Good morning, Lebanon! A look back at Israel's military retreat

Twenty years after Israel’s retreat, the analogy to America’s Vietnamese trauma still stands – mostly for the worse, but also for the better

A general view of IDF forces before the withdrawal from South Lebanon on May 1, 2000 (photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
A general view of IDF forces before the withdrawal from South Lebanon on May 1, 2000
(photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)

“Yonatan can’t,” one of the dead boy’s friends would routinely surprise another, who would then have to complete the sentence with anything that came to his mind about their fallen comrade in arms.
“Yonatan can’t take his little brother to a movie anymore,” said one, “Yonatan won’t be at his grandfather’s funeral,” said another, and “Yonatan won’t take a piss with us from the highest peak in South America,” said a third, in Ron Leshem’s novel Beaufort, about a squad of beleaguered IDF troops manning an outpost in Lebanon, as Israel’s retreat approached.
Twenty years on, that retreat and the 18-year occupation it ended still bring to Israeli minds the same mixture of military futility, strategic frustration, and public outcry that animated America’s Vietnamese trauma, as etched in filmic landmarks like Platoon, The Deer Hunter, and Good Morning Vietnam.
Logistically, the retreat from Lebanon was actually simple and swift, having been completed within several weeks during which the IDF’s main outposts were bombed from the air and all troops returned safely home. Even so, more than any of Israel’s assorted retreats this one left a particularly bitter aftertaste.
Unlike the withdrawals from Sinai in 1949 and in 1956, this one did not follow victory; unlike the 1981 retreat from Sinai it was not followed by peace; and unlike the 2005 retreat from Gaza, Israel’s Lebanese misadventure cost it a thousand fallen soldiers, arguably in vain.
MUCH LIKE its American patron’s humbling in Vietnam the IDF arrived in Lebanon as a modernly equipped, well-trained, and universally admired army only to be exposed to a guerrilla war for which it had not prepared.
Though often confused in Israel with terror, guerrilla warfare is in fact an entirely different creature, one that targets not civilians but the military, and does so by stinging rather than striking. The IDF had entered Lebanon in response to terrorist attacks, launched by the PLO, which used southern Lebanon to shell towns in the Galilee and to send gunmen to kill Israeli civilians in their homes.
However, once inside Lebanon the IDF exposed itself to attacks of a sort it had not previously faced. Two bombings in autumns 1982 and 1983 on IDF headquarters in Tyre that killed a combined 151 Israelis later developed into mortar attacks on outposts, ambushes on trucks, and roadside bombings of patrols.
As had happened to the Americans in Vietnam and to the Soviets in Afghanistan, a relatively cumbersome IDF found itself confronted by agile paramilitaries, often ununiformed, who made good use of a mountainous landscape that to their targets was foreign and to them was home.
Beyond this tactical predicament, the war’s strategic aims became increasingly undefined.
When Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982 the stated aim was to evict the PLO, and the unstated aim was to redesign Lebanon as a pro-Western democracy that will be at peace with the Jewish state.
The first aim was actually realized, in December 1983, when Yasser Arafat, cornered by the invasion and pressured by strife within his ranks, was forced to leave Lebanon with 4,000 of his loyalists, and relocate in distant Tunisia.
Israel could have used the development to stage its own retreat, but feared it would create a vacuum from which the Galilee would eventually be once again attacked. That is how Israel ended up with 1985’s partial retreat, after which it retained a narrow strip across its Lebanese border, just south and east of the Litani River, which added up to about one-tenth of Lebanon’s territory. 
Called the Security Zone, this strip was intended to prevent the return of the Palestinian rocket launchers and terror squads that harassed the Galilee in previous years. To consolidate its grip on the security zone, Israel deployed there a local, pro-Israeli militia, the South Lebanese Army. 
However, Israel was slow to appreciate the threat this structure faced from South Lebanon’s estimated one million Shiites, a mostly rural population which at the time seemed weak, and also divided between the Islamist Hezbollah and the less religiously fervent Amal.
It took almost two years since the security zone’s creation for Hezbollah to wage its first serious attack, a nighttime raid by several dozen warriors who crossed the Litani River and fired mortars at an IDF outpost from several directions. That attacked actually failed – the retreating guerrillas were cut off by IDF artillery and sustained 40 fatalities – but the attacks grew in sophistication, frequency, and stealth.
This was the turning point after which Israel’s presence in Lebanon increasingly resembled the Vietnam War’s combination of military perplexity, political indirection, and social angst.
Unlike the war’s original aim, to remove the PLO, now the enemy was not a military intruder, but a local population, and the IDF, rather than initiate, as it did when it invaded, was responding while Hezbollah was initiating. In the words of an Israeli general in Leshem’s novel, he and his colleagues were “deep in tactics, without strategies.” 
This already elusive situation was multiplied by the Middle East’s notoriously shifting political sands.
WHEN ISRAEL invaded it, Lebanon’s hegemon was Syria, in all relevant respects: diplomatically, Damascus saw in Lebanon part of what it called Greater Syria; militarily, Syrian units camped in central parts of Lebanon since invading it in spring 1976; and politically, Syria interfered in Beirut’s policymaking and senior governmental appointments.
This situation persisted despite Israel’s invasion, although Syria was compelled to rearrange its military deployment. Yet the big international transition since the invasion was not about Syria, but about Iran, whose Lebanese role back in 1982 was marginal, with the Islamist revolution hardly three-years-old, and Tehran up to its neck in its bloody war with Iraq.
By the end of the decade Lebanon emerged as Tehran’s staging area for its revolution’s export.
From the IDF’s viewpoint, this meant that its security zone now became part of something much larger than the Mideast conflict, namely, a resurging Islamism’s clash with Western civilization.
That new context intensified the feeling that the IDF was dragged into a battlefield it had never planned on entering, an arena that was part of a much broader war, an Armageddon in which Israel had neither the interest nor the ability to play first violin.
This combination, of military futility, geopolitical perplexity, and piling casualties, fed a protest movement that had some similarities to America’s back in the 1960s. Demands to quit Lebanon intensified following the deaths in winter 1997 of 73 troops when two helicopters, approaching Lebanon lightless after nightfall, collided in midair.
The crash made four women whose sons were serving in Lebanon start a protest movement that demanded an immediate retreat. Arguing that the IDF’s presence in Lebanon had become an exercise in futility, the Four Mothers movement was one of the most effective civic initiatives in Israeli history.
Unlike America’s antiwar movement, Israel’s had no countercultural color, and in fact was seen as an increasingly prosperous society’s bourgeois quest for quiet. Moreover, the debate the movement sparked crossed political lines, with some of its critics, like then deputy-defense minister Ephraim Sneh, hailing from the Left, while its backers included Ariel Sharon, who masterminded the 1982 invasion.
Still, like Richard Nixon in his situation, Israel’s prime minister in 2000, Ehud Barak, was influenced by grassroots pressure when he decided to quit Lebanon. Equally similar to the American trauma was the fate of the South Lebanese Army, whose commanders were given asylum in Israel, but whose troops often felt like America’s South Vietnamese allies, who were abandoned to their northern foe’s devices.
However, unlike the retreat from Vietnam, which brought the American experience there to an abrupt end, Israel’s Lebanese experience did not end with the retreat.
The Second Lebanon War of summer 2006 vilified the retreat. Israelis hoped the IDF, once back within the international border, would deter Hezbollah from provocations like the kidnapping incident that sparked the war. Following the war, many argued that Hezbollah’s very survival means Israel was once again the strategic loser.
Subsequent events proved such lamentations were unjustified, like the common framing of the Vietnam War as an American defeat.
The American retreat was followed, hardly 15 years later, by the total collapse of the communist ideology that was the war’s overarching cause. Not only was the US victorious in this abstract regard, Vietnam now begged diplomatic relations, effectively conceding that the ideology for which it fought produced economic ruin, and that only the American enemy can help undo it.
Israel’s Lebanese balance sheet 20 years after the retreat is also better than many assume, for three reasons:
First, the IDF’s departure inspired the Cedar Revolution of 2005, which resulted in the Syrian army’s withdrawal.
Second, after inspiring Hezbollah’s guerrilla attacks on the IDF, Iranian units in Syria are now themselves sitting ducks challenged by the IAF’s hit-and-run attacks. And lastly, after decades of surrendering to Hezbollah’s conquest of its south and hijacking of its politics, the rest of Lebanon is losing patience, as it struggles with a collapsing currency, debt default, a million Syrian refugees, and protesters clashing with Hezbollah’s goons while demanding a political overhaul.   
Fortunately for Israel, and thanks to its retreat in 2000, it is now fully removed from Lebanon’s fray, the way Uncle Sam was from Vietnam’s when its leaders emerged at his door, hat in hand.