Was Bennett Really to Blame for the Death of 102 Lebanese Civilians in 1996 Battle?

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Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett, Oct. 27, 2014.Credit: Emil Salman

In recent days a minor political storm has erupted over Economy Minister Naftali Bennett’s military career. But the facts are stale leftovers.

Yedioth Ahronoth recycled the story Friday in a column by Yigal Sarna. According to the article, which had already been recounted in rival daily Maariv, the head of the Habayit Hayehudi party was involved in the shelling that killed 102 people in Lebanese village Kafr Qana in 1996.

Bennett was a young officer at the time, a company commander in the elite Maglan commando unit. For eight days Bennett led a force deep behind enemy lines looking for rocket launchers.

A sub-unit under his command ran into trouble after it was exposed by Hezbollah well inside southern Lebanon and was hit by mortar fire. Bennett reported this by radio and Northern Command put two artillery batteries into action to support his troops; the artillery fired rounds to help rescue the unit.

A few shells accidently fell on a nearby UN compound where the 102 people had taken shelter. The deaths led to international pressure to halt the large Israeli military operation in southern Lebanon — Operation Grapes of Wrath.

On Sunday, Raviv Drucker — a reporter for Channel 10 television who writes op-eds for Haaretz — quoted the Twitter account of a senior Israeli officer from that period. According to this source, “On the communications network, the young officer, Bennett, sounded hysterical, and his pressure contributed more than a little to the terrible error.”

The ruckus online that followed spilled in the expected directions. Bennett asked Drucker what he was doing that night while the future political leader was lying in ambushes behind enemy lines.

Responding to Drucker’s tweet via Facebook, Bennett wrote, “I remember very well where I was on that night in 1996. I was with my soldiers, deep inside Lebanon, facing the enemy. Where were you that evening, Drucker?” Bennett said the criticism stemmed from those who “dare to write advice to soldiers spitting blood at the front. You should be ashamed.”

Bennett later added another post, linking it to a media interview Monday with a soldier involved in the operation. That soldier rejected Drucker’s claim. Bennett’s supporters see this as further evidence that already two decades ago “the traitorous left stabbed our brave fighters in the back.”

It’s hard to understand why this altercation is relevant today to the question of Bennett’s leadership — especially to the job of defense minister in the next government. True, Bennett has gotten plenty of electoral mileage on his image as a fighter and an officer in an elite unit. There’s no doubt he was a courageous commander, as many of his subordinates have attested to.

But his career in uniform was relatively short and ended on the tactical level — a company commander in the regular army. It certainly provides him with an excellent basic understanding of the military profession and experience, but his suitability to become defense minister must be compared to that of other candidates — Moshe Ya’alon and maybe Shaul Mofaz

Experience, temperament and abilities must all be considered. The degree of understanding and responsibility Bennett would demonstrate as defense minister isn’t related to his behavior as a 24-year-old officer in April 1996.

Even if we assume he sounded hysterical over the radio because his soldiers were in danger, he wasn’t the first or last company commander to behave that way. The military inquiry into the affair, by the way, explained that the deaths were caused by command and communications failures between Northern Command, Military Intelligence and the artillery battalion.

The actions of the Maglan troops were found to be insignificant. David Zonsheine, a left-wing activist now chairman of the human rights group B’Tselem, was the deputy company commander under Bennett. Zonsheine wrote Sunday that the attacks on Bennett’s functioning during the incident were “disconnected from reality.”

Two officers who served in senior positions at Northern Command during the operation told Haaretz they didn’t remember any mistake by Bennett during the affair. Also, the claims that Bennett deviated significantly from the original plan without approval from above found no support in a check with a number of officers.

Amiram Levin, who headed Northern Command during Operation Grapes of Wrath, also supports Bennett in this matter. Levin told Haaretz on Monday that Bennett “functioned excellently” during the incident.

“He commanded the force that operated deep [behind enemy lines] and did excellent work,” Levin said. “At some stage he was exposed and Hezbollah fired 81-millimeter mortars at him. Since the [shells] fell close to him, we used [artillery] fire to rescue [the force]. He showed self-control and did not become hysterical.”

(Bennett also has fond memories of Levin. At the end of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, as a frustrated reserve officer — and it seems a future politician — Bennett wrote a piece for TheMarker. The title was: “Needed: Amiram Levins.)

When the scope of the killing at the UN compound became known, an international inquiry was launched. Levin remembers he went to talk to the Maglan fighters and their company commander.”

“They were quite shaken up because of the commotion that broke out. I told them: ‘You have nothing to worry about,’” Levin said. “They had no part in what happened as a result of the firing. I told them: ‘You acted properly and I will make sure to give you full support.’”

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