The border between Israel and Lebanon looked quiet and green on Wednesday, like a postcard of a pastoral scene sent from Europe in better days. On either side of the boundary, two heat-stricken countries are still trying to recover from the depredations of the coronavirus, and are more worried about the economic crisis that accelerated in its wake. Lebanon’s challenge is immeasurably more difficult. The country is grappling with the worst economic distress it has experienced since the civil war that devastated it in the mid- 1970s.
From the vantage point near the perimeter fence of Kibbutz MIsgav Am, it is possible to see without any difficulty many of the sites whose names were common parlance until two decades ago: Marjayoun, Kaliya, Taibeh, Nabatiya and Reihan. A bit to the southwest, in the town of Bint Jbeil, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivered his famous “spider web” speech. That was on May 20, 2000, two days after the Israel Defense Forces completed its withdrawal from southern Lebanon – 20 years ago this week.
Nasrallah was the main speaker at the victory rally his organization held in the town. By means of that speech, he aimed at establishing the narrative that Hezbollah had forcibly expelled the Israelis from the Arab territory. His words were etched in the memories of the Lebanese nation and perhaps all the Arab nations: “My dear brothers, I am telling you: Israel, which has nuclear weapons, is weaker than the spider’s web.”
Twenty years later the border remains quiet, apart from one large outbreak of hostilities – the second Lebanon War in 2006 – and a few brief, smaller flare-ups. At the time of the 2006 war, the defense minister at the time, Amir Peretz, planned a victory speech of his own at Bint Jbeil. Fortunately, the plan was abandoned, but in the public anger at the failure of that war, a place of honor was taken by stories of reservists from an Armored Corps brigade that suffered losses after they were sent into an unnecessary operation in an attempt to fly the Israeli flag there again.
The forced inactivity of the coronavirus days, in conjunction with the approaching anniversary, led to a unique Israeli phenomenon: a kind of mass group therapy by means of a Facebook group. Thousands of former soldiers who had fought in Lebanon during the era of the security zone (1985-2000) shared the experiences they had carried around locked within themselves for years. Their commanders quickly joined in – major generals and brigadier generals in the reserves and on active duty. Despite all that has happened since then – the second intifada, the second Lebanon War, three operations in Gaza and innumerable smaller incidents – Lebanon has remained the experienced that defined a generation in the IDF.
Brigadier generals of the current General Staff served as company commanders and in some cases even battalion commanders in the security zone. There, they also learned the daily reality of war against guerillas and terror: small achievements, which did not add up to an overall victory but rather ended as a sort of disappointing tie, at the end of which there was a retreat and the folding of the effort. Today, in the consensus crystallizing now that did not prevail at the time, the long and continuous time spent there is perceived as unnecessary, costly and even stupid.
Maj. Gen. Itai Virov, commander of the Military Colleges, spent many years in southern Lebanon as an officer in the paratroops, rising from platoon commander to battalion commander. A few years ago, in an interview with Haaretz, he related that the company with which he had enlisted in the IDF in November 1985 had held a reunion. “We’d always said that we didn’t have any trauma from Lebanon. But then, we met and went through four hours of collective post-trauma.”
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He himself, he insists, doesn’t bear any psychological scars from Lebanon. “My experience was different. I saw in my soldiers there the IDF in all its glory. Those who fought in Lebanon were the [lower] tactical ranks, headed by the infantrymen. From the youngest soldier to the company commander, at most the regional brigade commander. We saw the [higher] strategic ranks when they came to investigate incidents, which actually revealed tactical problems. The platoon commanders and the battalion commanders are the ones who carried the battle on their shoulders. The General Staff educated us, investigated, slapped us when necessary.”
Nevertheless, the post-traumatic discussion reached him as well. “Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t send me 10 screenshots from the Facebook page. The 15 years that Virov spent on and off in Lebanon also look to him in retrospect as the years of the maturation of Israel society. “Before then, we were a conscripted, mobilized society. We finished those years as a Western democracy in which human lives, and perhaps even more than that – a soldier’s life – are a supreme value.”
The public initiative to award a combat ribbon to fighters in the security zone seems justified to him. “Those 15 years were Israel’s longest war. People joined the army and completed their service and the war kept going. It does not have a memorial day and there is hardly any literature. Just a few protest songs remain. People aren’t certain when it began and when exactly it was over, especially as it ended on a discordant note because of the way it happened: We vanished one day and left behind us feelings of betrayal among the South Lebanese Army people.”
To this day, he says, these feelings torture him. “I carry this in my conscience. Elias Nassar, the commander of the SLA 10th Battalion, rescued Brigade Commander Yair Golan after he was wounded in an incident. Golan’s whole forward headquarters rushed to take cover but Elias ran forward, hoisted him onto his back and carried him to a safe place. When I rode with the tank to retrieve the corpse of an officer who was killed, Elias went out exposed to help me. His family lost one son after another. There are still 700 families of SLA people in Israel. Nassar himself is working in agriculture at Kibbutz Malkiya. We have to commemorate this alliance and take care of them.
“When we were in there, we were proud of that. We felt that we were fulfilling a mission, at a reasonable cost. People were not dying in vain. We were defending the north of the country – I still believe that.” At the same time, he admits that in retrospect, the withdrawal was “a very rational act,” and that after it, the cost in blood in Lebanon decreased. “When I was serving in Lebanon, I had total, burning belief in what we were doing. I wasn’t gnawed by doubt. I remember questions of principle, of values, that we raised about the first intifada. That was a political debate, because what we saw there didn’t accord with our ethos. In Lebanon, there weren’t any questions of that kind.
“Often, a military education provides you with an easy answer, but it doesn’t teach commanders to cast doubt, to reject the accepted thinking. The Paratroop Brigade lost, within a few years in the mid-1990s, 10 company commanders, most of whom were killed in Lebanon. When you went into routine action in Lebanon, you didn’t come back empty-handed. Now too, I don’t feel they were sacrifices in vain. I would be telling you the same thing even if I weren’t sitting here in uniform.
“But today I am able to draw a distinction between our fighting and the necessity of questioning. In that period, we didn’t ask enough probing questions, not at our level and not at Central Command. This is also true today,” said Virov.
The circumstances today are completely different. The border is quiet but Israel’s fight against Hezbollah and Iran, according to reports, is going on tens and sometimes hundreds of kilometers inside Lebanon. “The main weaponry at the time was the riflemen’s M-16 and grenades. Today it’s planes.” However, ultimately, he says, the moment will come when the border will have its say, “And the problem is how to prepare the troops for this, when they haven’t experienced it until now.”
Will there be a third Lebanon War? Says Kirov: “Despite the self-flagellation here, the IDF has created deterrence on the other side. We have a pretty serious bludgeon in hand and serious successes, only some of which we make public. On the other side of the border they often understand things that aren’t understood here at home. But we shouldn’t let ourselves be dazzled by this quiet.”