The Israeli Soldiers Who Never Really Left Lebanon

Two decades after pulling out, four Israeli soldiers recall memories of war that haunt them to this day. 'At that moment I remembered wanting somebody to call my mother to tell her I was all right'

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Israeli soldiers pulling out of Lebanon, May 24, 2000.
Israeli soldiers pulling out of Lebanon, May 24, 2000.Credit: Reuters
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Once in a while, Yuval Malchi sits down in front of his computer, opens Google Maps and goes on a journey through southern Lebanon. “I travel through the place where the Rihan outpost was, go on the roads, go up to Kisra and see what has changed in the village and the outpost,” Malchi says.

Malchi, a 46-year-old historian from Moshav Avihayil north of Tel Aviv, hasn’t yet managed to leave behind the months in 1997 when he was a tank driver in Lebanon. “I think a lot about that period,” he told Haaretz. “About the missile I that was supposed to hit me, for example.”

It was a bloody year; disaster followed disaster. In February, 73 soldiers from the Nahal and Golani infantry brigades and the Armored Corps were killed when two helicopters collided on their way to the security zone in southern Lebanon. In September, 12 naval commandos were killed in a raid that turned into a disaster.

Between these events, the Four Mothers movement was founded; the group called for the Israel Defense Forces to withdraw from Lebanon – a goal that was achieved three years later on May 24, 2000.

Malchi lost two friends in Lebanon. They were killed in the “outpost war,” what Israelis called the 18 years that started with the 1982 Lebanon war. Now, 20 years after the withdrawal, Malchi sometimes feels he’s still there driving his tank to the outpost.

The withdrawal of the Israeli army from Lebanon, May 2000.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

Arik Segal, Liron Avraham and Adi Danziger-Neiger, who also served across the border in the ‘90s, are also living in Lebanon in their own way. “There was a sign at the outpost, ‘The objective: To defend the northern border.’ We lived that goal,” Danziger-Neiger says.

“There was a crazy feeling of importance – that you weren’t just wasting your time,” says Danziger-Neiger, who served as a field intelligence radar operator at the Tziporen outpost in the mid-’90s. Nothing led her to doubt the accuracy of at sign – not then or now.

With the help of the time gone by, Danziger-Neiger, like many of the soldiers who served in Lebanon, admits that the political and military debate on the need to stay the course didn’t interest her at the time. Ehud Barak, who took over as prime minister in July 1999, promised to bring the boys and girls back home.

“I remember that one day a delegation of politicians came to the outpost,” Danziger-Neiger says, adding that the Golani soldiers shined the place up nice. “But the radar operators and me, who worked at night and slept during the day, went to sleep as usual. That was apparently the level of interest we had in politics at the time.”

Even without considering the strategic questions, military service in Lebanon left its mark on thousands of soldiers, most of them combat troops who filled a variety of roles. Some, even those who weren’t wounded, are left with psychological scars still unhealed. For others it’s thorny even if not quite as bad.

“I didn’t go through any traumatic event,” says Arik Segal, who owns a consultancy that seeks to achieve conflict resolution using digitial tools. Segal was a tank commander at the Karkoum outpost just before the IDF blew it up upon the withdrawal. For years he didn’t think that Lebanon had left any lasting impact on him, but he recently realized he was wrong.

“The picture of me shooting comes up every time my adrenaline levels rise. I’m very sensitive to loud noises like a slamming door because it reminds me of a mortar-bomb attack. I look for antitank crews behind bushes whenever I’m hiking in the north,” Segal says, adding that he watches YouTube videos to try to “improve the way I feel.” In one dream he’s at an outpost being attacked at night and can’t find his gun.

“I’m now marking 20 years since I left Lebanon; I hope that someday I really manage to leave that place,” he says.

Liron Avraham, who served in Lebanon in a canine unit in 1998 and 1999, says he bears the weight of his responsibilities to this day. “As a young soldier, marching with a dog leading a force, I combed the area and signaled to everyone when they could advance. There was a lot on your shoulders,” he says.

The army dog Ramco helped the troops survive. “We combed Lebanon by day and discovered ambushes by night. Ramco was the best dog; he had the most x’s in the unit at the time,” Avraham says, referring to the number of bombs the dog discovered near the border.

“He found dozens of explosives and saved the lives of many soldiers. I relied on Ramco 100 percent and provided 100 percent safety to my soldiers thanks to him.”

'We lost the war'

On May 24, 2000, Haaretz’s main headline was of course the withdrawal after 18 years. Next to that article was a list of the main events linked to the withdrawal: the IDF’s blowing up of positions at places like Beaufort and Karkoum; Hezbollah taking over positions of the South Lebanon Army; and thousands of Lebanese descending on the border crossings with Israel.

Sharon Gal, at the time a correspondent for Haaretz in the north, wrote one of the pieces. He later became a lawmaker for Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party and is now a right-leaning journalist.

“The IDF left in a panic,” Gal wrote. “Some soldiers even said they had fled.”

“We lost this war,” one soldier said, with another adding that “the Four Mothers raised Hezbollah’s morale.” Another said: “It’s not all right that we left, but mom, I’ve come home.”

The debate over how the pullout took place and its effects on the northern border has been a political issue ever since. Veterans, for their part, are recalling their memories, both the painful and amusing ones, in the new Hebrew-language Facebook page “Stories from Lebanon: What Went on at the Outposts.”

Danziger-Neiger has a mildly amusing story, though her service in Lebanon was preceded by a sad story. On October 25, 1992, five soldiers were killed by an explosion on the eastern side of the security zone. One of them was a close friend, Niv Amoyal of the Armored Corps. ‘After he was killed Lebanon became an inseparable part of my life,” Danziger-Neiger says.

When she was drafted in 1994, female soldiers were a rare sight in dangerous places, but she requested an operational role. She found herself at the Tziporen outpost in the eastern sector near Kibbutz Manara.

“They fired mortar shells at us at an increasing pace. The antenna that could be seen in the distance helped our ‘friends’ across the border target us. One night in 1995, the mortar fire lasted several hours and a commander ordered all the soldiers into the bunker,” Danziger-Neiger says.

“They folded it all up and, following the regulations, I waited for confirmation that we could fold up the position. But the response was delayed, so I stayed out on the position reviewing the front.”

Every mortar shell shook the outpost, but what really frightened her were the bottles of champagne on the top of a shelf. Any soldier who stymied a Hezbollah fighter threatening the outpost received a bottle.

“That night the bottles became the most threatening thing,” she says. “I was busy worrying that a bottle would shatter on me. Some of the bottles moved closer to me with each mortar shell.”

When 40 minutes in, approval finally came for her to join her buddies in the bunker, she left the mortar shells and bottles behind. A short time later all female soldiers were removed from the outpost.

“It may have been my fault,” she says, and then refers to Barak, who until the middle of the decade still headed the IDF. “Rumor has it that Chief of Staff Ehud Barak didn’t want to take the chance of a woman soldier being killed on Lebanese soil.”

‘Like a well-trained robot’

Avraham, meanwhile, has an amusing story about the dog Ramco; it took place at the Karkoum outpost, where the dog kennel wasn’t protected. So Avraham refused to abandon his best friend there.

“I told the battalion commander that my dog wouldn’t sleep exposed, and that if he stayed outside and there was shelling, I’d go bring him inside,” Avraham says, adding that Ramco received a special permit to stay inside with the soldiers.

Segal’s memories are more like a war movie than a comedy. He was also at Karkoum. On May 23, 2000, the eve of the withdrawal, Segal woke up to the sound of gunfire and shouts.

The position was under attack, his friends shouted. “I looked outside and saw the bullets striking nearby,” he says.

IDF soldiers returning to Israel at the night of the withdrawal from Lebanon, May 24 2000.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

He was 50 meters, 55 yards, from his tank, 50 meters that exposed him to gunfire. “I began shooting with one hand while running toward the terrorists to take off their heads,” Segal recalls.

When he reached the tank he started working “like a well-trained robot,” he says. All his training over three years was being put to use in this one moment. “You shoot at suspicious points, and outside there are blasts like you’ve never heard before. An entire tank goes up in the air.”

He received an order to storm two fighters spotted in the bushes. “I went to the machine gun and started spraying,” he says. “I finished off a whole load of ammunition in a few seconds.”

He then heard radio reports that Hezbollah had taken over South Lebanon Army tanks and spotted smoke on the horizon with planes flying overhead. “At that moment I remembered wanting somebody to call my mother to tell her I was all right.”

At least 10 Hezbollah fighters were killed in that battle. Tanks, infantry, anti-aircraft gunners, combat helicopters, artillery and snipers all took part. “Our forces returned peacefully to the outpost,” Segal says.

Later, before the withdrawal from the outpost, the flag was taken down. All the soldiers signed their names on it.

At 3 A.M. the IDF blew up the position. Segal crossed the fence back home into Israel. His last trip back from Lebanon was “the nicest and most peaceful of my life.” At 6 A.M. he phoned his mother.

Malchi, the tank driver who now produces podcasts on history, didn’t get to be the one to turn out the light at the outpost. When he served three years earlier, nobody dreamed there would be a pullout.

He recalls nights as a tank driver when he would think of Alexander Zeid and Joseph Trumpeldor “who refused to be an officer in the Russian army and preferred to fall on Israeli soil because at least he knew what his sacrifice was for.”

Israeli soldiers pulling out of Lebanon, May 24, 2000.Credit: Yaron Kamisky

But certain experiences still haunt him; for example, a night in September 1997 when he got caught in an ambush with a friend, Eyal Shimoni. “We made some more tea and didn’t wake up the people who were supposed to be on guard duty after us – an entire night of deep discussions about life, the country,” Segal says. “Eyal thought about going to school and invited me to his kibbutz.”

Two weeks later Shimoni was killed when a missile struck his tank.

A month later Malchi witnessed death again, taking part in three days of fighting along with his friend Ronen Hayoun. “We talked about everything,” Malchi says. “About his girlfriend Tami, the music he made, his school. He showed me all the improvements he had made inside the tank’s driver’s unit.”

Then suddenly, they spotted a target.

“I went to the position but at the last minute they asked for the second tank to go up there instead,” Malchi says. “Then there was a missile. Ronen was killed. I saw them taking out his body,” he says. He then ran to the tank that was hit; to this day he remembers the smell.

“I took out Ronen’s things and put them in my pocket,” Malchi says. “A week later I brought them to his parents.”

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