Twenty years after the IDF left Lebanon, the memories are flooding back

Military Affairs: The nameless, forgotten war claimed the lives of hundreds of soldiers and left thousands more with traumatic mental scars, which for many are only now being treated.

SHAY SHEMESH: When the withdrawal happened it was a feeling of closure, but I felt like I didn’t fulfill my mission, we missed our goal. (photo credit: SHAY SHEMESH)
SHAY SHEMESH: When the withdrawal happened it was a feeling of closure, but I felt like I didn’t fulfill my mission, we missed our goal.
(photo credit: SHAY SHEMESH)
Two decades after the IDF withdrew from Lebanon, the forgotten, nameless war has once again grabbed headlines.
Men who served there, either with the IDF or the South Lebanon Army (SLA), are opening up old wounds buried deep inside and are finally telling their stories, stories of bravery, youthfulness, fear and tragedy. For the thousands of soldiers who spent time in Lebanon during Israel’s 15-year presence from 1985 to 2000, the memories are still fresh.
Lt.-Col. (res.) Shay Shemesh served for several years, both as a soldier and as an officer, in the security zone in southern Lebanon until the withdrawal.
“When we returned to Israel for furloughs, we felt a little bit like aliens. After spending 64 days in an outpost deep inside Lebanon, where all I saw were troops, you come home and you see that life continues and no one wants to kill you,” he recalled. “You feel like you didn’t come from another country but from another planet. It got to such a point that when I got home, I just wanted to return to Lebanon because I didn’t feel like I belonged.”
Shemesh, who served as a battalion commander and deputy brigade commander in the Kfir Brigade, said it was a normal feeling for many soldiers. Because, while combat soldiers were told what to expect in Lebanon and how to prepare for their deployment there, it was different when they returned to Israel.
“I would tell my troops all the time to look behind them, to look and see the communities of the north, to Kiryat Shmona, the moshavim and kibbutzim. And then, to look ahead and see Hezbollah. It was that simple and clear and everyone understood that,” he recounted on a webinar held by Alma Research and Education Center, an organization that gives briefings on Israel’s security challenges on the northern border. “At the entrance to every outpost there was a sign that read ‘for the security of the citizens of Israel.’”
Brig.-Gen. Alon Friedman, former chief of staff of the Northern Command, enlisted in the IDF’s Golani Brigade in 1982 and spent years in Lebanon, serving there as a soldier, officer and as brigade commander before the withdrawal.
“I found myself as a very young soldier already inside Lebanon. I grew up fighting in Lebanon, defending the border of Israel,” Friedman said on the webinar.
According to him, the mission was very clear to both soldiers and commanders deployed across the border. “The only way to defend Israel from terrorist attacks was to be in Lebanon and not let anyone close to the border. You know that a few meters from the border are families and children who are sleeping, and we have to be there to protect them.”
IDF TROOPS first entered Lebanon in 1978 to root out Palestinian terrorists. While the Israeli military withdrew from most of the country in 1985, it kept control of a 1,000-sq.km. security zone 20 km. deep, in order to prevent terrorist attacks which had plagued the civilians of the North in the ’70s and ’80s.
Shemesh was a commander of the Taybeh outpost in the Lebanon security zone in the mid-1990s until the withdrawal. He explained that from 1995 until the withdrawal on May 24, 2000, the IDF had gone from being on the offensive to being on the defensive.
“At first we went on the offensive. There were more foot patrols and we always tried to get to where the enemy was. We felt more secure, we would even go out with jeeps that weren’t armored or that were semi-armored. And our outposts weren’t totally armored either. Of course, there was a bomb shelter, but otherwise it was like any other military outpost,” said Shemesh.
But as time rolled on, toward the end of the 1990s, everything changed.
“We went from one event to the next event... from the mortar that fell or the anti-tank missile fired at us. We became more protective, more defensive. We went out less. The outposts all became one big protective zone, everything turned into one big bunker,” he recalled. “We almost never lifted our heads out of our outposts; we would use periscopes or long-range cameras because of the fear of mortars and anti-tank missiles.”
Shemesh told the audience that during his last command post in Lebanon, outside the southern Lebanese village of Taybeh, “we would sometimes get between 100 and 150 mortars and rockets fired at us within 24 hours. We never left our bunkers.”
The commander of the IDF’s Kfir Brigade, Col. Eran Oliel, told The Jerusalem Post that his time at outposts along the Litani River made him realize how important it was to always be ready for the enemy.
“There could be months of quiet and then: Boom! Something would happen,” he said. “I always had to believe that an attack could happen at any moment. Whenever the enemy wanted, they could attack.”
Col. Eran Oliel during his time in Lebanon (Photo Credit: Eran Oliel)Col. Eran Oliel during his time in Lebanon (Photo Credit: Eran Oliel)
Like Shemesh, Oliel remembered one incident where Hezbollah kept firing mortar rounds at his outpost for 45 minutes.
“I remember the sounds of the mortars striking the roof. There were only two times that we had time to fire back, and there were other troops still outside making sure that Hezbollah operatives would not be able to overrun the outpost. It was a daily occurrence for many troops.”
One thing Oliel always spent time thinking about was an attack by Hezbollah.
“Every night we were warned about Hezbollah. In those days we didn’t have cellphones, we were completely cut off. I remember that feeling,” he said, as we sat in his office at a base in southern Israel. “And in those days our capabilities as an army were not as good as what we have now. I would take a post in the winter, and the fog would roll in and I wouldn’t be able to see anything. But we knew that fog was the best time for Hezbollah to attack us.”
THOSE LAST few years saw officers like Shemesh do everything they could in order not to lose any soldiers.
“You are always being fired upon and you are always worried. But you can’t see the enemy, and it wasn’t like that before. We just never saw the enemy, and we were doing everything possible to not lose any soldiers. That was the big change; we lost the initiative and went from offensive to defensive.”
During his time in Lebanon, Friedman lost 25 soldiers and commanders. He also lost many good friends, such as the commander of the IDF liaison unit to south Lebanon, Brig.-Gen. Erez Gerstein.
“To lose people – each one of them is an entire world – is very difficult, and you take every death personally. On the other hand, it encourages you very much to keep on going and to continue, because you know they fell to defend our country, our people. And someone needs to continue the mission. And when someone fell, we felt like they ordered us to keep going,” he said.
Though official numbers put IDF casualties at 256, with roughly two dozen soldiers killed per year, the unofficial number stands at 675. That number does not include those who were wounded during their time in Lebanon, and, especially, it does not take into account all those who came back with psychological wounds.
“There are people that have been dealing with these issues for years, and there are others where it only came out years later,” Shemesh said. “Now that the country is marking 20 years since the withdrawal, a lot of people are opening up.”
He told the webinar audience that toward the end of Israel’s time in Lebanon, troops were ordered by Col. Shmuel Zakai – who at the time served as commander of the Golani Brigade – not to cry at the funerals of their comrades, in order to show the strength of the IDF.
“He said if you want to cry, cry afterward and alone. During the funerals we had to be strong and not cry,” said Shemesh.
Lt.-Col. (res.) Shay Shemesh during his time in Lebanon (Photo Credit: Shay Shemesh)Lt.-Col. (res.) Shay Shemesh during his time in Lebanon (Photo Credit: Shay Shemesh)
But, he said, the soldiers in Lebanon didn’t fully understand the depth that the pictures of the funerals and wounded soldiers had on the Israeli public. “People didn’t want any more wounded... they didn’t want any more funerals,” he said.
With the number of troops killed in Lebanon increasing, the Four Mothers protest movement was founded in 1997 by four civilian mothers living in northern Israel. Their goal was bringing their boys out of Lebanon.
The movement had a great influence on Israeli public opinion. It was established following the 1997 Israeli helicopter disaster in which 73 soldiers heading to Lebanon were killed after two helicopters carrying troops into the security zone collided.
“I was in the commander’s course when the tragedy happened,” Oliel said. “I remember the names of all the 73 soldiers being read on the radio. Seventy-three soldiers who were heading to Lebanon were all killed at once.”
Two years later, Gerstein was killed by a roadside bomb along with two other soldiers and Israel Radio correspondent Ilan Roeh.
The Four Mother’s movement without a doubt caused a seismic shift in Israel’s outlook on the IDF’s raison d’être in Lebanon.
Even Shemesh’s mother was part of the movement, and he himself didn’t look at it as something political. “It was mothers who wanted to protect their sons. And that’s the most natural thing there is.”
FIFTEEN YEARS after the first IDF convoy entered Lebanon, under intense public pressure, prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak made the decision that Israel would unilaterally withdraw from the security zone.
“In one night they told us we were withdrawing from Lebanon,” Shemesh recalled. “The night of the withdrawal was a celebration because we completed our mission, but at the same time I couldn’t explain to my troops why we were withdrawing. In one night they told us we were going – before we beat the enemy and before peace was achieved.”
It was a decision that would surprise IDF soldiers and leave a feeling of betrayal among troops of the SLA who – for years – had fought shoulder to shoulder with Israeli soldiers against Hezbollah, suffering considerably higher casualties than Israel.
Lt.-Col. (res.) Shay Shemesh with members of his platoon during their time in Lebanon (Photo Credit: Shay Shemesh)Lt.-Col. (res.) Shay Shemesh with members of his platoon during their time in Lebanon (Photo Credit: Shay Shemesh)
The SLA was an outgrowth of the predominantly Christian Army of Free Lebanon splinter group, which had broken from the Lebanese Armed Forces following the onset of the civil war in 1975. With some 2,500 troops, the SLA was Israel’s key ally in south Lebanon.
Claude Ibrahim, a former officer in the SLA, who also took part in the Alma webinar, said that the people of southern Lebanon who had fled from internal Lebanese conflict to the security zone “really believed in Israel. People believed the words of senior IDF officers like it was the word of God.”
But, Ibrahim said, no one thought the withdrawal would actually take place. There was always talk of a withdrawal, “but no one took it seriously... no one believed that Israel would just pick up and leave.”
As May 23 drew closer, senior SLA officers had a meeting with their Israeli counterparts who told them that the time had come, Israel would be withdrawing.
“They told them they would be alone,” he said. “They told them that there wouldn’t be any help, not financial, not health, no arms. You have to deal with what you have. Not even the border would be open. You can decide if you want to stay and fight or to come to Israel.”
According to him, all SLA officers said they wanted to stay and fight, but then started to think and feel that it wouldn’t be like 1976 where SLA had the support of the country. Things had changed in Lebanon over the years; the civil war had ended, and Syria was occupying the country.
“After the Syrians occupied Lebanon, we became the enemy of the country. Not only the enemy of Hezbollah but the enemy of Lebanon. When talk of the withdrawal became real, we started to ask ourselves who was our main enemy? Hezbollah? The Lebanese Armed Forces? Israel isn’t supporting us,” said Ibrahim.
According to Ibrahim, toward the end of Israel’s time in the security zone, SLA soldiers “couldn’t even fire one bullet” against Hezbollah without the permission of the IDF. “They would be told to ‘watch and report,’ nothing more.”
He said that the time before the withdrawal was also really tough psychologically. “People started getting enlisted into groups against their families.... Hezbollah already had a really strong presence, and they turned us into traitors.”
With the dangers to their families increasing, some 7,000 family members of SLA soldiers and officers fled into Israel, which was expecting only some 450-600 individuals to come.
And while they have been given citizenship, many former SLA fighters who are now between 54 and 65 years old do not speak Hebrew, and with no salary or pension, many have had trouble keeping a roof over their heads. Since 2000, thousands have left Israel for third countries and only 3,000 remain.
“These are men who didn’t serve for just two years; they served for 15-25 years. IDF soldiers who served in Lebanon and came out with traumas, at least they returned home. They returned to their mothers, their girlfriends or their wives. They returned to a warm and loving environment,” Ibrahim said.
Meanwhile, he continued, “after years of serving alongside the IDF, even wearing their uniforms, in one day SLA fighters lost their homes, their families, land, respect and their pride. They lost all of that and left for Israel.”
Jonathan Elkhoury, whose father fought in the SLA, fled to Israel when he was nine years old.
“A few days before the withdrawal, Nasrallah said that SLA soldiers have three options: flee with the enemy to their country, surrender, or be butchered while hugging their mothers. My father fled to Israel the day Israel left, and my mother, brother and I stayed a year and a half under Hezbollah,” he said. “When my father fled, we had to burn everything – his pictures, his uniform, his documents – and we were left with only one photo.”
For the Israelis who served in south Lebanon, many felt like they were running away and hadn’t fulfilled the mission they were sent to accomplish.
Lt.-Col. (res.) Shay Shemesh during his time in Lebanon (Photo Credit: Shay Shemesh)Lt.-Col. (res.) Shay Shemesh during his time in Lebanon (Photo Credit: Shay Shemesh)
For Shemesh, it was a feeling of emotional turmoil when he took that last step from Lebanon into Israel.
“On the one hand it was a feeling of relief because I left Lebanon, I was safe, but on the other hand it was one of failure because I didn’t beat the enemy,” he told the Post. “When the withdrawal happened, it was a feeling of closure, but I felt like I didn’t fulfill my mission, we missed our goal.”
The withdrawal was poorly carried out, contended Shemesh, with soldiers “always looking back to see that no one was firing on us. I felt like we were running away.”
“It wasn’t right what happened there. When we were there, we always told our soldiers that we were protecting our citizens from Hezbollah, and we would leave only when we have peace or when we conquer the enemy. None of that happened. What did we do until now? For what?”
The withdrawal from Lebanon, Shemesh said, sent a message to other terrorist groups – both in Gaza and the West Bank – that this is how you beat the IDF: not through military operations or diplomacy but by wearing them down until they withdraw.
“We lost our deterrence,” he told the Post. And, while in the next war – and there will be one – “we will beat Hezbollah, the price will be high.”