Twenty years after Lebanon withdrawal: Return to the abyss

Today’s Israeli military and political leaders are in many ways part of the withdrawal generation, learning the time’s tough lessons.

IDF SOLDIERS pack their bags as troops prepare to leave the Lebanon border, on May 17, 2000 (photo credit: HL/WS/REUTERS)
IDF SOLDIERS pack their bags as troops prepare to leave the Lebanon border, on May 17, 2000
(photo credit: HL/WS/REUTERS)
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.
A HEZBOLLAH supporter beams at a poster of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah during a rally on the anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal, on May 25, 2009. (Jamal Saidi/Reuters)A HEZBOLLAH supporter beams at a poster of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah during a rally on the anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal, on May 25, 2009. (Jamal Saidi/Reuters)
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.
A SYRIAN woman from the Golan Heights village of Ain al-Tinaeh holds a poster of deceased Syrian president Hafez Assad and son Bashar as she searches for relatives in the village of Majdal Shams, across the border in Israel, in July 2000. (Kh.H/Reuters)A SYRIAN woman from the Golan Heights village of Ain al-Tinaeh holds a poster of deceased Syrian president Hafez Assad and son Bashar as she searches for relatives in the village of Majdal Shams, across the border in Israel, in July 2000. (Kh.H/Reuters)
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.