Is the Lebanese Scar Guiding Israel’s Operations in Gaza?

Twenty years later, a reserve brigade commander believes Israel’s great helicopter disaster hastened the exit from Lebanon in 2000. Fear of soldiers dying is also paralyzing leaders today.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Col. (res.) Kobi Marom, a long-serving veteran of the first Lebanon war, February 2017.
Col. (res.) Kobi Marom, a long-serving veteran of the first Lebanon war, February 2017. Credit: Gil Eliahu
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

It has been 20 years since the helicopter disaster that took the lives of 73 soldiers on their way to Lebanon, and Col. (res.) Kobi Marom has been visiting bereaved families around the country.

Marom, who led a brigade in south Lebanon, was the first officer on the scene where the helicopters crashed – outside Moshav She’ar Yashuv, where he was living at the time. Marom led the firefighters and rescue teams to one of the burning helicopters.

“But when I got there I realized there was no one to rescue,” he said this week. “I remember that the whole time I could see air force helicopters going up on the field radio and I had to tell them, ‘Wait; there aren’t any wounded to extricate.’”

As a veteran of the Lebanon war since 1982, Marom had seen his share of dead and wounded, “but nothing like this.”

“The helicopters were on their way to the two forward positions I was responsible for in the sector, Pumpkin and Beaufort,” he says. “I knew nearly everyone who was in them, certainly the officers and the sergeants. That was probably the most difficult night of my life. There’s no military school that can prepare you for dealing with 73 dead in one night in your sector.”

The next morning Benjamin Netanyahu, early in his first term as prime minister, landed. “And he asked a good question: Why were the helicopters flying to Lebanon in pairs? I assume this was because the air force wanted to practice flying in operational formation,” Marom says.

“We had switched over to using helicopters to fly soldiers to positions; this was to overcome the threat of land mines and ambushes on convoys. For the air force, it was a way to give pilots some practice.”

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

Keep the psychologists away

Marom was already worried about other things. “I drove immediately to Beaufort and Pumpkin, to make sure things were stabilized. Overnight the people at the positions had lost their best friends, who were killed on their way to replacing them. It was clear that Hezbollah would try to exploit that atmosphere to initiate more attacks on the positions,” he says.

“Anyone who has dealt with young people in a crisis knows that it’s important to restore ordinary operations in the setting as far as possible, not sit on your butt and cry. I got a lot of phone calls suggesting that I put psychologists at the positions. I thought that was the last thing we needed.”

Marom remembers that “some of the people cried and the following night they were already out on ambushes outside the position.”

“We didn’t send people stationed at the positions to the funerals. I also don’t recall that parents put pressure on us to take their sons out. Three days after the disaster Hezbollah sent a cell in a combined attack on the Pumpkin outpost,” he says.

“The Nahal and Armored Corps soldiers who were there responded very well and killed four terrorists. I think we overcame the crisis caused by the disaster thanks to the extraordinary quality of the commanders and fighters in the security zone. They understood that they didn’t have the luxury of stopping. People bit their lips and carried on.”

In retrospect, the former brigade commander believes that the decision three years later by Netanyahu’s successor, Ehud Barak, to withdraw unilaterally from Lebanon was right. That’s not what he thought before the helicopter disaster.

“The incident was the trigger for pulling out. I doubt we would have withdrawn were it not for the disaster and its effect on Israeli society. For a long time the government leadership couldn’t decide what to do about the Lebanon problem. It took a shocking incident to cause it, and for us in the army to ask whether our Lebanon strategy was right and whether it justified the price.”

Bearing the burden

Like Matti Friedman in his book “Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story,” Marom doesn’t accept the ducks-in-a-shooting-gallery narrative applied to Israeli soldiers in Lebanon at the time. “I don’t think the fighters felt that way initially. That view seeped into the army only much later. There were thousands of fighters who gave the government and military leadership a lot of time to decide,” he says.

“As is typical of wars of attrition, the tactical achievements didn’t translate into anything conclusive. But in Israeli society’s soul-searching, the time has come to devote a bit more thought to the generation of fighters that to this day is carrying around the physical and psychological scars from that period. I have a feeling we were too quick to forget it and the people who are bearing the real burden.”

Marom, now a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, argues that the Lebanese scar accompanied Israel in its subsequent military operations in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2008-09, 2012 and 2014.

“Any thoughts about reoccupying the territory we left was accompanied by the memory of our experience in southern Lebanon. This is particularly evident in the question of the price in soldiers’ lives. All governments are afraid to approve operations that risk a large number of soldiers getting killed,” he says.

“This concern, which paralyses decision-making, was born there, in Lebanon. I think it’s also connected to a lack of understanding of what the Israeli public thinks. The public will agree to pay a price if there's a leadership that knows where it’s going and will take reasonable and considered decisions.”

As for the 2014 Gaza war, “In my view, our stuttering in Operation Protective Edge was dreadful. Something has happened to our self-confidence – and I think this stems from the weight of the losses in lives that hangs heavy on our leaders’ necks.”

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