The Four Mothers and the end of the war in Lebanon

INITIALLY, THE Four Mothers focused their message on the importance of saving the lives of their soldier sons in Lebanon through withdrawal.

PROTESTERS REPRESENTING the ‘Four Mothers’ group demand the unilateral and immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon, at a protest in Tel Aviv on June 5, 1999 (photo credit: HL/JRE REUTERS)
PROTESTERS REPRESENTING the ‘Four Mothers’ group demand the unilateral and immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon, at a protest in Tel Aviv on June 5, 1999
(photo credit: HL/JRE REUTERS)
Twenty years ago, on May 24, 2000, Israel’s 18-year military engagement in Lebanon came to a quiet conclusion. IDF soldiers detonated the Israeli military outposts in southern Lebanon – Beaufort, Pumpkin and others – packed their gear, turned around and returned to Israel via the Metulla border crossing.
Unlike other armed conflicts, its end was not determined by a dramatic battle, nor settled by both sides signing agreements around a negotiating table. Rather, the Israeli government was persuaded by a small group of civilians that the army’s presence there was no longer necessary for the country’s safety.
What was responsible for this dramatic turn of events? For years, Israel’s presence in southern Lebanon was accepted by most Israelis as necessary, to protect the North from terror attacks. Hezbollah, which had been founded and funded in the 1980s by Iran, had launched rockets against northern Israel and had killed numerous Israeli soldiers in Lebanon. While questions about the wisdom of remaining in Lebanon were raised by some – on June 27, 1982, a New York Times headline read “Some Israelis Fear Their Vietnam is Lebanon” – the national consensus within the country for many years supported a continued presence there.
After the tragic IDF helicopter crash on February 4, 1997, the consensus began to change. To avoid roadside attacks in Lebanon, the IDF had begun shuttling soldiers to the security zone outposts via helicopter instead of transporting them on the ground. On the evening of February 4, two helicopters – one carrying four crew members and 32 passengers, and a second, with four crew and 33 passengers, headed for two IDF outposts in southern Lebanon. The helicopters collided over northern Israel and crashed near Moshav She’ar Yashuv. Everyone on board – 73 soldiers in all – perished.
“For me, the trigger was the helicopter crash,” says Zahara Antebi. “It was like someone sucked the air out of your lungs. We had to do something.” Antebi, a schoolteacher who was living in Moshav Kahal in the Upper Galilee, joined with three other women – Dr. Rachel Ben Dor, the group’s founder, Miri Sela and Ronit Nahmias – to form the protest organization known as the “Four Mothers,” which called for the unilateral and immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon, with or without a peace agreement. Antebi says the name Four Mothers was coined by Eran Shahar, a writer for the Ha-Kibbutz weekly magazine, in a 1997 interview with four mothers whose sons were serving in Lebanon. Being linked with the biblical four mothers – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah – did not hurt the group, and lent it a certain charm.
Four Mothers founder ZAHARA ANTEBI (with her granddaughter): ‘For me, the trigger was the helicopter crash.’ Four Mothers founder ZAHARA ANTEBI (with her granddaughter): ‘For me, the trigger was the helicopter crash.’
The organization held demonstrations and marches throughout the country, convinced citizens to sign petitions and spoke on radio and television. Until that point, most anti-war protest movements had been organized around the question of returning territories captured in the Six Day War. Saul Zadka, who served as the movement’s spokesman and is currently a London-based freelance journalist, explains that the fact that the group’s philosophy was not connected to settlements or traditional right- or left-wing politics, was to their benefit.
“It was outside the framework of traditional discourse,” he says. “It was easier to persuade Israelis to accept a different line of thinking of the future of the Israeli presence in the so-called ‘security zone’ because biblical issues were out of the question. Nobody disputed the fact that Lebanon is not part of historic Israel, so the traditional debate between Right and Left was not valuable on this particular issue.”
INITIALLY, THE Four Mothers focused their message on the importance of saving the lives of their soldier sons in Lebanon through withdrawal. At first, says Antebi, the group was ridiculed for attempting to influence the debate about the nation’s security, and was considered a fringe group, with some mockingly calling them the “Four Rags.” Yona Rochlin, one of the early members of the movement, recalls, “I was on television and [Shinui MK] Tommy Lapid screamed at me that I was worse than Hezbollah.”
Ben Dor says that the group wanted to change the language from militaristic terms like ‘withdrawal’ to that of simply leaving Lebanon in peace. In fact, she adds, the group’s official name was ‘The Four Mothers for leaving Lebanon in peace.’
Antebi says that while their knowledge of security matters was initially weak, they caught on quickly. “We didn’t know anything at the beginning, but we learned. Discussing security was like entering the Forbidden City,” she says.
“People were surprised that women could speak about strategy or security. We were determined, and we were very ‘Jewish,’ in the sense that we asked and asked, but we didn’t get good answers.”
Gradually, Antebi adds, the group – which included men as well as women – advanced the point of view that the Israeli presence in southern Lebanon was counterproductive from a security standpoint. In an opinion piece that appeared in The Jerusalem Post in August 1999, Antebi wrote, “What we’ve had over the past several years keeps being more of the same. They hit us, we hit them. If, when we hit them, we kill civilians, they will respond and kill our civilians. The circle goes around and round.” Slowly but surely, public opinion began to turn in their direction, especially after casualties increased.
Looking back at the organization’s struggle, Antebi says its success in convincing the public was not only due to hard work, but because the group kept the message simple and straightforward, along with retaining empathy and understanding for those not in agreement. Rochlin recalls, “It was clear to me that if we would do our jobs seriously, we would succeed.” Ben Dor emphasizes that the leaders of the group, having grown up in the kibbutz movement, were familiar with organizational group structure and operated the organization in an orderly fashion.
A FOUR Mothers protest in June 1998. At first it was considered a fringe group, with some mockingly calling them the ‘Four Rags.’ (Reuters)A FOUR Mothers protest in June 1998. At first it was considered a fringe group, with some mockingly calling them the ‘Four Rags.’ (Reuters)
Within the Four Mothers group itself, there were divisions. Some felt the movement appealed to a more emotional side and was not forceful enough. Zadka and Rochlin left the original group and joined a more militant offshoot called “The Red Line” (Hakav Haadom), which conducted weekly protests at the Defense Ministry offices in Tel Aviv, blocking roads. Zadka also recalls that the group brought five lambs to a demonstration, comparing the animals to army officers, who were not speaking their minds about the situation in Lebanon. The Red Line group also distributed leaflets to parents who had brought their sons to the military induction center at Tel Hashomer. “We were not welcomed, to say the least,” he recounts.
Antebi, who remained part of the main Four Mothers group, says it was important that the group remain in the overall mainstream in order to succeed. “The Red Line group was very militant and it was clear to me that when you are extreme, it is easy to shunt you aside, but if you are not too extreme and you can say to even those who oppose you that there is logic in what you say – the necessity to remain within the consensus and not to mock or discredit those who disagree with you – in the end you will be successful.”
The Four Mothers group received a boost from Shelly Yachimovich, who was then one of the principal news anchors on Reshet Bet, and Carmela Menashe, the station’s military affairs correspondent. Antebi says that while most radio and television programs brought them on as a “curiosity,” it was the female media members that gave them a platform: “Shelly Yachimovich brought us on her broadcast all the time.”
Events came to a head in the election campaign of 1999, which pitted incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu against challenger Ehud Barak. In the campaign, Barak promised that if elected, he would end the occupation of southern Lebanon within one year. The 1999 election was only the second time in the country’s history that a separate election was held for the prime ministerial post, in addition to the Knesset elections. Barak defeated Netanyahu handily. Initially, Barak had planned Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon as a part of a comprehensive agreement with Syria. However, after attempts to reach a deal with Syria failed, Barak instructed chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz to prepare plans for a unilateral withdrawal. Late on the evening on May 24, the last Israeli soldiers left Lebanon. “This 18-year tragedy is over,” said Barak.
The Four Mothers organization, having achieved its goal, disbanded soon after. (Today, an extensive collection of material about the movement, including documents, photos, audio recordings and videos, in Hebrew and English, can be accessed online at
FOUR MOTHERS founder Dr. Rachel Ben Dor hugs prime minister Ehud Barak after the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon. (Dr. Rachel Ben Dor)FOUR MOTHERS founder Dr. Rachel Ben Dor hugs prime minister Ehud Barak after the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon. (Dr. Rachel Ben Dor)
EPHRAIM SNEH, Brig.-Gen. (ret.), a longtime Labor MK, commander of the security zone in southern Lebanon in 1981 and 1982, and deputy defense minister under Barak from 1999-2001, has a radically different view of the Four Mothers movement and the exit from Lebanon.
Sneh says the movement succeeded because it took advantage of what he terms “a selfish, egotistic mood” in society in the late ’90s, which prevailed after the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Those who supported the withdrawal from Lebanon, he says, didn’t come up with a different solution against Hezbollah. “[Yitzhak] Rabin was the only leader with the moral and professional military authority to explain to the Israeli people that we had to stand in this war and not run away.”
Sneh adds that the movement damaged soldiers’ morale. “They came back home for the weekend, and they didn’t meet a supportive society. They met an Israeli society that asked them, ‘Why you are going back on Sunday?’
“The Four Mothers did not come up with an alternative strategy [on] how to fight Hezbollah and defend northern villages in Israel,” notes Sneh. “They didn’t give another prescription – just we don’t want our sons to get killed – that’s it. The Four Mothers played on this very natural, but egotistic sentiment of people, to protect their kids. They didn’t care about the lives of Israelis in the Galilee – how to defend them, where is the best line to defend Israel from – the international border, the security zone. The top leadership of the IDF, people with huge prestige and experience, were against it. Mofaz was against, [then-Northern Command head Gabi] Ashkenazi was against, and [then-Lebanon Liaison Unit head Benny] Gantz was against.”
Sneh says that in this neighborhood, unilateral agreements are doomed to failure. “In the Middle East, when you’re running unilaterally, dogs are running after you. You can only withdraw in a well-secured agreement.”
Life in the northern settlements near the border was safe and calm when Israeli soldiers were stationed in southern Lebanon, says Sneh. “There was no danger, no raids of terrorists inside Israel. Why? Because the barrier of the security zone was effective.”
From a strategic point of view, Sneh terms the Israeli encounters with Hezbollah, which was formed as an Iranian proxy, as the “First Iran-Israel War.”
“This was a major confrontation between Iran and Israel,” he says, “and the bad news is that in the ‘First Israel-Iran War,’ we didn’t win. We escaped.”
Sneh says the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon led directly to the Second Intifada (2000-2005) and to the Second Lebanon War in 2006. “I told my colleagues in the cabinet that there is no vacuum. Where we are out, Hezbollah is in, and that is what happened in 2006.” During those cabinet meetings, Sneh suggested maintaining a security zone, but with less visible IDF presence and activity, as well as using different military methods.
Sneh recalls attending an Israeli-Palestinian meeting in 2000 in Berlin. He recounts that at the meeting, Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, approached him and said, “With you, the Israelis, one should talk in Lebanese, because this is the only language you understand.” The intent of Rabbo’s words was that the Israelis run away when they bleed.
Antebi, for her part, is not convinced that there is a connection between the withdrawal from Lebanon and the events that followed in 2000 and 2006. Her only regret? “I’m only sorry it didn’t happen sooner. It could have saved lives,” she says. Noting that Israeli forces left Lebanon before the date that was originally set, and that no soldiers were injured in the withdrawal, she says, “If that is not an [obvious] miracle, then nothing is.”
Zadka agrees with Sneh that the IDF withdrawal contributed to the intifada, “because of the way the IDF retreated. Israel escaped... that’s how it looked in the Arab world. It certainly enhanced Iran and gave [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah a huge boost in Lebanon, an advantage he enjoys today even more than before.”
Both those who were in favor of withdrawal and those against are critical of Israel’s abandonment of the South Lebanon Army, which had assisted IDF efforts in Lebanon for many years. “It was a terrible tragedy. I have nothing good to say about what went on there,” says Rochlin. Sneh adds, “You can’t have a partner who fights for you, dies for you and is abandoned. It is a horrible message.”
In an effort to recall the painful lessons of Israel’s experience in Lebanon, public broadcasting network KAN recently produced a three-part series, titled “The War with No Name” (Milhamah B’li Shem), which recounts many of the major events from the 1982 invasion until the last soldier left in 2000. Watching the events unfold can be painful for all of Israel’s mothers, fathers and children.