Why Has Israel Tried to Forget 18 Years of Fighting in Lebanon?

Sunday marks 20 years since the Israeli army pulled out of Lebanon, putting an end to a military presence that the government is still reluctant to recognize

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Israeli soldiers ride atop their armored vehicle holding an Israeli flag as they withdraw from south Lebanon into Israel, at the Israeli-Lebanese border near Metula, May 24, 2000.
Israeli soldiers ride atop their armored vehicle holding an Israeli flag as they withdraw from south Lebanon into Israel, at the Israeli-Lebanese border near Metula, May 24, 2000. Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis / AP

In a chance meeting on a rainy side street in Jerusalem one morning a year and a half ago, crusading journalist Haim Har-Zahav told me he was trying to write a book on the last years of the Israeli military presence in the “security zone” of South Lebanon, which he had taken part in as a young infantryman. It sounded like an obvious idea. A year later, I was astonished to hear that Har-Zahav had failed to find a publisher for the book and had ended up publishing it himself, financed by an online crowdfunding campaign. Since coming out in December, “Lebanon: The Lost War” has spurred a unique grassroots movement calling on the government to recognize the 18 years of continuous presence in Lebanon.

This week’s twentieth anniversary of the pullback from Lebanon, which took place on May 24, 2000, is finally being marked in a big way by the Israeli media, with major features in print and on television. Channel 11 broadcast in recent weeks the three-part documentary, “War with No Name” by Matti Friedman (who also wrote “Pumpkinflowers,” his own account of the fighting in Lebanon) and Israel Rosner and on Saturday night veterans of the security zone held a memorial march in Tel Aviv. Thirty-four thousand veterans have joined a recently founded Facebook group called “Stories from Lebanon – What Happened in the Outposts” where on average about 400 accounts have been posted daily.

For the past 20 years, the lost and unnamed war seemed to slip away from public consciousness. Now it’s suddenly back. Why was it forgotten and how has it been suddenly remembered?

IDF forces withdrawing from South Lebanon, May 2000.
IDF forces withdrawing from South Lebanon, May 2000.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

The list of Israel’s wars and military campaigns is determined by the government. Government recognition means that the war has an official annual memorial day, monuments, a medal for all those who served in it, and an approved list of casualties. According to the official account, Israel’s first Lebanon war, which at the time was called Operation Peace for Galilee began on June 6, 1982, as the Israel Defense Forces entered Lebanon, and ended on September 29 of that year, as its forces left Beirut.

But the IDF remained in Lebanon for another 18 years, withdrawing gradually by 1985, to the “security zone” along the border, where it stayed in a series of fortified outposts until 2000. One of the greatest frustrations of the veterans from that period is that they don’t even have a name for the war that they and their comrades who were killed were fighting. There is no official list distinguishing the 675 IDF soldiers killed in those 18 years in Lebanon from the rest of Israeli casualties, as there are lists for the first Lebanon war of 1982, and the Second Lebanon War of July-August 2006.

Villagers inspect the damage to Beaufort Castle, 10 kilometers (6 miles) northwest of the southern market town of Nabatiyeh,  Lebanon, May 24, 2000.
Villagers inspect the damage to Beaufort Castle, 10 kilometers (6 miles) northwest of the southern market town of Nabatiyeh, Lebanon, May 24, 2000.Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Reuven Gal, the former chief psychologist of the IDF and founder of its behavioral science unit, says that despite having two sons who served in infantry units in the security zone at the time, he only recently asked himself why the 18 years of warfare there haven’t been commemorated.

“I think that one main reason is that in Israel, we don’t associate long periods of low-level fighting with wars. We see wars as short affairs in which the IDF’s armored divisions and the reservists are all mobilized. It’s not just military terminology. It’s also a psychological defense mechanism, that we don’t want to feel we have even more wars.” Another long Israeli war, the War of Attrition with Egypt between 1967 and 1970, was only recognized in 2003.

“Another main reason,” says Gal “is that the first Lebanon war began in 1982 as Israel’s first ‘war of choice,’ and therefore wasn’t within the Israeli consensus. And that extended throughout that period of 18 years. There’s much less of an inclination to preserve the memory of something which isn’t within the national consensus.”

There are additional reasons why Israel, both the government and the IDF’s high command, and the wider public, have been less than eager to commemorate those 18 years in Lebanon. For instance, how do you remember a war in which the enemy changed half-way through?

Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 with the express intention of decimating and expelling Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, which had built its own state-within-a-state there and used it as a launching pad for attacks against Israel for over a decade. Within three months, most of the PLO, led by Arafat, had been forced out and sent to distant exile in Tunisia, and the main objective achieved. But the IDF remained in southern Lebanon to fight the remnants of the Palestinian forces and as part of a concept that a buffer zone was needed to keep them from re-establishing bases within firing distance of Israeli towns in the Galilee.

But by 1993, with the Lebanese civil war having ended four years earlier and the PLO having signed a peace treaty with Israel, most of the Palestinian groups in Lebanon had ceased to be a threat to Israel. In fact, the Palestinians had long before that been replaced as Israel’s main enemies in Lebanon by a very different foe, Hezbollah. From late 1982, the then anonymous Shi’ite militia, which had been formed by Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers who had arrived in Lebanon shortly after the Israeli invasion, was challenging the IDF, first with suicide bombing attacks on headquarters and convoys, and then, after the 1985 pullback to the security zone, with increasingly well-organized attacks on the outposts and ambushes of patrols.

Visitors look at Israeli tanks left behind in Lebanon in the Hezbollah-run "Tourist Landmark of the Resistance" war museum in Mlita (aka Mleeta) in southern Lebanon, July 12, 2016.
Visitors look at Israeli tanks left behind in Lebanon in the Hezbollah-run "Tourist Landmark of the Resistance" war museum in Mlita (aka Mleeta) in southern Lebanon, July 12, 2016.Credit: MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP

"It took a while for the IDF to realize it was now fighting Hezbollah and not the PLO,” says Dr. Raz Zimmt, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies specializing in Iran, who in the early 1990s was an officer in military intelligence. “And it took another while until they realized that they weren’t just fighting Hezbollah. They were fighting Iran.”

No one wanted to acknowledge that the narrative of Israel’s campaign in Lebanon had changed. From successfully dislodging the PLO from its bases, to fighting local Lebanese Shi’ites who were going nowhere. While the PLO had launched rockets and terror attacks from Lebanon on Israeli citizens, Hezbollah at no point in that period attacked Israeli citizens. Their entire effort was directed at the IDF’s presence. It meant that when Israel finally withdrew from Lebanon, it would be widely seen in the region as a victory for Hezbollah and Iran. That’s another reason why Israel is reluctant to commemorate the war without a name – because if Hezbollah won, doesn’t that mean Israel lost?

There are other disturbing questions about the fighting in Lebanon. In the two decades since Israel left Lebanon, with the exception of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, the border has largely remained peaceful and there have been no attacks on the towns and kibbutzim in the north. Why, then, was it necessary to remain in the “security zone” for so long? Did it indeed provide security and why did 675 soldiers have to die defending it? Why did it take so long for anyone to rethink the rationale behind the security zone?

Bruria Sharon, a founding member of Four Mothers – the protest movement that played a major role in turning public opinion in the late 1990s against the Israeli military presence in Lebanon – insists on calling the pullback from the security zone an exit and not a retreat. “Retreat is running away. Or defeat in battle. We weren’t defeated, we left Lebanon because it was the right thing to do,” says Sharon in an interview.

Activists from Four Mothers waiting to go into a meeting with PM Ehud Barak before the withdrawal from South Lebanon, February 25, 2000.
Activists from Four Mothers waiting to go into a meeting with PM Ehud Barak before the withdrawal from South Lebanon, February 25, 2000.Credit: Moti Kimche

As a mother to a soldier in Lebanon and a campaigner, she doesn’t want the war to be remembered as a defeat. But it isn’t remembered at all and that might have something to do with the role played by Four Mothers in the eventual exit from Lebanon. “It’s hard for them, the generals and politicians, to accept it,” says Sharon. “That as women, as civilians, we had a part in bringing about the decision. They don’t want to say that we left Lebanon because of Four Mothers.”

But the protest did play a major part in the ultimate decision to leave Lebanon. By the end of the 1990s it was clear that it was just a matter of time − and few in the IDF or the government could make a convincing case for remaining. Benjamin Netanyahu, then in the last months of his chaotic first term, acknowledged as much in closed meetings, but outwardly couldn’t bring himself to admit that the policy of his government and his predecessors was misplaced. It was left to his challenger, Labor leader Ehud Barak, to promise in March 1999 that “if I win the election, we’ll leave Lebanon in a year.

Barak beat Netanyahu on July 6, coming to power promising to achieve peace with the Palestinians and the Syrians, which would allow Israel to leave Lebanon as well. He failed in both endeavors but at least kept his promise to leave Lebanon, just over 10 months after winning the election.

An Israeli soldier looks out while Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, right, looks at the Awali River, Israel's most northerly position in Sidon, Lebanon, March 7, 1984.
An Israeli soldier looks out while Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, right, looks at the Awali River, Israel's most northerly position in Sidon, Lebanon, March 7, 1984.Credit: AP

His single term was the shortest of any Israeli prime minister, and ended with outbreak of the second intifada. The pullback from Lebanon was popular with the public, but not popular enough in order to win the 2001 election. He was beaten by, of all people, Ariel Sharon, the man who as defense minister back in 1982, had been the architect of the original invasion of Lebanon. Sharon was critical of the rushed manner of the pullback from Lebanon, but five years later, would carry out an even more significant pullback, this time from Gaza, in the disengagement, which also included dismantling Jewish settlements there.

In an Israel which has been dominated for the past 11 years by Netanyahu’s Likud, it’s no coincidence that the Lebanon saga and its ending, 20 years ago this week, are not commemorated. Unilateral pullbacks, Lebanon in 2000, and Gaza in 2005, have gained a bad name. A victorious Hezbollah established itself as the dominant power in Lebanon, with an arsenal of a hundred thousand rockets aimed at Israel. After the disengagement, Hamas took over Gaza with similar results. The idea of Iran’s proxies winning is anathema in Netanyahu’s Israel.

Khaled Mashaal, head of Hamas' political bureau, right, meets with Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut, Lebanon, September 27, 2003.
Khaled Mashaal, head of Hamas' political bureau, right, meets with Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut, Lebanon, September 27, 2003.Credit: AP

The twentieth anniversary of the end of a war without a name could have remained forgotten if not for COVID-19.

Haim Har-Zahav is convinced that his book resonated, and then led to the rapid growth of the Lebanon veterans’ Facebook group because “in the coronavirus lockdown people suddenly had time off work to sit at home and think and write.” The soldiers who sat in the security zone outposts in those last years are now in their early forties, a pivotal time for the alumni of IDF combat units. This is when they’re discharged from their reserve units. No longer will they be called up once or twice a year, for training and operational duty.

“Your glory days with an M-16 are over,” says Har-Zahav. “And it’s time to think about what you did there. You’re no longer Rambo. It’s not a political reckoning. There were both Likud and Labor governments who were against leaving Lebanon. Sure, it was a Likud government which originally got us in to Lebanon but the security zone was the idea of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. The reason we’re now finally thinking and talking about it, is that we want to feel that what we went through had some meaning. And since the pullback 20 years ago, the government and the IDF haven’t been able to give it a meaning. Because the pullback proved we didn’t need to be there all those 18 years. So we’re now making sure it’s remembered, so that our sacrifice, and the sacrifice of our friends who died there isn’t forgotten. And more importantly, we’re making sure our time in Lebanon is remembered, so that next time the decision-makers ask themselves why we’re doing it in the first place.”

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