Noam Ben-Tzvi
Noam Ben-Tzvi. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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Col. Noam Ben-Tzvi (res. ), the last commander of the Israel Defense Forces western sector in south Lebanon, has little question about how to define the Israeli exit from the security zone 10 years ago. "It wasn't a withdrawal and it wasn't a retreat," he says. "We ran away, pure and simple."

Ben-Tzvi commanded the brigade for nearly four years, right through the completion of the withdrawal on May 24, 2000. The Israeli forces in south Lebanon operated under the complex, sometimes contradictory command of two separate headquarters: The Lebanon Liaison Unit and Division 91 (the Galilee Division ). The Liaison Unit operated two brigades, east and west, responsible for relatively narrow sections of the Lebanese theater, and charged mainly with training and accompanying the corresponding units of the South Lebanon Army.

Ben-Tzvi, 59, who commanded the western sector brigade headquartered in Bint Jbail, was considered an odd bird among the Israeli commanders in Lebanon. A paratroop officer who rose through the ranks while in the reserves, before finally returning to full-time army service at the age of 38. His tour of duty in Lebanon was unusually long, extended by his own request; he used that time to build a strong and lasting connection with local SLA commanders, particularly Col. Akel Hashem, who was assassinated by Hezbollah in January 2000.

Most of the IDF top brass opposed Ehud Barak's decision to withdraw, especially when it turned out the retreat would be unilateral, after talks with Syria had failed. Ben-Tzvi, however, was one of the few senior officers in Lebanon who supported the prime minister's move. Ten years later, he is still ill at ease about the other officers' conduct in the run-up to the withdrawal. He says most of the brigade commanders were in favor of leaving, but hesitated to say so when the General Staff officers said otherwise.

"I think Chico Tamir, Shmuel Zakai, Aviv Kochavi and others all understood we needed to withdraw," Ben-Tzvi says. "They all experienced the frustration, the inability to live up to the mission in Lebanon. But the problem is the more senior you are, the more difficult it is to stand up to the establishment."

But Ben-Tzvi also draws a clear line between his support for the decision to withdraw and his thoughts on how the decision was carried out.

"The execution of the withdrawal was an operational failure," he states. "The IDF never properly investigated the retreat, because it would have revealed that many senior officers allowed the operation to disintegrate."

Nor is Ben-Tzvi too impressed that not one IDF soldier was hurt during the three days it took to complete the withdrawal. He believes it was far more important to carry out a phased, well-planned retreat - as the army had intended to do - as opposed to a move that would be perceived throughout the Middle East as a dash for the border.

"We left vehicles and equipment behind," he explains. "In some instances are soldiers looted military equipment. There was the disgraceful scene of SLA crowding at the Fatima gate. This was running away, it was unplanned, with Hezbollah hardly even shooting at us. The soldiers on the ground understood it and even said as much. We forsook the values we had been trained with as soldiers there."

'They should have shot'

Ben-Tzvi missed the actual retreat. On the very day the SLA began disintegrating, he was sent on a pre-planned work trip - in preparation for his next position as military attache to the Netherlands. The security zone imploded when Lebanese civilians began marching to the villages of Taibe and Kantara. One of the military posts in the area had been transferred earlier from IDF to SLA responsibility; when the procession arrived, the SLA commanders abandoned the base. Within three days the entire security zone collapsed, pushing the IDF to speed up the withdrawal.

"I would have laid myself down at the fence to stop it from happening," Ben-Tzvi says. "They should have shot at the procession, even if it would have killed five civilians. The fact is that these days, similar processions are aimed at the Gaza fence and the IDF knows how to disperse them - sometimes with limited use of live ammunition. If the appropriate means had been used in Taibe, the procession would have been repelled and the orderly withdrawal could have continued.

"I supported the withdrawal," he continues, "but I thought we made a strategic error not to have responded more forcefully to Hezbollah activities, especially the abduction of the three soldiers in October 2000. Barak had political considerations, but from the point of view of the average soldier, we promised to respond strongly and we didn't. We don't back what we say, the other side learns this and eventually [takes advantage of] it.

"Still, compared to the decade before the withdrawal, I think we've earned some quiet over the last 10 years, even when the casualties of the Second Lebanon War are taken into account," Ben-Tzvi says. "In the security zone, we lost about 25 fighters a year, not to mention other disasters that resulted from us being there - like the helicopter collision in 1997, in which 73 died. Staying there was an ongoing failure, we had to get out."

In the coming days, former officers of the Lebanon Liaison Unit will attend a meeting with former SLA commanders, to be held in a private Tel Aviv home. Ben-Tzvi believes that, taking everything into account, the process of SLA absorption into Israel went reasonably well.

'We didn't invent the Lebanese chaos'

"In the months leading up to the withdrawal, I told them very truthfully: We're going to leave, and we're going to leave without an agreement. Don't tell me that you'll last without us,'" he recalls. "Some of them offered to hold their ground, with the IDF only providing them with ammunition. I told them, Israel won't even give you a bullet after we withdraw. I didn't feel any moral qualms about it, they got caught in the situation.

"Before the IDF arrived, the people of south Lebanon were impoverished," he continues. "The IDF stayed there and helped them start to make a decent living - officers as well as families... We didn't invent the Lebanese chaos. We didn't forcefully recruit anyone. There are very few pangs of conscience here."