Second Lebanon War veteran's road to redemption

Gal Hirsch, one of the tragic heroes of the Second Lebanon War, looks back on its 10th anniversary and the experiences that have shaped modern warfare.

GAL HIRSCH: During war, the only thing that you should think about is to kill the enemy. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
GAL HIRSCH: During war, the only thing that you should think about is to kill the enemy.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Brig.-Gen. Gal Hirsch still remembers when his 91st Division staff officers took him aside during the Second Lebanon War to tell him that he needed to start fighting for his life.
“They are killing you,” his close staff warned him. It was in the middle of the 2006 war against Hezbollah, and while rockets were falling throughout northern Israel, it seemed that some mortars were also landing on the general’s own command post. High-ranking IDF officers – including chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz – as well as some prominent journalists were looking for a scapegoat, the staff told Hirsch. Hirsch listened to the officers but then dismissed their warnings.
“What will I do, put resources to fight against Tel Aviv and Jerusalem? I am fighting Hezbollah and that’s what I am doing,” he recalled this week in his office in Netanya. “During war, the only thing that you should think about is to kill the enemy and bring the result and fulfill the mission.”
Since the war, Hirsch has, for the most part, remained silent. He stayed quiet during the war, which cost him his promising military career, and stayed quiet in the decade since, during which he worked tirelessly to rebuild his reputation as an IDF soldier, commander and officer.
In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, Hirsch uses the war’s anniversary as an opportunity to set the record straight, to correct history and to hit back at his adversaries. Primary among them, Halutz.
Hirsch believes that two weeks into the war, high-ranking public officials sought to publicly assassinate his character – “people from the staff of Halutz and journalists who work for them, who shape minds and opinion and need a scapegoat,” he said.
As Hezbollah rockets rained down, the long knives came out on the home front. “During the battles people were stabbing me in the back. I was fighting in Lebanon and along the border and I knew people were throwing dirt in the media... the Internet was full of criticism, fairy tales about my functioning, and many attempts to remove me during the war.
“The problem is that the most important thing is the morals and values issue. It is about the spirit of the IDF, comradeship,” says Hirsch. “Backing up your subordinates [means] giving you a mission and sending you to fulfill it.” Yet in 2006, he says that not only did the army wage the wrong war with Hezbollah, relying on air power and not sticking to the ground maneuver plan, it also failed to back up combat commanders on the front line.
Today, Hirsch runs Defensive Shield, an international consulting group. His quiet office is lined with books about history, many of them in English.
Another wall has three framed photographs.
One black-and-white photo shows armored personnel carriers in 1982 in Lebanon. A second shows Hirsch meeting then defense minister Yitzhak Rabin in Nablus in 1992. The third is grainy and shows an explosion.
It is from one of the many covert operations he led as an IDF commando.
When the 2006 war ended, the public perception was that the 34 days of fighting were a disaster. It was full of biting controversies. Had men died to raise a symbolic flag in Bint Jbail? Had commanders hidden behind plasma screens rather than lead from the front? Had fighting stone-throwers in the West Bank made commanders incapable of leading large units in battle? Communications failed and units lacked equipment.
The conflict consisted of several stages.
It began with a Hezbollah attack that killed 10 soldiers and resulted in the kidnapping of IDF reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. Israel retaliated with a widespread air campaign. This was followed by about two weeks of ground raids into Lebanon and then a final 60-hour ground offensive. The 34- day conflict came to an end with 121 Israeli soldiers and 44 civilians killed.
More than 4,000 rockets had fallen on Israel.
Stories of incompetence and lack of preparedness within the IDF appeared daily in the media. Compounding this, Gilad Schalit was kidnapped by Hamas from the border area with the Gaza Strip only a few short months after the disengagement.
There was a profound feeling that the country’s political and military leadership had lost the way. Hirsch bore the brunt of criticism for the Hezbollah kidnapping. Following the war, he stepped down after almost three decades in uniform.
THE EVENTS of 2006 are what defined Hirsch. Before the Hezbollah attack on July 12, the general was well known for his exploits during the second intifada and was a key figure behind Defensive Shield, the acclaimed 2002 operation behind the defeat of Palestinian terrorism. Educated at a military academy from his teenage years, he had served in Lebanon as deputy of the elite Shaldag air-force commando unit. Badly injured in 1998 by a terrorist ambush in the West Bank, he returned to service and rose to command the 91st Division along the Lebanon border in 2005. “People would say I was a candidate for general staff,” recalls Hirsch. His colleagues also saw him as an intellectual whose use of complex terms and interest in new military strategies and concepts grated on a military culture that sometimes prized brawn over brains.
Hirsch looks back to that time as one of transition. He recalls driving north to take up command of the division and discovering a state of mind that was not prepared for war. There was to be “no friction” with the potential enemy.
“The strategic directive was containment and to avoid friction and make sure the zimmers [vacation cabins] will work and nothing will happen that [would cause] Hezbollah to launch rockets.” Hirsch looked across the border, at the Hezbollah members walking flagrantly and looming over Israel, and saw war coming. “There were 12 battle days against them [Hezbollah] that year – they were creating the friction and I had to retaliate.
“I had more than a hundred kilometers to defend, with dozens of villages and hundreds of kilometers of civilian roads near the border.”
Soon after his appointment in 2005 there was an attempt by Hezbollah to abduct an Israeli soldier near Mount Dov in July. In November, four Hezbollah members were killed in the village of Ghajar, half of which is in Israel and the other half in Lebanon. Two more attempts took place in the first half of 2006.
Like a protagonist in a Greek tragedy, he is righteously bitter 10 long years later about the unwillingness of others to listen to his warnings and see the enemy’s intentions through his eyes.
“I endured bitter struggles over every soldier, every artillery piece or tank,” he writes in his recently published book Defensive Shield, describing how his command was denied resources and seen as a low priority. Hezbollah had the luxury of choosing the time and place to attack. When Hirsch retaliated, he says he was called to Tel Aviv and reprimanded.
Higher-ups told him only to retaliate in the area where his units were attacked from.
“If I do that I just shoot at rocks, I have no targets,” he told his commanders.
In those days after Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah was emboldened. In April 2005, Syria left the country after 30 years of occupation, leaving Hezbollah the only armed group in southern Lebanon. It had Iranian support for continued operations against Israel. Israelis would drive along the border road and wave at the Hezbollah members thinking they were Israeli soldiers, RPGs and guns slung over their shoulders. The public couldn’t imagine that Hezbollah was so close and out in the open.
Time clouds memory, but in 2006 Lebanon conjured up images of a “quagmire.”
Israel had left Lebanon after 18 years “stuck in the Lebanese mud,” the quagmire that became a Vietnam-like experience for Israel. There was a perception that Syria and Iran were bleeding Israel slowly through attrition by supporting Hezbollah.
Uri Dromi, a spokesman for the government of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres said this “war of attrition...
thwarts the IDF’s main assets, mobility and striking power.” Hirsch had led commandos in the security zone before the withdrawal in the 1990s. He says the soldiers did not feel the public backed them up.
Now facing Hezbollah again in 2006, he was frustrated. “It was like being in a bubble preparing for war, in an army that doesn’t believe in ground maneuvering.”
The IDF had left Lebanon, not so it could be more mobile and strike Hezbollah at a time of its choosing, but rather to wait for Hezbollah to attack. Hirsch writes that he prepared carefully for a response to any assault. The response would have to include boots on the ground in southern Lebanon. But Israel’s attention had shifted elsewhere, to Gaza where Schalit was kidnapped in June 2006 and to the West Bank where Hamas had won legislative elections in January and the land was restive from the Palestinian defeat in the second intifada.
At 9 a.m. on July 12, Katyushas and mortars began to strike northern Israel.
From Rosh Hanikra on the coast to Dovev, 40 kilometers of the border was under fire. Initial reports indicated one of the border patrols had been attacked.
“We had two Humvees patrolling on the northern road between Shtula and Zar’it,” he writes.
When it became clear there was no answer from the patrol, Hirsch ordered a pre-planned abduction prevention procedure.
“First I was fighting there to send forces to block them [kidnappers], and it wasn’t just at [milepost] 105, it was a large event, most people think it was just one millimeter [of an abduction attack] but it was an offensive maneuver and we had to fight.” Four hours later when Hirsch returned to his operations center, 10 Israeli reserve soldiers had been killed and two kidnapped.
Speaking today as if this defining moment is still the present he recalls, “I understand this is the event we were preparing for. That is exactly what we thought would happen and I told [Northern Command] it is ‘war.’” War. It’s a word Hirsch uses again and again in his book with increasing intensity, and one he says like an increasing refrain. He put his division on a war footing, to transform it to be ready to maneuver into Lebanon.
“But I found at Northern Command that it was not a war and the Chief of Staff was not at war. From then until July 29 the struggle between Dan Halutz and I and [Northern Command General] Udi Adam was identifying and defining the situation.”
While Hirsch was fighting, the Knesset was still debating whether the conflict was a “war” even as the struggle with Hezbollah entered its 13th day.
“Some are already calling it a war, the government has taken an official stance against that term,” the Post reported at the time. From that moment the gap between Hirsch and his superiors grew, the acrimony began and he felt a looming sense that his division was being kept back and he was being scapegoated.
In a written response to allegations made by Hirsch, former chief of staff Dan Halutz responded by saying that he “provided Brig.-Gen. Gal Hirsch the full backing he deserved and more than that. Hirsch has the virtues of being an officer and fighter for many years, but also some obligations that he has been careful to avoid. Already as a commander of Shaldag, it was evident that he was not a shining light. As evidence, consider the subordinate officers who sought to remove him from office.
“Even today, after 10 years and a successful strategy of campaigning, Gal Hirsch continues to confuse things with a rich imagination, and profits from an attempt to remove himself from any responsibility and the reality of the war. He bears part of the responsibility, despite his attempts to spin it onto others. There were senior officers who sought to remove him and I rejected that out of hand, as I did not see fit to recommend he be removed from his position as commander in Shaldag, despite their requests. I recommend to Gal Hirsch to concentrate on the present day and the clouds over his head will be removed. Gal Hirsch acts like a victim… of himself.”
TODAY, AS he sits in his office, his voice quiet and choosing his terms carefully, he wants people to know he doesn’t see Halutz, Adam and others as evil.
“They have much credit for protecting the country.” Hirsch had worked with Halutz when he was with Shaldag and Halutz was running the air force.
But Halutz had a mind-set to win the conflict from the air, as the Americans had done against Serbia in the 1990s.
“They didn’t want to understand from the beginning, first they thought it was a battle day... but I’ve been there on the battlefield and saw it is a war.”
Hirsch saw symbolic unwillingness to grasp reality.
“In Tel Aviv they didn’t change to battle dress... they didn’t open the war room [and] we were bleeding, there was blood beneath my feet, tanks were firing and I couldn’t call up the reserves,” he said.
In his book he describes his command post constantly under fire from mortars, rockets hammering the north. Israel’s decision makers were bombing Lebanon, but there would be no boots on the ground. “I knew that you cannot achieve the final result with the air force,” Hirsch says.
He had been in Lebanon before. Few in the IDF knew Hezbollah as well or had fought it for as long. But the severe disconnect with his superiors became a poisoned atmosphere. After the war, Hirsch recalled Halutz saying that “when I am taking decisions in war, I take into consideration the Israeli mothers and casualties.”
Fear of casualties was a constant theme throughout the Lebanon conflict, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby fear of casualties prolonged the decision to send in the ground forces that would end the war, and more casualties mounted.
“Of course professionally it is our value to minimize our casualties and sure that’s what I will do... I go every day at the end of day to be with my brothers in arms, I am with the dead and living and of course I would do my best to save lives, but the most important thing is the mission.”
When his staff told him that the higher-ups and media were slandering him, they told Hirsch that war is also political. For the commando, it seemed incomprehensible to bring in political judgments, to try to satisfy the public and media demanding immediate results and fearing casualties.
The Second Lebanon War played out on the 24-hour news cycle and new social and online media. Just as TV had transformed the public’s image of Vietnam in the US, so the Internet and new media played a role in 2006. “I know how wars look, if the media of 2006 was the same as 1967, it wouldn’t have been a six day war, but only 48 hours.”
The war came to an end on August 14, a cease-fire was announced, the United Nations agreed to deploy along the border and the soldiers began to return home. Hirsch still feels pride for his performance during the war and for the conduct of his troops.
“I am very proud of my performance and I was proud then. When I came back and turned on the TV, we didn’t believe what we saw. It wasn’t the same war; we wanted to go back to the division. We didn’t lose one battle.
The special forces and regular forces did great; not everything succeeded, it took more time than we hoped and not every maneuver was executed perfectly, of course. But it is about managing the warfare; while fighting, I felt it worked well.”
Once the ground forces were used in battles with Hezbollah, they discovered the extensive network of tunnels and bunkers the enemy had constructed in six years. The tactics Hirsch says he innovated, such as “swarming” enemy areas with multiple units and flooding them with men, defeated Hezbollah. “I suffered terrible pain for the causalities, from losing soldiers and civilians, but that is war.”
THE END of one conflict on August 14 was the beginning of a new one by Hirsch to clear his name. Severely criticized by Maj.-Gen. Doron Almog for his responsibility for the kidnapping, he stuck by his view that time would vindicate him. Yet he was forced to leave the IDF in December 2006. He writes in his book that he discovered after the war that intelligence about Hezbollah was not passed down to his division – intelligence that would have raised the alert level in the north.
Every other senior leader above Hirsch was tainted by the war, and many left office soon after, including Northern Command head Udi Adam (September 2006), chief of staff Dan Halutz (January 2007), Amir Peretz (June 2007) and prime minister Ehud Olmert (July 2008). The final Winograd Commission report that came out in 2008 was scathing in its findings.
“Overall, we regard the Second Lebanon War as a serious missed opportunity.
Israel initiated a long war, which ended without its clear military victory.
A semi-military organization of a few thousand men resisted, for a few weeks, the strongest army in the Middle East, which enjoyed full air superiority and size and technology advantages.”
It placed much blame at the very top for going to war without a strategy, and waiting to conduct a ground offensive.
As the trauma of the casualties from battles at Maroun a-Ras and Bint Jbail faded from view, Hirsch found support from rising chiefs of staff such as Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot. He founded a firm based in Netanya named Defensive Shield that specializes in “integration” of strategic, operational and tactical solutions.
In 2011 he returned to reserve army service as deputy commander of the newly formed Depth Corps in 2012, a secretive new unit tasked with joint operations distant from Israel. He was briefly considered for head of the Israel Police in 2015.
The current English-language edition of his book is based on a Hebrew version named War Story, Love Story, that came out more than half a decade ago and was a bestseller.
“I was exhausted, my first draft came from my heart and soul to write it.
During the project I threw away all that I had written over a year and rewrote it – I didn’t like the results. I didn’t want the teenagers and young officers and young generation to learn from my experience.
I didn’t want to sound furious or like a complainer. It was a process,” he says.
The two books were a journey. “It may look like a psychological process; when you have bad feelings, like a warrior feels after war, it is important to go through catharsis.”
In talking about his book, Hirsch mentions preparations for the next war – the next Lebanon war that could one day erupt. He says the focus of Israel’s security should be on the North. He described the last three conflicts with Hamas as three operations that are part of one long anti-Hamas campaign with flare-ups in 2009, 2012 and 2014.
The next war in the north won’t just be about Lebanon. “It is a mixed arena; one [Lebanon] affects the other [Syria]. The influence of events in Syria, affects [the] Lebanese arena. We need to remember a spark in Syria can light a bonfire, a regional bonfire and can affect Lebanon and more than that,” he explains.
He describes literally and figuratively “sitting on buckets of explosives” in the North.
“Syria is warehouse of ammunition, one of the biggest, including WMD. The powers there created a very complicated situation: the direct access for radicals to our border – could be [the Nusra Front] or others – and on the Lebanese border.
The existing system of the last 10 years, as I see it, is one system. We must be well prepared for operations that may happen here and there,” he said.
Just as Hezbollah dug in and built “nature reserves” full of tunnels and bunkers festooning the border between 2000 and 2006, it has become battle hardened fighting along Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria and receiving rockets and other weapons from Iran.
The next war will be worse than in 2006, and Hirsch says we must learn the lessons and identify the situation as a war early on. Democracies face unique problems fighting terrorists.
“I see the [first] strike as the main strategic maneuver as a democracy, not the decisive victory which means staying there,” he said.
He warns against the illusion of stopping all missile launches, which would mean conquering all of Lebanon.
“To be fast and strong, it will need to be more aggressive and fast. Air and ground and cyber and fire and navy, kinetic, air, ground, special forces, everything in parallel, all our capabilities against the guerrilla army, aggressive and immediate. I believe in our capabilities, I know the commanders and I am in the reserves, we are in a much better situation today, we have done a lot since the Second Lebanon War,” he adds.
Enemy terrorist forces change with time, he stresses, whether it is Palestinian Tanzim or Islamic Jihad, Force 17 or Hamas, Nusra or ISIS. These organizations shift from being small cells to guerrilla armies. A democracy cannot fight terrorism with terrorism, he stresses. So that means using commandos, and being prepared for the next revolution in military affairs, a concept that envisions new technology and strategy on the battlefield, including the cyber battlefield.
Special forces must be a key element.
“You can use commandos, secret-service crazy people that officially have the right to think differently and do crazy things because the other side does crazy things. That’s his [the enemy’s] way; he doesn’t work according to rules or a grid, so you need people that work like that also, not like a regular army which uses manuals. They should do that, but we need to have commandos for other things.”
The ability to succeed in this next war will mean changing the culture of searching for scapegoats for failures and expecting absolute security. He uses the Arabic word fashla, a slang term for screw-up.
“We always look for the fashla. When you fight an enemy, soldiers feel that the investigation is waiting and already appointed when the war starts.
We should throw that away as a nation and go back to our original culture of paying prices for living here. Not everything is negligence; that is war... we must be strong enough not to look for scapegoats.” He says the culture of obsessively assigning blame harms commanders and makes them incapable of making decisions. He paid that price in 2006. He hopes others will not.
It took him nine long years to clear his name, “suffering that cannot be remedied,” Hirsch says. Last August, speaking at a ceremony marking Hirsch’s discharge from reserve duty, chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot said that the country should be proud of what the 91st Division did to Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War.
“The North owes you the nine years of quiet it has enjoyed since the war,” Eisenkot said to Hirsch. “You are a role model and an Israeli patriot.”
To some that exoneration might seem to have come nine years too late, but for Hirsch it symbolized something far greater: redemption.