Hunting for kidnapped soldiers in south Lebanon - 1986

"We were a couple of weeks into advanced training when my unit was sent into Lebanon."

paratroopers 298  (photo credit: IDF file Photo)
paratroopers 298
(photo credit: IDF file Photo)
On February 17, 1986, a South Lebanese Army convoy, escorted by IDF soldiers, departed on a patrol in the south Lebanon security zone. Lying in wait were Hizbullah gunmen. Following an ambush, two Givati Brigade infantrymen, sergeants Yosef Fink and Rahamim Levi Alsheikh, were kidnapped. I was a young soldier with the Nahal Brigade and had just finished basic training. We were a couple of weeks into advanced training in Nafah on the Golan Heights when my unit was sent into Lebanon to search for the kidnapped men. Two Nahal battalions were charged with finding the two soldiers. We set up roadblocks and carried out house-to-house searches, patrols and covert night operations. I was 19 and never in my life have I felt such a responsibility and such pressure. The security of the nation rode on our shoulders and we felt a desperate need to find the soldiers alive. I was sitting down inside an armored personnel carrier, so I had to be told when we crossed into Lebanon. Fear didn't really come into it, rather excitement and adrenalin because of the sense of responsibility and duty, and the significance of the job in hand. We received a mixed response from the inhabitants of the villages we entered. On the road we treated everyone with suspicion, as Hizbullah and the Syrian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine were operating. Naturally we were treated with disdain during house searches, but in general we had a good relationship with the Christian residents. On Fridays in Marjayoun, there was a holiday feel. People would dress smartly and congregate in the center of town. The atmosphere was less tense and people were happy. The roads were in poor condition after so many years of war but the landscape was still spectacular, the hills and green fields. I remember passing the Beaufort Castle, high in the hills, each day. There are many parallels with today's crisis, particularly with the kidnapping of two soldiers. The major difference was that in 1986, Israel was already in Lebanon, maintaining the security zone, and so had bases, an infrastructure, knew the locals and had a working relationship with the South Lebanese Army. Like now, Hizbullah, started in 1982, was active and the proxy army of Syria. In those days Hizbullah's modus operandi was terrorist infiltrations across the border into Israel. In 1983, they had been responsible for the suicide bombing at a US Marines barracks in Beirut that killed 220 American soldiers. In November 1987, Hizbullah terrorists came over the border on hang gliders and killed six soldiers before being killed. In 1986 I spent three months with Nahal airborne troops in Taibe, the scene of fighting this week. In that time, and during a stint in Marjayoun the same year, I got to know the people and the terrain. Taibe was a small, tranquil village lined with rows of cedars and surrounded by endless valleys. It had a UNIFIL outpost. The people were friendly and getting on with their lives. I heard the news today that Nahal units have been sent in to clear the areas south of the Litani River. While my thoughts are with our soldiers, it resonates that it's my old unit going into the areas I knew. While the circumstances are different and the burden is now on their shoulders, they have to know that we need to do this. We need the safe return of our soldiers and we need to bring quiet to northern Israel if we are to have any chance of peace in the region. This is a real test for our soldiers, both as individuals and as units, and the success of the operation depends on each and every soldier's morale, motivation and understanding of why we are doing this. Hopefully they know that the thoughts of the entire nation, and of the entire Jewish world, are with them. A few days into our mission, it was on the news that Radio Beirut had reported that the Israeli prisoners were severely wounded and were receiving medical treatment. An ultimatum was issued that if we did not withdraw, one of the prisoners would be executed. Later that week, CBS television broadcast video showing the soldier's prisoner of war cards. Then on February 21, Hizbullah's Al-Ahad newspaper published a picture of the two soldiers, faces bandaged and unidentifiable. Rumors began to circulate that they were dead. Nonetheless we continued with our task, to bring home the captives. This is what our soldiers need to do now, focus and not lose hope and continue with the job at hand. There is a reason for doing this, this hopefully will resonate with them throughout the difficult times. We never found the two men and in 1991, the IDF's chief chaplain, Maj.-Gen. Rabbi Gad Navon, declared Sergeants Yosef Fink and Rahamim Alsheikh to be deceased. I remember reading this in the newspaper and feeling a great sense of frustration and loss. My unit may not have succeeded in finding them, but now more than ever, we must make sure that this never happens again.