lesson to future would-be allies.

Nasrallah was not the only one to interpret the unilateral pullback as a sign of weakness. It was in this atmosphere that the Palestinians launched the second intifada in September 2000.

A second unilateral withdrawal, the one from Gaza in 2005 drawn up by former hawk Ariel Sharon, proved that when Israel pulls out its troops, missiles and rockets do not stop, but increase.

Not only can the Kassams be traced, figuratively if not literally, to Lebanon. The reluctance to engage Hamas in Gaza was a remnant of the First and Second Lebanon wars, with their high casualty rates. National consensus was also a victim of Lebanon.

Our family album contains the front page of Yediot Aharonot from June 7, ’82, showing a grainy photo of the first tanks crossing Lebanon’s Litani River – my brother was able to recognize his tank rather than his face. Above it, the headline boasts: “Beaufort Fort in IDF hands.” There is no mention of how many men had been killed: six, including the unit commander. No hint of controversy over why the operation had taken place. Later, the failure by defense minister Sharon and prime minister Menachem Begin to even inquire about the casualties during a tour of the fort would come to symbolize the lack of leadership during the entire war.

THOSE WERE different days. Many families did not yet own a home phone; most soldiers did not own cameras, and it took time to develop pictures.

News – even bad news – did not travel fast. There was heavy censorship – both self-censorship on the part of editors and military censorship – in an age when few alternative news sources existed. It took a while for the lack of strategic planning to become evident to all.

But the numbers of dead kept growing. This, together with the Christian Phalangist-perpetrated Sabra and Shatilla massacre in September ’82 – strengthened the nascent Peace Now movement, which held vigils outside Begin’s residence with a body count chart. I used to switch on the radio every morning thinking, “I wonder if anyone I know has been killed.”

As Hizbullah perfected roadside bomb attacks, the IDF began flying soldiers into southern Lebanon.

Strangely, it was not the death toll in Lebanon which became the driving force behind the withdrawal. In February 1997, 73 soldiers were killed in the worst military accident in Israeli history when two helicopters collided on their way to Lebanon. The Helicopter Disaster, as it is known, gave birth to the Four Mothers movement. The eponymous leaders created not only a successful grassroots struggle but characterized the switch from focusing on civil safety to military casualties.

The quartet, whose sons were serving in the army at the time, have been busy lately with renewed media interest due to the 10th anniversary of the pullout. They remain convinced that the withdrawal was overall beneficial.

But if we should have learned anything from the Lebanon experience it is that withdrawing for emotional or political reasons without ensuring adequate alternative security arrangements does not solve the conflict.

Lebanon will not be over until residents of the North, “and beyond, beyond Haifa,” in Nasrallah’s words, are safe. It will not be over until tourists on both sides of the fence can enjoy the incredible scenery in peace.

And Lebanon will not be over until all Israel’s missing soldiers are back home.

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

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