Twenty Years After the Lebanon Withdrawal, Ghosts Come Back to Haunt Israel

The forgotten, nameless war is now a topic of a book, a TV series and a forum where soldiers recount their tales. But the story never ended with Israel's exit. It never does

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli troops withdrawing from Lebanon, May 2000.
Israeli troops withdrawing from Lebanon, May 2000.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

A photograph of the family of David Granit next to his grave in the military cemetery on Mount Herzl, Jerusalem appeared on the front page of Haaretz on Monday. They came early this year for their annual Memorial Day visit, in keeping with government directives in the time of the coronavirus.

First Lieutenant David Granit, from the settlement of Ofra, was killed in an encounter with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in February 1999. It was one of the worst and most widely reported incidents in the period before the Israel Defense Forces withdrew from the security zone. Three officers were killed, including the commander of the paratroopers commando unit, Maj. Eitan Balahsan. A week later Brig. Gen. Erez Gerstein, the commander of the Lebanon Liaison Unit, was killed by a roadside bomb, along with two other soldiers and Israel Radio correspondent Ilan Roeh. That helped accelerate the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon a year and two months later.

The deadly incident with the paratroopers commando unit reverberated widely for another reason. Balahsan and another officer, First Lt. Liraz Tito, were hit by Hezbollah fire while advancing inside a narrow crevice. David Granit, a team commander in the commando unit, jumped inside the crevice to help the wounded, and was also wounded. One of the commando unit’s fighters, Staff Sgt. Ofer Sharon of Kibbutz Ashdot Ya'akov Ihud, later told Haaretz correspondent Avihai Becker that he hesitated about descending into the wadi, although his commander Granit called him to come and help. “I knew that to storm ahead now was to die in a dumb war. I didn’t dare to go down. I knew that anyone who did wouldn’t return. The story of ‘I don’t believe that we should be in Lebanon’ overcame me.”

Sharon, who was considered an outstanding fighter and a favorite of his commander Granit, is the son of Bruria Sharon, a prominent activist in the “Four Mothers” anti-war movement, which caused a seismic change in Israeli society and led the calls for withdrawal from Lebanon. The story provoked a public uproar and the army’s chief education officer, Elazar Stern (today a Knesset member with the Yesh Atid party) wrote a letter to Sharon’s commanders, condemning the conduct of the fighter who did not attack. But it also reflected the depth of the crisis within the IDF, 17 years into a war that nobody told the IDF to wrap up and win.

The matter of the protracted, superfluous stay in Lebanon is arising anew, in connection with Memorial Day. That has partly to do with this being the 20th anniversary of the withdrawal, which this year falls on May 24. In addition, a book, a documentary TV series and a Facebook page on which former soldiers tell about their experiences in the security zone have brought the forgotten, nameless war back into public awareness.

Under the influence of all this, the defense establishment is thinking about giving a medal to soldiers who fought there in the period following the first Lebanon war. Apparently being cooped up at home due to the coronavirus is also bringing back memories. Lebanon, between the first war there in 1982 and the withdrawal in 2000, remains an open wound for members of the generation that fought there.

The fraught debate included a moment of comic relief, the contribution of the Deputy Prime Minister Benny Gantz. He was the last commander of the security zone, called in to replace Gerstein, shortly after Gerstein’s death. In a post on the Facebook group the former chief of staff waxed nostalgic about his time in Lebanon and described two nights there, one as a young soldier in the paratroops in the Litani Operation and the second as the commander of Lebanon Liaison Unit, on the last night of the withdrawal. But Gantz, atypically, erred in the date of his post and moved the date of the withdrawal forward by a day.

Body counts that don’t count

The series of incidents starting with the helicopter disaster in February 1997 when two helicopters carrying Israeli troops collided in mid-air, killing all 73 personnel on board, and ending with Gerstein’s death two years later, led to a gradual change in Israeli public opinion. It also influenced Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s decision on a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon. Even before Barak preached withdrawal, in internal discussions, Amiram Levin, the head of the Northern Command, was in favor. But it was also Levin who urged a more forceful policy and greater initiative against Hezbollah’s guerrilla warfare.

An officer who served under Levin told Haaretz on Sunday: “We admired Amiram, as a personality and as a military commander. But the truth is that our operations against Hezbollah weren’t of much use. We didn’t gain a thing except for feeling a little better. It reminded me of the body counts of Vietcong fighters by the Americans in the ‘search and destroy’ missions in Vietnam. Those missions were good for IDF morale, but when there’s no final whistle ending the game, they don’t change much.

Prime Minister Menahem Begin addressing the Knesset during the debate on the fighting in Lebanon, June 29, 1982

“If you don’t know for how long you’re there and you don’t have a plan, the winner in the battle will be the one who has more time and patience. So all right, in the last years of our stay in Lebanon we were able to lower the percentage of our casualties, and they [Hezbollah] suffered more. The experience was more bearable, but that didn’t change a thing, because we weren’t trying to achieve any objective.*

“If there’s something that made me angry during those years, it’s that Amiram was practically the only one who dared to openly oppose our continuing to stay there. Most of his commanders and colleagues didn’t want to get into that. The tragedy of south Lebanon began with the politicians’ fear that the public wouldn’t agree to withdrawal because it would be perceived as abandoning the residents of the Galilee. And it ended with public pressure, when the Four Mothers brought about the IDF withdrawal. It’s a decision that should have been made in any case, regardless of the protest, based on military logic.”

The conspicuous absence of military intelligence

At first Barak tried to tie the withdrawal to a peace agreement with Syria, under which Israel would return the Golan Heights. When contacts with Syrian President Hafez Assad failed, the prime minister insisted on keeping his election promise. Top IDF officials and the Intelligence Directorate were skeptical and warned of the dangers of a unilateral withdrawal. Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz was vehemently opposed (today, to his credit, Mofaz admits that Barak was right). With the exception of Levin, few in the IDF top brass supported withdrawal. In the military intelligence there was a lone voice, of the head of the supervision department, Col. Shlomo Kashi, in support.

For over seven years Kashi headed a small group called “Ipcha Mistabra” (On the Contrary). It was one of the lessons of the failure in the Yom Kippur War: to appoint officers whose job was to voice a different opinion, that contrasted with prevailing thinking. This is described in the book “The True Story of How Israel Left Lebanon” by Brig. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilboa, which describes the IDF exit from Lebanon. “Kashi was a seasoned officer, with a great deal of experience in research. His critique paper, which Barak referred to, presented a revolutionary concept: Hezbollah didn’t want us to quit Lebanon. Hezbollah actually preferred we stay so it could bleed us and bolster its image as the great fighter against the IDF,” Gilboa wrote.

In a discussion that took place in 2015, Kashi explained: “I think that the head of the supervision unit should deal both with tactical issues, but with major issues as well. For example, what’s a major issue? I argued that Hezbollah doesn’t want us to withdraw from Lebanon; that all of Hezbollah’s activity should be analyzed from the point of view that Hezbollah doesn’t want us to leave Lebanon, although it states otherwise. I was told that it would be Hezbollah’s greatest achievement if it manages to expel the army.

“I said that it would be its greatest disaster: it would lose its raison d’etre, resistance. Israel did leave left the border [area] and that created a problem for Hezbollah. Several months before the withdrawal we received information that behind closed doors, Hezbollah said that it opposed an Israeli withdrawal, was very worried about it and want to disrupt it. The withdrawal was planned for July 7 and was moved forward to May 24, one reason being that Hezbollah had planned that we would end with a major crescendo of casualties.”

About the exit, Amos Gilboa writes in his book that “the most prominent insight is the fact that the prime minister made his basic decisions without the Intelligence Directorate. The directorate was totally absent, as was the IDF, from the prime minister’s planning groups in advance of the only government resolution, on March 5, about an exit from Lebanon. It is a historical irony that the resolutions to enter Lebanon in 1982, and all the political concepts involved, were made by the political leadership (Ariel Sharon and Menahem Begin) without taking military intelligence assessments into account at all.”

Israeli soldiers rejoices as Israel withdraws from Lebanon, 2000. Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

The years preceding the withdrawal from Lebanon, and later, the period of the withdrawal itself, are etched in my memory as a series of vignettes. As a fledgling military correspondent who had only begin to digest the events and was still trying to decipher from where and through what avenues the information was coming, I was still missing the connecting link, the logic behind the steps.

These are sights that were etched into my memory as a novice military correspondent: bereaved father Aharon Barnea, a journalist himself, speaking in his home in Holon about his son Noam, who belonged to a bomb disposal unit and was killed in a blast near Beaufort Castle, on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day in 1999, wearing a pin on his lapel with the slogan “Exit Lebanon safely” that his mother gave him; bereaved mother Orna Shimoni bursting into the press conference held by Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz on the morning after the withdrawal, and blessing the soldiers and their commander; Givati Brigade fighters at the end of Barak’s visit to the outpost adjacent to the border fence, explaining to us that “nobody wants to be the last soldier killed in Lebanon”; the trip along the border, the day after the withdrawal, as celebrating Lebanese convoys brandished yellow Hezbollah flags in front of us.

There were also brief forays in and out of the security zone, invariably involving complex coordination with the army while attempting to mislead Hezbollah members, who military intelligence believed were eavesdropping.

The commanders in southern Lebanon would become commanders in the Second Intifada. Some are still in uniform. One such is Tamir Yadai, today the head of the Home Front Command, at the time a young battalion commander. Another is division commander Effie Eitam, who looked as though he had emerged from a film about the Vietnam War, who began a background chat with a reporter at 2 A.M. while opening letters with a sharp commando knife.

There are many images: Eitam’s replacement, Moshe Kaplinksy, and brigade commander Chico Tamir enter to talk to paratroops in advance of the withdrawal (Kaplinsky’s speech, which was repeated from one outpost to the next, is precisely reconstructed in Ron Leshem’s book “If There is a Paradise”); Benny Gantz and the commander of the South Lebanon Army, Gen. Antoine Lahad, talking with South Lebanese Army soldiers, with Gantz remarking as he left that two of the soldiers “were totally stoned.”

And of course, the exit itself: soldiers from the Golani Brigade emerging from armored personnel carriers after returning to Israel via Egel Gate, near Metula.

A notebook from that period records the words of soldier Gilad Hadad, phoning his father at home in Safed: “Enough. Lebanon is over.” Afterwards he told us: “I cried all the way. I swear to you that I cried. In the end we were left with fewer than 15 people in the outpost. The SLA disappeared, fled. We all were looking death in the eye.”

Clothes left by the Israeli-backed South Lebanese Army on the Israel-Lebanon border ahead of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, 2000. Credit: (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) / AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX

And above all, apparently, hovers the image of Erez Gerstein, tall, confident, sharp-tongued. In July 1998, on the roof of the Reihan outpost, he told correspondents: “Demonstrations in favor of a unilateral exit create a threat to my life and the lives of my soldiers.” And when a representative of the IDF Spokesman, his friend, begged him to hold his tongue, Gerstein refused.

In late February 1999, exactly a week after the death of the officers from the paratroops commando unit, Gerstein was killed too. The trip to his funeral, in a ride hitched from the liaison office in Metula to the kibbutz where he grew up, Reshafim in the Beit Shean Valley, was another unforgettable experience. A Golani battalion commander who served under Gerstein and the battalion master sergeant, who was quite the comedian, regaled us with stories about the man whom many of his subordinates described as larger than life, undefeatable.

That evening Barak said in an interview for Channel 2 that if he won the election he would take the army out of Lebanon with a year from the day he formed his government. His vow won broad public support and apparently changed the face of the election campaign. Two months later Barak did in fact win (against Benjamin Netanyahu) and kept his word.

The last soldier left Lebanon on the morning of May 24, 2000.

Officially, incidentally, it was Benny Gantz, who was photographed shutting the gate behind him. The next day political cartoonist Amos Biderman published a drawing showing an officer locking the gate, but just to be sure, placing the key under a rock on the Israeli side of the border.

The story didn’t really end with the withdrawal. Nothing ever ends like that. Four months later the Second Intifada erupted in the territories. Some on the Israeli right said Palestinian confidence had been bolstered by the demonstration of IDF weakness in withdrawing from Lebanon. Sharon Shitoubi, one of the Golani soldiers photographed smiling on the armored car with an Israeli flag as they left Lebanon, was killed that November in a gunfire incident in Kfar Darom, by the Gaza Strip. Six years later came the Second Lebanon War: More historic speeches, another vigorous invasion followed by another exit with our tails between our legs. As though we haven’t learned or forgotten a thing.

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