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How Israel Misread Lebanon, Failed Ron Arad and Helped Hezbollah Rise to Power

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A man watching a show on Ron Arad, 2006.
A man watching a show on Ron Arad, 2006.Credit: Kevin Frayer, AP

On Tuesday, the Israel Democracy Institute will hold a symposium called “Commemorating 30 years since the capture of Ron Arad,” which will deal with the problem of freeing captured Israeli soldiers. Naturally, the discussion will focus on the tactical aspects, as did Amos Harel’s article “The Ron Arad file: Israel’s three major missed opportunities to recover MIA aviator.”

The article, dealing with the fate of the Israel Air Force navigator captured by Shi’ite militiamen when his plane crashed in southern Lebanon 30 years ago, tries to explain why Israel was unable to find out where Arad was being held, get him back and even find out whether he was dead or alive. 

Harel dealt with these three failures on the tactical level, pointing to immediate events that supposedly thwarted Israeli efforts: Arad’s falling into the hands of Mustafa Dirani, who belonged to an extreme wing of the Shi’ite Amal movement, demands made by Amal for his release and our unwillingness to declare Arad dead until 2005, despite evidence to the contrary from the late 1980s. 

However, Arad’s disappearance and death in captivity did not result from tactical mishaps, but from a broader failure on the strategic level. The strategic failure was in our flawed understanding of the politics of southern Lebanon; specifically, our underestimating the importance of the Shi’ites of the south and their main movement, Amal. This failure did not occur after Arad’s plane crashed, but during the three years between our invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and our withdrawal, in 1985, to the pre-war security zone that ran along Israel’s northern border. This failure left us with no significant contacts outside the security zone who might have been able to aid in Arad's return in the critical first few weeks of his captivity.

Shi'ite leader Mustafa Dirani (left) and Abdel Karim Obeid in court in Israel.Credit: Moti Milrod

When planning the first Lebanon war, Israel's Military Intelligence and the Mossad focused solely on our Christian allies in Lebanon, overlooking the Shi’ites, who constituted 80 percent of the population between our border and Sidon, and Amal, which had been fighting the PLO in southern Lebanon on its own. Even after the Shi’ites welcomed our invasion with flowers (in the hope that we would remove the PLO from the south) and Amal helped in locating the whereabouts of PLO leaders and weapons caches, and kept the peace with the IDF for two entire years, Israel dismissed the possibility of an alliance with them, however informal, continuing to consider only the Christians. 

In keeping with this approach, the IDF was given very few directives on how to strengthen our contacts with the Shi’ites and Amal, leading to a neglect of their sensibilities, needs and interests. Our actions (for instance, Israeli military vehicles interrupting the sacred Shi'ite Ashura procession in Nabatiyeh) signaled to the Shi'ites they weren't high on our agenda. Thus, by the time we withdrew to the security zone in 1985, Israel’s contacts were completely gone. 

On the day following the withdrawal, the senior Shin Bet security service representative in southern Lebanon called to alert me (even though I was no longer serving) of a possible phone call I might receive from Amal. He related that on the previous day he had parted from the leaders of Amal in Tyre and raised the possibility of future contact, offering them various numbers to call. They declined to record them, saying, “If we need anything, we’ll call Dr. Bailey.” The call never came.

Thus, when Arad fell captive 16 months later, there was no one to contact. This was particularly regrettable, as when his plane crashed he was held for two weeks by a regional Amal leader closely related to a main Israeli contact, the Amal commander of southern Lebanon, Mohammed Ghaddar. The friendly relations with Ghaddar had ended only in 1984, after an overly high-profile visit by then Defense Minister Moshe Arens which attracted the attention and reprobation of Amal leader Nabih Berri.

Our strategic underestimation of Amal’s role in the south led not only to the specific tragedy of Ron Arad, but also to the rise of Hezbollah and the hundreds of lives Israel lost fighting it in Lebanon. Our policy didn’t change even when Amal fought a bitter war with Hezbollah in 1987 and 1988 for predominance among the Shi’ites, and Israel refused to furnish it with supplies. The result was Hezbollah’s emergence as the leading faction in Lebanese politics and a lasting threat to Israel.

Dr. Clinton Bailey served as a liaison to the Amal movement and Advisor on Shi'ite Affairs in Israel's Ministry of Defense.

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