Analysis |

20 Years After: The Helicopter Crash That Changed Israel's Fight With Hezbollah

The February 4, 1997 helicopter disaster accelerated Israel's departure from Lebanon. However, the Israeli deterrence that arose in the last round of fighting there is far from ironclad.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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The site of the 1997 helicopter disaster in southern Lebanon.
The site of the 1997 helicopter disaster in southern Lebanon.Credit: Nati Harnik, AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

“One of the pilots said, ‘We’re crossing over.’”

The helicopters were still above Israel. A night watchman at a cluster of fish ponds heard them coming. He was near the little cemetery of Kibbutz Dafna, an enclosure of old cypress and eucalyptus trees populated by founding pioneers, babies who didn’t survive infancy, a pilot killed when his trainer plane crashed into the Sea of Galilee in 1962, a refugee who made it from Europe to the kibbutz in 1948 and died defending it a few months later.

“The watchman looked up and saw the two black shapes pass overhead under the pale cloud ceiling. One was flying to the left and ahead of the other, but he saw them moving closer.

“The rotors of the Beaufort-bound helicopter sliced into the bottom of Avi’s helicopter, shearing off the ramp in the rear and sending it spinning into the night. Avi’s backpack flew out and landed far below in one of the tributaries of the river Dan, where ‘The Life before Us’ was later recovered, muddy but legible. The second helicopter, without rotors, was now a metal box full of human beings six hundred feet in the air. It dropped next to the cemetery and exploded.”

Saturday, February 4, marks the 20th anniversary of the helicopter disaster – the worst accident in the history of the Israel Defense Forces and the incident that set off a chain reaction in the wake of which, after a bit more than three further years of fighting, Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon.

From within the shock and mourning that enveloped the country after the disaster that took the lives of 73 soldiers, the Four Mothers movement arose. Its members – women whose sons were among the relatively few fighters who carried the burden of the war – demanded a unilateral withdrawal from the security zone.

Within a few years the minority opinion became the majority opinion, under the influence of the helicopter disaster and two additional serious incidents: the naval special ops action at Ansariya south of Sidon in September 1997 (12 dead) and the death of Brig. Gen. Erez Gerstein, commander of the IDF Liaison Unit in Lebanon, in an explosion of devices laid by Hezbollah near Hesbeya (four dead). Ehud Barak, who in that same year was running against Benjamin Netanyahu in the election for prime minister, adopted the call for a withdrawal, was helped by the movement during the campaign and carried out his promise in May 2000.

The quotation above is taken from the new book by Matti Friedman, “Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2016), which will be published (by Kinneret Zmora-Bitan) in Hebrew translation later this month. Friedman, a Canadian-born journalist who immigrated to Israel as an adolescent in the 1990s, was conscripted into the anti-tank unit of the Nahal Brigade and served in Lebanon during the years between the helicopter disaster and the withdrawal.

The memorial for 73 IDF soldiers who perished in 1997 helicopter crash near Kibbutz Dafna. Credit: Gila Eliahu

The book tells the story of a forward position in the security known as the Pumpkin, from the mid-1990s on. Ten soldiers of the Nahal Brigade engineering company, who were on one of the choppers on their way to report back for duty there, were killed in the helicopter disaster. With great artistry Friedman tells the stories of their lives and that of the Pumpkin. Staff Sergeant Avi Effner, who shortly before his slated demobilization from the IDF was reading “The Life Before Us” by Romain Gary (pen name mile Ajar) on his way back to the Pumpkin, was one of those killed in the disaster. The first part of “Pumpkinflowers” focuses on his story.

The book does a fine job of examining the differences between the visions of a new Middle East, propounded by Shimon Peres in the context of the Oslo agreements, and the obdurate, pointless fighting that was going on during those years in southern Lebanon. It seems that the Lebanon of those days has nearly disappeared from Israel’s public memory even though the fighting there left a deep impression on everyone who participated in it – and at the same time it also shaped the military worldview of most of the members of the current General Staff, who served in the security zone as company and battalion commanders.

However, not only did the state not award medals to those who participated in the fighting, it was not even given a name. Apart from “Undeclared War,” the excellent book by Brig. Gen (res.) Moshe (Chico) Tamir that came out in 2005, “Pumpkinflowers” is the only book that documents the years of the fighting. However, while Tamir focused on his tactical experiences and conclusions, from the rank of company commander to the rank of brigade commander, it is former sergeant Friedman who succeeds in providing a broader human outlook on the experiences of that war.

Entanglement and entrenchment

Sharon rides an armored personnel carrier, near Beirut, Lebanon, in June, 1982.Credit: AP

The security zone took shape in 1985, as a late by-product of Operation Peace for the Galilee, the first Lebanon war, in which Ariel Sharon and Menachem Begin had entangled Israel three years earlier. The fight against armed Palestinians from the Palestinian Liberation Organization was quickly replaced by guerrilla warfare conducted by a more skillful foe, the Shi’ite organization Hezbollah. This was a war of attrition that neither side won conclusively and in which there were no heroic victories. As the Israeli public became increasingly worried and anxious in the face of the losses that were accumulating during the fighting, which by military standards were not especially high, the IDF became more and more entrenched in its strongholds.

The layers of concrete encircling the strongholds (the last fortification operation in Lebanon was called, ironically, “Walls of Hope”) spurred Hezbollah to try to attack the convoys heading for them. When the landmine attacks on the roads increased, the IDF started using helicopters for transporting soldiers to and from the strongholds. However, when the helicopters collided over the northern Galilee on their way to the Pumpkin and the Beaufort, the IDF lost as many soldiers as it had during four years of fighting in the security zone.

Friedman marvelously reconstructs the spirit of those times, from the mothers’ demonstrations at intersections to the group pictures soldiers took before setting out on an ambush. These are the photos in which the soldiers made sure to leave space between one head and the next, in order to make it easier for the graphic artists who had to indicate in newspaper captions which of them was killed the next day and which of them returned to base safely, only to risk their lives once again in the next operation.

The tone of “Pumpkinflowers” is sober and cautious, but nevertheless it immediately brings back the experiences accumulated by anyone who passed through southern Lebanon during that period. Friedman intelligently makes a connection between the fighting in the security zone and the Palestinian terror onslaught in the second intifada, which broke out four months after the withdrawal from Lebanon. He also presents a convincing argument that the fighting he and his buddies experienced in southern Lebanon was in fact the first war of the 21st century, a preview of the extensive combat Western armies would experience in Afghanistan and Iraq after the September 11 attacks.

In the blog War on the Rocks, Douglas Olivant, a former officer in the United States Army who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, called “Pumpkinflowers” “the best book about the Iraq War” – even though it was written about a different war. “Iraq veterans finally have their book; a manuscript that really deals with the whole of the Iraq experience,” he wrote. “After over a decade at war in Iraq, we now have the best first-person account, not only of fighting against the insurgency, but also what it felt like to come home after. The book gives the most vivid account of what it is like to return to a society that doesn’t understand or support your war.”]

Mutual deterrence

From time to time, Lebanon continued to dominate the agenda of the IDF and Israeli society, even in the years after the withdrawal. The surprise of the war with Hezbollah in 2006 caught the IDF unprepared, under an amorphous and irresponsible political leadership. However, in the wake of the relative military failure, that disappointing tie with an enemy of inferior strength, nevertheless an unusually long period of calm prevailed along the northern border. This happened, as I have written here in the past, because of a combination of circumstances: mutual deterrence between Israel and Hezbollah, increasing awareness of the enemy’s ability to inflict damage and a clear lack of interest in a clash. Gradually, other strategic considerations entered the picture: Iran, the patron of Hezbollah, preferred to keep the organization’s strength as a threat should Israel decide to attack its nuclear sites and from 2012 on Hezbollah, on orders from Tehran, invested most of its efforts in the war for maintaining the dictator Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Syria.

Dr. Daniel Sobelman, formerly an Arab affairs correspondent at Haaretz, is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard University Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. For a number of years Sobelman has been tracking the changes in the balance of deterrence between Israel and Hezbollah. In an article he is publishing this week in the quarterly journal International Security issued jointly by Harvard and MIT, Sobelman analyzes the mutual deterrence between the sides after the war in 2006. In his view, the balance of deterrence that has taken shape in the past decade has been successful in imposing relative stability, exactly where the balance between the two sides had failed before that war.

Despite Israel’s clear military superiority, he writes, the deterrence has become mutual. In his opinion, this is happening because the sides have changed their approach – and in the case of Hezbollah, it appears that the leaders of the organization have studied in depth all the theoretical literature that has been written in the field and have chosen to act accordingly. Hezbollah, then, is acting “by the book” and nearly everything its leaders have said and done in the past decade can be explained in terms of deterrence theory. The head of the organization, Hassan Nasrallah, has spoken about this explicitly in dozens of speeches, which Sobelman has analyzed.

In his speeches and in interviews, Nasrallah depicts deterrence as his organization’s policy, thereby protecting Lebanon from an Israeli invasion. “Just as Lebanon is afraid of Israel, naturally Israel is afraid of Lebanon. It really will think a thousand times before it goes to war,” the Hezbollah leader has declared. On another occasion, he explained: “By means of the things I am saying, I am fighting the enemy.”

According to Sobelman, the main explanation for the decade of deterrent stability is that both the players have learned to adopt a strategy of deterrence that fits the theoretical conditions for success as set forth in the professional literature. He adds that this calm undoubtedly has many explanations but both sides are making an intentional effort to avoid another war.

The heart of the matter, in the Israeli researcher’s opinion, is the reversal of roles created by deterrence. A weak player will succeed in deterring a stronger player if it is able to make a convincing case that if a war breaks out, its tactical capabilities too (in the case of Hezbollah, the firing of rockets, the power and precision of which cannot compete with the Israeli air force’s attack ability) will have a strategic effect on the stronger side. At the same time, the weaker side convinces the stronger side that if the latter employs its strategic capabilities, this will have no more than tactical effects on the weaker side, because of that side’s ability to limit the dimensions of the harm. In the case of Hezbollah, this ability includes techniques of concealment and self-defense that the organization has developed, which its leaders hope will succeed in canceling out most of Israel’s advantages in the air and in the realm of intelligence if a war breaks out.

According to Sobelman, what is especially fascinating in this story is actually not the impressive arsenal of weapons that Hezbollah has stockpiled but rather the way it is harnessing this arsenal on the psychological plane to deter Israel and explain to it, in advance of any hostilities, the repercussions an all-out war is liable to have.

This is the avowed answer Hezbollah has developed to the “Dahiya” doctrine of asymmetric fighting in an urban setting that was outlined by Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot (who at the time was still in charge of Northern Command) in 2008. In the face of Israel’s destructive capabilities, a sampling of which was demonstrated in the bombing of the Shi’ite quarter in southern Beirut in the last war, Hezbollah is presenting its ability to exact a price from Israel, on the front and behind the lines. At a time when Israel is confining itself to general threats, to sending Lebanon back in time by X number of years, Nasrallah is more focused, as shown in his threats to target specific sites. Nasrallah has even leveraged the organization’s sinking into the Syrian swamp to convince Israel that in the course of this fighting his organization is acquiring military attack experience.

Prior to the 2006 war, the concept of deterrence hardly came up in Nasrallah’s speeches. Since that war, there is hardly a speech in which it has not been mentioned. In Sobelman’s view, Hezbollah’s deterrence effort is calculated down to the last centimeter. He does not claim that this effort will last forever because the literature teaches that in contrast to nuclear deterrence, conventional deterrence works up until the moment it stops working. He says it is possible that even if hostilities break out, at the moment of truth Israel will be deterred from automatically escalating into an all-out war. In other words, he says, it is possible that the deterrence will prevent exacerbation of the hostilities and set a bar for the level of mutual assault.

Risk management

When asked about Sobelman’s study this week, a senior officer at Central Command expressed agreement in principle with its thesis. Hezbollah, said the officer, prefers to avoid war and is sticking to risk management. Insofar as this depends on Nasrallah, he would rather not go back and blindly repeat the mistake he made in 2006, in the abduction of reservists that led to a war his organization did not expect and did not want. The main danger remains escalation as a result of a chain of miscalculations, when each side misreads the other side’s intentions.

At the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies last week in Tel Aviv, the presentation of a public opinion poll showed that 86 percent of the Israel public believes the IDF will function well in a combined attack by Hezbollah and Hamas. After the disappointments in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, the army is indeed making an effort to be better prepared for such an eventuality. However, do Israeli generals share the public’s sweeping optimism with regard to the expected outcomes? Far from it.

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