Winograd: We paid the price for six years of containment

Current chief of General Staff Ashkenazi warned Shaul Mofaz in 2000 that restraint would fail.

mofaz 298 88 (photo credit: Knesset channel)
mofaz 298 88
(photo credit: Knesset channel)
As Israel withdrew from its self-imposed security zone in southern Lebanon in 2000, both then-prime minister Ehud Barak and then-chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz warned Lebanon and Syria that any attacks on Israel would incur "a very painful response." But ever since the withdrawal, the IDF has responded to the many Hizbullah attacks and provocations in a measured and localized fashion, aiming to contain any escalation and end each incident as quickly as possible. The most prominent example of this policy of containment was the October 2000 kidnapping of three soldiers from Mount Dov. Israel responded with a limited bombardment of Hizbullah positions. Mofaz, then army chief, told the Winograd Committee that back then, he recommended a much wider, but still measured, response, but it was rejected by the cabinet. The WInograd panel calls this decision the beginning of the "Age of Containment" that led, eventually, to the Second Lebanon War. In his testimony before the committee, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said the decision take a measured respond to the October 2000 kidnapping came from the desire to avoid painting a grim picture of the withdrawal from the security zone so soon after it was carried out, and to prevent the opening of a second front after the outbreak of the second intifada a month earlier. Sneh added that another reason for the containment policy was to allow the residents of the North "breathing room" after years of living under Hizbullah bombardment. The policy of containment continued even after the Hizbullah shooting attack on the Shlomi-Metzuba road in March 2002 in which seven Israelis were killed. Then-prime minister Ariel Sharon sent out word that there should be no second front. In 2004, Mofaz, then defense minister, ordered a continuation of the containment policy, although he did say Israel needed to prepare itself for a possible clash with Hizbullah "in a way that the IDF could neutralize Hizbullah's rocket arsenal." In March 2005, as Syrian forces were leaving Lebanon following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, the Defense Ministry recommended a continuation of containment along the northern border. This policy also held after the IDF foiled a kidnapping attempt in Ghajar in November 2005. Former Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Dan Halutz told the Winograd Committee that he disagreed with the containment policy, but waited for the Olmert government to stabilize, after Sharon's strokes, to raise the issue with the cabinet. In fact, Halutz's recommendations did make it to a discussion with Olmert, who was acting prime minister at the time, but the talks did not bear any fruit. In Monday's report, the committee said the policy of containment came at a "substantial" cost in the face of the "unfettered" strengthening of Hizbullah, which created a balance of deterrence between Israel and the terrorist group. Ahead of the withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, army chief Mofaz established a team to draft the IDF's posture along the border. The head of that team was then-OC Northern Command and current Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. The team's recommendations were brought up for discussion at meetings of the General Staff, and formed the basis for the IDF's operational stance following the withdrawal. The essence of this stance was to deter Hizbullah by threatening the Lebanese home front in the event of an attack on Israeli civilians or on IDF positions along the border. Soon after the withdrawal, however, it became clear that implementing the plan would be difficult, as Hizbullah continued its provocations, and the IDF refrained from responding. Ashkenazi warned about this policy as early as August 2000, in a letter to Mofaz. "Since our withdrawal from Lebanon, Hizbullah's provocations are increasing, and this is damaging our security and deterrence, and could eventually lead to a serious deterioration in the situation. There is a need to apply effective pressure on Lebanon or to change the way we react. "If this doesn't happen the situation will crystallize and turn into a reality we cannot live with," the Winograd Committee quoted Ashkenazi as saying back then. Former OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. (res.) Udi Adam, who quit after the war, told the committee, "The containment policy was in effect Israel relinquishing its sovereignty over the border area, while allowing Hizbullah a free hand in the area." According to senior IDF officers, the "containment" policy's effects were becoming obvious: The next kidnapping was only a matter of time, and it was doubtful if it could be thwarted. Northern Command officers tried various creative ways to minimize the threat of kidnapping, mostly by distancing IDF soldiers from border areas that Hizbullah fighters could easily infiltrate. Brig.-Gen. Gal Hirsch, commander of Division 91, who quit his post after the Almog Committee blamed him for the kidnapping of reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev in July, tried to improve the containment policy by demanding stricter discipline, training and inspections. The Winograd Committee said in its report that Hirsch's reforms were not implemented, leading to a gradual degradation of discipline and alertness among the troops patrolling the border. In summarizing the IDF's operations along the northern border during the six years between the withdrawal from southern Lebanon and the Second Lebanon War, the Winograd Committee paints a grim picture: The army was constrained by the policy of containment forced upon it by the political echelon; the policy itself was not physically sustainable; a degradation of the IDF's abilities mainly due to budget cuts and manpower shortages - due largely to the deployment of troops not specifically trained for the sensitive mission, and the deployment of better-trained troops to the Palestinian front; and the lack of discipline, training, drilling and frequent inspections that led to a lowering of soldiers' alertness.