Reluctant Recruit: One IDF Soldier Examines His Scars From the Lebanon War

'The last thing I ever wanted to do in my life was be a soldier,' says Daniel Ben-Tal. But then came the Lebanon War.

It was a day that changed our perception of ourselves.

That the “most moral army in the world” ‏(yes − they were using that term even then‏) would allow a massacre of innocent civilians and do nothing to stop it ran contrary to everything we thought Zionism stood for. Even the most fervent backers of that unnecessary war were forced to reexamine their beliefs. After all, weren’t we supporting the “good guys” in Lebanon − the Christians?

Already, a few weeks earlier, I had witnessed how trigger-happy the Phalange fighters − clad in Israel Defense Forces-supplied uniforms but without the IDF insignia − really were, when a so-called joint operation almost turned into a gun battle after they opened fire on my reservist Paratroops unit.

The exact chronology of the events of September 16 through September 18, 1982, in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila in Beirut, or even the precise number of dead, will probably never be known. What is known is that the mighty, moral IDF played a part − even if passively − in the slaughter of many, many hundreds of Palestinian refugees who had nothing at all to do with the assassination of Lebanon’s newly elected Christian president, Bashir Gemeyal, a few days earlier, probably by the Syrian-backed militia of Elie Hobeika. In any case, it almost produced a civil war here in Israel.

The day it happened, I was cramming for my rescheduled final exams in college. The first Lebanon war ‏(some misguided people were still calling it “Operation Peace for
Galillee”‏) had broken out on June 6, just two weeks before my academic career was due to end, and I had spent most of that cursed summer in that cursed country. From the bloody battle for Sultan Yacoub, via the beautiful, yet terrifying, Awali valley, where we would hunt down cells of PLO fighters, to the southern
approaches of war-torn Beirut, it had been tough − both physically and psychologically. Our mobile home was an armored personnel carrier, its metallic interior stuffed with munitions and kit bags. There was no routine, no preset rest stops.

By the end of August, I was back to being a civilian, albeit a traumatized one. For me personally, and for a lot of my contemporaries, the following months were wrought with heart-wrenching reflections on what we’d been through − and why. The “why” was the hardest part. Already in the first days of the war, I found myself asking that question.

The last thing I ever wanted to do in my life was to be a soldier. But as a Zionist and a new immigrant, I felt the need to help defend my people. After all, isn’t that what IDF stands for? And yet in those days I was one of the angry masses who realized that the war was a mistake from the outset, a frivolous adventure instigated by Ariel Sharon, the defense minister. Long before he reinvented himself as the grandfather of the nation who dared to vacate the Gaza Strip and split from Likud to form Kadima, Sharon was the great Satan in many Israelis’ eyes.

Detained in the Knesset

Four days after the massacre, I was detained, together with other Peace Now activists, by the police for demonstrating inside the Knesset plenum as Sharon took the podium. The calls to set up a commission of inquiry into the massacre grew louder, but still Prime Minister Menachem Begin insisted that Jews could never have been responsible for such a dastardly act.

However, sanity eventually won out, and the commission chaired by Supreme Court President Yitzhak Kahan conducted an in-depth investigation. In February 1983, it submitted its report, which concluded that although direct responsibility for the murders rested with the Phalangists, Israel was indirectly responsible. Sharon was found to bear personal responsibility, “for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge” , and “not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed,” and it was recommended that he be dismissed as defense minister.

But Sharon refused to go, and one windy Thursday night we set out on yet another march − this one to call specifically for his resignation − from Zion Square to the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. The photograph of Emil Grunzweig linking arms at the front of the procession is probably familiar to you. There were no press photographers at the back of the march to perpetuate what happened that night: We were spat on, cursed ‏(“Arab lovers,” “It’s a shame Hitler didn’t kill all you Ashkenazim”‏), placards were ripped from young girls’ hands and thrown back at them and posters set alight, while the police actively played a passive role, sitting on the side laughing.

By the time the demonstration dispersed, I was covered in phlegm, my shirt was torn and my back bruised. I was supposed to gather the posters and take them back to the Peace Now office, but there weren’t many left by that time anyway. Someone approached me and said, “You’ve done enough − go home to sleep.” She may well have saved my life: Twenty seconds later, the grenade that killed Emil exploded at that very spot.

By the time my next reserves call-up came around, in March 1983, I was convinced I could play no further part in Sharon’s adventure. I informed my company commander, a kibbutznik from a very left-leaning community, that I intended to refuse to serve, and that I was prepared to bear the consequences. He tried to convince me that the unit should come before any personal considerations. It didn’t stick.

In those days I was active in the Citizen’s Rights Movement ‏(Ratz‏), political party headed by Shulamit Aloni that later became part of Meretz. Dedi Zucker − not yet an MK but already a leading light in the political left − heard about my decision and invited me to his home, in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot quarter. We sat on his verandah that afternoon, sipping coffee as he lectured to me about democracy and accepting the decisions of a democratically elected government. We talked for hours about Zionism and “self-realization.” He told me in no uncertain terms that if people like me didn’t serve on the front line, the army would lose all its remaining humanity. “We sane Israelis need people like you there,” he urged.

Finally, I relented.

The longest month

The month I spend near Aley, just east of Beirut on the main highway to Damascus, was the longest of my life. A week before we arrived, two IDF officers had been killed there in an ambush. Above us on the hilltop were the Druze − a bloodthirsty lot bent on revenge. To our left was a Shi’ite Muslim village, and to the right a Christian hamlet. At night they would lob shells at each other, over our heads. The Syrian forces were stationed in Ras el-Mata’ar to the north, on the other side of a treacherous, deep valley where we would lay in ambush for long, long hours at night, hoping to intercept one of the many Palestinian “terrorist” cells.

I was, in a nutshell, traumatized. A week after that stint of reserve duty ended, I was in Alaska, hitch-hiking into the wilderness of Denali National Park, where I could reflect from as far away as possible. By the time I returned to Israel eight months later, I had banished that gremlin from my psyche.

The years passed, and the memories inevitably faded. Grinding my teeth at Ariel Sharon’s warmongering antics seems like an anachronism now. But as the cliche goes: There’s a scar deep inside me that will never heal.