It’s been a week of war memories. Most of the focus was on the Six Day War, which started and finished – at least theoretically – 55 years ago. But it is also the 40th anniversary of the First Lebanon War.
Initially known as Operation Peace for Galilee, the war continued in some form for nearly two decades and all is not quiet on the northern front, even today.
Talk of the Six Day War brings to mind the iconic David Rubinger photo of the three paratroopers at the newly-liberated Western Wall, but the war was preceded by many pictures of people digging trenches outside tenement blocks, sandbags being placed around hospitals, and football pitches being consecrated, ready for mass burials.
No one, not in Israel and not in the Arab world – and certainly not the six-year-old child that I was, living in London – could imagine that Israel would survive the onslaught of the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies and also gain the Sinai, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and Judea and Samaria, and reunite Jerusalem.
Anyone who considers “the settlements” the root of all evil, needs to explain why the surrounding Arab countries repeatedly tried to wipe Israel off the map before they ever existed.
By the Yom Kippur War in 1973, I was a committed Zionist. I was influenced not so much by the miraculous victory of June 1967 as by the string of Palestinian terrorist atrocities from the Munich Olympics massacre onwards.
When I made aliyah after high school in 1979 and donned an IDF uniform shortly after that, it was my personal victory over terrorism. Israel was still traumatized by the Yom Kippur War. The loss of life was high. There is something peculiarly Israeli about considering that war a failure, but after the euphoria of the Six Day War, the horror of being attacked on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar and being unprepared was especially shocking. The feeling of security was violated along with the sanctity of that holy day.
BY THE last year of my army service, it was clear that peace was still a distant dream. Living and serving in the North, I saw the effects of the continual Katyusha barrages and terror attacks on the Galilee from Lebanon.
In June 1982, when the next war came around, I was on a post-army service trip back in London. As soon as I heard that the Israeli ambassador, Shlomo Argov, had been shot, I knew that Israel would strike terrorist bases in Lebanon, the Palestinians would hit back, and Israel would go in to try to finally remove the PLO and their Katyushas.
My brother and most of my male friends were serving in a combat units and they suffered heavy casualties. I cut short my stay and returned home.
My first year of university studies coincided with the first year of the war, during which I spent several weeks on military reserve duty. I met students who opposed what was later to be dubbed “Israel’s Vietnam.” Aware of the trauma caused by Katyushas, I still thought that Operation Peace for Galilee was an apt name. But not everyone felt the same way. It was a clash of experiences as much as a clash of ideology.
The First Lebanon War was “My War.” It is never a good thing when you have to number wars.
Initially, my family’s biggest worry was that my brother would be either wounded or killed. Then a new fear hit us: The brother of the store owner next to my parents’ print shop in Karmiel was taken prisoner. He was eventually returned in an exchange after two years in Syrian captivity. Later we learned that there is a fate worse than death. We became friendly with a family suffering the loss of a son missing in action. The body of Zachary Baumel was only brought for burial in Jerusalem 37 years later. The Lebanon War will not be over until the fates of the other MIAs is known and their families are granted closure.
As a student, I remember earnest late-night discussions about the rights and wrongs of the war. And also over the price that should be paid for POWs. Israel has a moral obligation “to bring its boys home,” but, alas, the terrorist organizations who continue to plan the abduction of soldiers and civilians don’t abide by the same moral principles. Hezbollah’s terror tunnels in south Lebanon were not built with the peace of Galilee in mind.
A slew of movies has been produced about the First Lebanon War, most of them made after enough years had passed for filmmakers to process their thoughts and feelings. One of the most popular, Ricochets (Shtei Etzba’ot Me-Tzidon) was filmed by the IDF Spokesman’s Unit during the war and was not intended for commercial release. George, a humble army cook, expresses the feelings of many soldiers when he concludes that ultimately everyone is gunning for him. He sums up his newfound understanding of what’s going on in Lebanon thus: “The Christians hate the Druze, the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Palestinians; the Druze hate the Christians, the Shiites and the Sunnis; the Shiites were screwed all these years so they hate everyone; the Sunnis hate whoever their ra’is tells them to hate; and the Palestinians hate each other, as well as everyone else. They all have one common factor, that they all hate, really hate, us, the Israelis.”
The complexities were tragically evident when the Christian Phalangists carried out the massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila in 1982, and the international finger of blame was pointed at Israel.
The First Lebanon War did not end well. The casualties mounted up. Every morning I would wake up and turn on the radio to hear if anyone I knew had been killed. Shiite Lebanese villagers who had initially welcomed Israeli forces with rice and roses – as liberators from PLO tyranny – turned against them with the help of Syria and Iran. Hezbollah grew to infamy with its guerrilla attacks and suicide bombings. Backed by Iran, its terrorism continues to this day.
Peace Now and others held protests with a body count outside the home of prime minister Menachem Begin. It is still not clear how much Begin knew of the war plans by defense minister Ariel Sharon and chief of staff Rafael (Raful) Eitan, but ultimately he was the one in charge and resigned, a broken man.
In 2000, then-prime minister Ehud Barak made the decision to pull the troops out of Lebanon. This followed broader public protests, especially by the Four Mothers movement, that increased after the 1997 Helicopter Disaster, in which all 73 soldiers and air crew en route to the security zone in South Lebanon were killed.
Barak decided on a swift withdrawal in May 2000. The sight of the families of South Lebanese Army soldiers fleeing to Israel to escape Hezbollah remains haunting. Loyal allies should not be abandoned. The nature of the swift overnight retreat had a direct influence on sparking the Second Intifada in September 2000, increased attacks in and from Gaza and the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
ISRAEL HAS changed a great deal since it faced the likelihood of annihilation in June 1967. Today, the legitimacy of the country is often questioned, but it does not face the same existential threat that it did in those days.
The years of war and peace have taught me several lessons. The same enemies who are threatening Israel are also threatening the rest of the world: Islamist terrorists and Iran and its proxies including Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis. Restraint is an admirable quality that should be taught to six-year-olds, but, at national level, restraint and deterrence are two different things, especially in the Middle East.
Sometimes you have to hit back, even if you’re going to be scolded and risk getting hurt.
I have learned, too, that withdrawing from territory without ensuring adequate alternative security arrangements does not solve the conflict. Relying on the UN and foreign forces is not adequate: No one will risk their lives the way that soldiers literally defending their homes will.
Being wary does not make me thirsty for war. On the contrary. Forty years after the First Lebanon War, I’ve learned that nobody prays for peace like the mother of a combat soldier.