Rewriting History Is Easy

The commander of the tank battalion who two weeks ago fired shells too close to a protest march in Rafah - lethally so - has provided added proof of the connection between Gaza and Lebanon.

The commander of the tank battalion who two weeks ago fired shells too close to a protest march in Rafah - lethally so - has provided added proof of the connection between Gaza and Lebanon.

In May 2000, that battalion commander was in the war room of the Northern Command alongside GOC Gabi Ashkenazi when a group of Lebanese civilians and Hezbollah gunmen climbed to the South Lebanese Army's Taibeh outpost, chased off the SLA defenders and jump-started the withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces from the south. On seeing the protest march in Rafah with his own eyes, and with aerial surveillance data provided by his intelligence officer, the battalion commander spoke of two precedents. "This is how the withdrawal from Lebanon started," and also, of his wish - unsuccessful, as it turned out - to avoid harming civilians: "It isn't Kosovo here."

It is a simple thing to rewrite history, including recent history, in which the participants and the documents are available and accessible. All it takes to falsify the background of the IDF withdrawal from South Lebanon is a microphone, camera and keyboard. Based on a simplistic narrative, Israel was a blind, stupid state, one deceived by some muscle men in uniforms who fell in love with the idea of conquest, a state that sacrificed young people and refused to pull itself out of the muck. It took a handful of women, Four Mothers, gifted with common sense and love of humankind, to show the herd of males the right way out.

When a historical account is learned by rote, it eventually becomes an acknowledged verity, not unlike the stock statement about the American defeat in the Vietnam War; in actual fact, North Vietnam, the patron of the Vietcong, pressured by the bombings, shelved its aspiration to conquer the south, signed a peace treaty and then violated it two years later. Meanwhile, the American army was evacuated from the south, Congress abolished the draft and Hanoi correctly assessed that the Americans, after the loss of nearly 60,000 soldiers, had lost its resolve to come to the aid once again of their client ally in Saigon.

When the IDF was deploying in Lebanon, an ethical and professional debate took place, in which the options and costs were deliberated. The reciprocal relationship between Lebanon and Syria, Hezbollah and Iran, and the northern theater of operations to the Palestinian zone were well-known. The Lebanon War was preceded by the annexation of the Golan. An investment of energy by the Shin Bet security service in Lebanon contributed to weakening its grip in the territories. The IDF's failure on the "Night of the Gliders," in which Palestinian terrorists launched a successful raid on an army base near Kiryat Shmona in November 1987, played a part in boosting Palestinian spirits, and the first intifada broke out two weeks later. A war by Tehran against Jerusalem was not conditional upon Israeli withdrawal from the sole stronghold of the Shi'ite revolution. In the Israeli-Arab conflict, or the conflict between the Jewish state and Islam, it takes more than a short-lived easing of the decrees to end the war.

Until the late 1990s, Israeli society had decided that it was not willing to bear the cost of peace with Syria - withdrawal from the Golan - and that it was prepared to accept the army's calculations of the outcome of a pullout from Lebanon, which - as opposed to the mythology - did not speak of too many casualties. On the contrary, officers who served to the last in Lebanon, such as Brigadier General Erez Gerstein, assessed that the number of Israeli dead per year following the withdrawal would decline, from approximately 20 soldiers to approximately five civilians. However, they estimated that the public would find this unacceptable and would exhort the government to send the army back to Lebanon for another war, which would prove much more costly.

The Gerstein school of thought did not deny the supremacy of civilian society and its authority to dictate to its armed guard (the IDF) what to do and where to operate, as long as the transition between the two alternative physical states - inside and outside - would be sharp and quick: not to linger at the front door, exposed to fire. Its concern, which was verified in part by the incident in which Gerstein was killed in February 1999, centered on a mentality of plodding along that would cause the SLA and others in the south to switch their allegiance, in light of the certainty of an imminent withdrawal, to the extent of assisting the Hezbollah to kill Israeli soldiers.

Those who harbored reservations about the gamble that a withdrawal from South Lebanon without an agreement with Syria would in turn lead to the dismantling of the Hezbollah as an organization fighting Israel along other fronts, based their qualifications on an assumption that was proven wrong - beginning in September 2000. The skeptics - they and Hassan Nasrallah and Yasser Arafat - erred mainly in their assessment of Israeli society. The parallels between the two situations were only partial. The preference for a withdrawal from Lebanon over a continuation of the bloodletting there was not repeated on the Palestinian front. As a factor influencing government decisions, the prevalent attitude toward victims of the terrorist attacks was one of indifference, and inequality: Israeli lives lost in Lebanon were worth more to Nasrallah than the Israeli lives lost on either side of the Green Line are worth to Arafat.

In Gaza, as in Lebanon, in the absence of a central regime (in Ramallah and in Beirut) that might send its forces south to prevent terror after the evacuation, Israeli society plays a dual role. Society prioritizes its needs and values, and society's sons - its emissaries in the regular army and the reserves - are killed and kill on its behalf. The military command also bears a dual responsibility: providing analysis of the meanings and costs, and minimizing the loss of civilians and soldiers. The message of the army brass to the government is in the Gerstein spirit - the two options, staying and leaving, are bad, but worst of all is not deciding between them.