During the 1999 election campaign Ehud Barak, who challenged and defeated Benjamin Netanyahu, promised to withdraw the Israel Defense Forces from the south Lebanon security zone. As prime minister and defense minister, he made good on that promise and unilaterally withdrew IDF forces to the international Israel-Lebanon border. Betrayed and left behind was Israel’s ally, the South Lebanon Army, that had for years fought shoulder to shoulder with the IDF against Hezbollah, sustaining more than its share of casualties.
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A great sigh of relief was heard throughout the land – it was hoped that this would put an end to the casualties the IDF was sustaining, while protecting Israeli civilians in the north. The theory presented to the public was that after the IDF withdrawal Hezbollah would have no further motivation to attack Israel. In any case, Israel would now be in a position to carry out drastic retaliation in the event of a Hezbollah attack, and that this would suffice to deter Hezbollah. Lebanese earth would tremble, Barak warned, if that should happen. But it did happen again and again, and Lebanese earth did not tremble. Hezbollah did not become what we wished it would be. It grew manyfold in size and strength, and continued to be an implacable enemy of Israel.
What had been a limited danger from Katyusha rockets to the towns on Israel’s northern border, grew in the intervening 17 years to a major danger to the entire civilian population and much of the country’s infrastructure, which are threatened by a Hezbollah arsenal of more than 100,000 rockets and missiles aimed at all of Israel. It is the primary threat facing Israel at this time.
Israel received a reminder of the growing threat six years after the withdrawal, during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, in which 121 soldiers and 44 civilians lost their lives and over 2,000 soldiers and civilians were injured. The threat has grown dramatically since then, magnified by the presence of Hezbollah and Iranian forces in parts of Syria.
What went wrong? How did successive Israeli governments allow a minor danger to northern Israel to grow into a major threat to the entire country?
It started with the withdrawal from the south Lebanon security zone. It was an abandonment of David Ben-Gurion’s credo that it was the task of IDF soldiers to protect Israel’s civilian population and that in performing this task it would inevitably suffer casualties.
This change in policy was never announced, but gradually, almost imperceptibly, it became part of Israel’s attitude toward the dangers it was facing. It reflected a feeling that it was more painful to suffer casualties among Israel’s soldiers than among its civilians.
The withdrawal, far from convincing Hezbollah to refrain from further aggression against Israel, created the impression that Hezbollah had scored a victory over Israel and eventually led to Hezbollah taking control of Lebanon.
It was the result of a misreading of the rationale motivating Hezbollah, which was and continues to be primarily a terrorist organization pledged to bringing about the destruction of Israel. An organization whose leaders believe (not unlike Hamas) that they are following the orders of Allah will not be dissuaded from pursuing its goal.
And relying on deterrence, a concept which in any case is ill-defined and nebulous, has little meaning when applied to a terrorist organization. While Israeli decision makers over the years felt that they were deterring Hezbollah from attacking Israel, that the increasing arsenal of Hezbollah rockets and missiles was destined to rust away on the scrap heap, Hezbollah succeeded in reaching a point where it was successfully deterring Israel from taking action to destroy its growing arsenal of weapons.
Now the Hezbollah missile threat constitutes the most immediate and major threat facing Israel. There are no easy answers in dealing with this threat, but it is important to be aware of the mistakes Israel has made over the years in dealing with Hezbollah. This awareness of past mistakes is part of the answer to dealing with this threat.