Israel's Lebanon trauma still lingers 40 years on

Israel never really recovered from that misadventure. Neither did I.

 On patrol in the Awali Valley (photo credit: DANIEL BEN-TAL)
On patrol in the Awali Valley
(photo credit: DANIEL BEN-TAL)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

The day war broke out, Sunday, June 6, 1982, I happened to be in IDF reserve duty, on a one-day training course learning to fire rocket-propelled grenades. “Operation Peace for Galilee will take the IDF 40 kilometers into Lebanon,” we motley crew of milluimnikim heard Defense Minister Ariel Sharon promise on the radio. Our paratroop battalion, usually posted to the south, probably won’t be needed this time, we surmised.

The following evening, during a scheduled Jerusalem branch meeting of the Civil Rights Movement (Ratz, forerunner of today’s Meretz), I heard party leader Shulamit Aloni warn that Sharon may be hiding his intentions – but there was still little forewarning of what was to come.

My doorbell rang late Tuesday night, abruptly halting any cramming for the final exams due to commence two weeks later. The elderly reservist doing the call-up round told me to pack lots of underwear – I had an hour to present myself at the Schneller base in Jerusalem. Academic qualifications will have to wait.

That night, our unit was bused down to its equipment distribution base in the Negev, where we loaded bullet cartridges, calibrated weapons, and familiarized ourselves with the armored personnel carriers that would be our homes for the next six turbulent weeks.

Political discussions regarding the operation’s intentions had already begun before we crossed the northern border the following evening, joining a long military convey winding northward into the Bekaa Valley on the eastern front towards Syria. Throughout the night, the convoy crawled closer to the incessant sound of explosions, way past that illusionary 40-kilometer line (or was it 45 kilometers?).

 A briefing in the field (credit: DANIEL BEN-TAL) A briefing in the field (credit: DANIEL BEN-TAL)

Our unit arrived at Sultan Yacoub on Thursday night – too late to save the 30 soldiers who died in what was seen as the IDF’s biggest intelligence failure of the war. With first light Friday, our APC convoy edged through the battlefield. Early sunrays melted the heavy morning mists, revealing a horrific scene of wreckage from the bloody death trap littering the landscape. Next to a bombed-out farmhouse I saw the charred corpses of two Palestinian fighters. Potholed roads were littered with discarded bandages and infusion bags. One fellow soldier picked up a tank driver’s helmet, then threw it away in disgust – the insides were splattered with blood. The stench of death hovered around the charred contents of a decommissioned APC.

By this point, rumors were flying among the troops: Israel’s battle strategy has changed. It’s now an all-out war with Syria.

Suddenly the command came over the field radio: The hill at the end of the valley, about a kilometer away, must be taken immediately. Move, move, move! As we darted forward, dodging more testimonies of the previous day’s carnage, Syrian troops overlooking the valley to our left aimed infra-red-guided Sager missiles at us. I didn’t see the missile that flew about a meter over our heads, exploding harmlessly into a hillside on our right.

But I definitely saw the two Syrian MIG fighters hurtling towards us at a low trajectory as soon we had secured that strategic hill. I was helping bandage the unit’s only casualty – a gentle family man whose chest was pockmarked by shrapnel from an enemy bullet – when they appeared from the east. We cowered behind a boulder as certain death approached, but within seconds a pair of Israel Air Force F-15’s miraculously downed the MIGs in a quick-fire dogfight above our heads.

Somebody noticed movement in the bushes a few hundred meters north. We all took cover, cocking our rifles. Our company commander scanned the terrain through his binoculars, then shouted: “Don’t shoot – they’re carrying a white flag.” The flag, it turned out, was the tallit of one of three tank crew members who had somehow survived by hiding in a cave – injured, exhausted and traumatized, but alive.

Two weeks later, we had another close shave with death when ambushed by PLO guerrilla fighters in the Awali valley in the dark of night. I saw their bullets fly just over my head, aimed to kill for the first time in my life, and squeezed the trigger. They got away.

Three weeks and two exams after returning home, I was called up again, this time to Damour, a formally Palestinian-controlled Christian town where we rehearsed the planned invasion of the PLO’s Beirut headquarters, the Holiday Inn. According to the IDF’s plan, my battalion was to secure the hotel’s perimeter, my platoon was to take the strategic road junction, and I was one of three foot soldiers designated to race across the street and plant an explosive device at the once-grand hotel’s entrance. We openly discussed the possibility that not all of us would return. Thankfully, Yasser Arafat eventually agreed to leave and we were allowed home in mid-August.

Readjusting to “civilian” life that summer was really, really difficult. The experience affected me profoundly. I was disgusted by our leadership and particularly Israel’s role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre, found myself questioning the Zionism that had brought me here in the first place, and never got to finish those exams.

But the moral dilemmas were only to become harsher. After Sharon – by then evil incarnate in my eyes – refused to resign following the Kahan Commission’s damning findings, I helped organize the Peace Now demonstration that ended in the murder of Emil Grunzweig.

You’ve probably seen the famous photo of Emil and other budding politicians proudly marching arms-linked with the front line of demonstrators. I was one of the few who volunteered to man the less-prestigious tail-end of the march from Jerusalem’s center to the Knesset, where there were no photographers. For two hours I found myself physically separating my fellow peace-seekers from a violent, incited, rabid mob who tore banners and torches from our hands, hurled the most disgusting abuse and physically attacked us. “It’s a shame Hitler didn’t kill all you Ashkenazim,” a kippa-wearing hypocrite shouted straight into my face at one point. Along Bezalel Street I was showered with phlegm. The policemen ostensibly protecting the rally apparently enjoyed every minute.

I was supposed to take the banners that we’d prepared back to the Peace Now HQ after the demo, but there were hardly any left by the time we began to disperse. Somebody (I’ll never know who) took one look at me – I was physically and mentally exhausted, my clothes filthy and covered in gob – and told me to go home, they’ll manage without me. I strode the 20 meters to my car and started driving away when right-wing activist Yona Avrushmi tossed his grenade at where I’d stood less than a minute before.

That night I cried for the fate of this country. The parallels with the Vietnam War frightened me. There was serious talk of civil war in the air. Several good friends were talking about leaving Israel, or had already left. How could I possibly return to Lebanon, to participate in this illogical, immoral conquest? My unit was due back in two months, but I couldn’t face the prospect. Dedi Zucker, then a young political activist and not yet a Knesset member, heard of my dilemma and invited me for tea one afternoon. He talked about accepting the decisions of a democratically elected government and the pitfalls of not doing so, and eventually persuaded me to renege.

April 1983 was the longest month of my life. Our platoon was stationed at a three-story house about 15 kilometers uphill from Beirut, overlooking the Damascus highway. We were surrounded in all directions by Palestinians, Shi’ites, Sunnis, Christians, Druze and Syrians – who were all fighting each other and most of them fighting us. Every night, shells landed in or were launched over our heads from the nearby predominantly Druze town Aley. The weekend before we arrived, two IDF officers had been killed by a roadside bomb 200 meters away.

Our mission was to survive – by constant round-the-clock vigilance, nerve-racking foot patrols, waiting silently in ambush for endless hours, sleeping with our boots on just in case...

And for what?

In 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak finally dragged the IDF out of the Lebanese quagmire, ending what he called an “18-year tragedy.” Israel paid a disproportionate human, financial and moral cost for that misadventure, yet the negative internal repercussions of the First Lebanon War – as it is now officially known because even Likudniks are embarrassed to admit that “Peace for Galilee” was an excuse for Sharon’s thick-skinned folly and aging prime minister Menachem Begin’s gullibility – still linger in our fractious society.

On a personal note: Nowadays I’d probably have been diagnosed with PTSD and given medical marijuana, like so many of my friends, but there was no such option back then, so I chose a different form of therapy – by escaping to the furthest place from here. Three months working and traveling the Alaskan wilderness, and another six months driving a VW Beetle down the West Coast sufficiently disconnected me from this ugly reality and allowed me to reassess the veracity of my beliefs. It worked, apparently, because I stayed with that reserve unit for 22 years, and four decades on I’m still here. ■