Two decades on, Israel confronts legacy of ‘forgotten’ south Lebanon occupation

Now that the 18-year period is recognized as a campaign, with a medal for its soldiers, some security zone veterans look back and find unexpected relevance for them and the country

On the night of May 24, 2000, Brig. Gen. Benny Gantz passed through a gate in the fence between Lebanon and Israel, bringing up the rear of a convoy of tanks and military trucks carrying IDF troops back home across the border. Gantz, then the 40-year-old commander of the Lebanon Liaison Unit, gave the order to close and lock the gate, bringing to an abrupt end the 18-year IDF presence in Lebanon.

As the key turned in that lock 21 years ago, it also served to seal away the national memory of the frustrating, messy occupation of southern Lebanon — which culminated in a chaotic withdrawal swiftly exploited by the terror group Hezbollah — as the country decided to move on from something it didn’t even know how to define, much less meaningfully examine.

Last week, Gantz, now defense minister, rose to speak at a ceremony that represents the climax of a long, complex effort to wrestle with the legacy of that period. A protracted fight to have the period officially recognized as a distinct military campaign was ending with the distribution of medals for its veterans.

“We are all reopening the gate today that I myself closed,” Gantz said, “to memories, to recognition, to healing the wounds, to embracing the soldiers.”

In truth, the gate had already been pried open — not by generals and cabinet ministers like Gantz, but by the conscripts who served in southern Lebanon, who led the push for recognition over the past two years.

It is fitting that the demand for recognition of the southern Lebanon campaign came from the servicemen, not from the top brass. This was a conflict fought by the simple soldier. Nearly all the skirmishes were fought by IDF units no larger than platoons against small Hezbollah squads. After 1988, there were no massive tank battles directed from on high or complex ground offensives. Just the slog of guerrilla war and occupation.

Many feel that this is the reason the country moved on from the conflict so quickly. “They forgot because this was a war that didn’t have glory in it,” reflected Haim Har Zahav, who wrote “Lebanon: The Lost War,” a landmark account of the period. “There wasn’t the Battle of the Mitla Pass, or the liberation of the Western Wall, or the ascent to the Hermon under fire. It was Sisyphean, day in and day out, the longest in Israel’s history, 18 years, and no general or politician comes out of it well, from the right or the left.”

After over 20 years of near-amnesia regarding the occupation of southern Lebanon, Israel has begun to reexamine the period through books, documentaries, and social media. The conversation is not a nostalgic look back, nor a demand for any compensation by veterans. It is instead part of Israelis’ and the IDF’s attempts to understand how we became who we are, and what lessons we must extract from the security zone in southern Lebanon to help us confront the security challenges facing us today.

One cannot understand Israel’s leaders or the country without understanding the occupation of southern Lebanon.
The emergence of the security zone

The locus of Israel’s engagement with Lebanon was the security zone, a belt of land in southern Lebanon some 15 miles (24 kilometers) wide from the sea to the Shebaa Farms where the IDF, and its proxy South Lebanon Army, attempted to keep Palestinian and Hezbollah terrorists away from the Israeli border. But the occupation of that zone is not what Israeli leaders originally intended. It was the product of imperfect solutions and short-term thinking, a policy that slowly emerged and became seen as unalterable.

Since before Israel’s founding, Jewish authorities had maintained ties with Maronite Christian villages in southern Lebanon. In the 1970s, as Lebanon descended into a multifaceted civil war, Israel — in concert with Iran — backed the Christian militias facing off against the Palestine Liberation Organization, providing them with arms, equipment, training, and medical aid.

But Israel expressly ruled out entering the fight. “We will not fight for them. We will help them… so they’ll be able to fight themselves,” Northern Command chief Rafael Eitan said at the time.

What had been quiet cooperation evolved into direct military support in the late 1970s, though, after Syrian forces moved into Lebanon and PLO terrorists carried out a series of shocking attacks in Israel.

In 1978, after Palestinian terrorists hijacked an Egged bus and left 35 Israelis dead, the IDF responded with Operation Litani, which included massive airstrikes and a ground incursion.

During the second Menachem Begin administration, which began in 1981, Israel sought the expulsion of Syria and the PLO, and for the Maronites to be put in control of Lebanon. After hundreds of PLO Katyusha rocket attacks on northern Israel between August 1981 and May 1982, and a Palestinian assassination attempt on Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Israel embarked on Operation Peace for Galilee in June 1982.

Defense minister Ariel Sharon tried to engineer the installation of a friendly government in Beirut, but that effort was ended by an assassin’s bomb. In 1985, after the PLO and Syria had been pushed out — with Hezbollah emerging in the resulting vacuum — Israel withdrew its forces from most of Lebanon, settling on a security zone designed to keep Palestinian terrorists away from the border.

The buffer zone was meant to be managed and secured by the South Lebanon Army, a Christian militia backed by Israel, with a minimal IDF presence. But when the SLA started to collapse in the face of Hezbollah attacks, Israel could not help being sucked in. The next 15 years of conflict against Hezbollah would cost hundreds of Israeli lives, and the trauma is still palpable today, 21 years after the IDF’s humiliating withdrawal.
The color in the gray

The decoration that Gantz and Shaul Mofaz, IDF chief of staff during the May 2000 withdrawal and head of the IDF committee studying the recognition of the campaign, presented to IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi is a fitting one. The blue and white horizontal lines in the center stand for the Israeli flag, and the green and red lines on the edges represent the Lebanese flag as well as country’s forests, and the blood spilled by IDF soldiers.

But the most resonant part of the decoration is what lies between the vibrant colors of the two national flags. The two lines of gray represent the concrete outposts in which a generation of soldiers spent much of their four-month rotations in Lebanon, but it is more importantly an apt statement on the blurry national memory of the occupation.

“When you’re in Lebanon, Israel exists less,” said Yossifoon Kaufman, a tanker who served in the Dla’at outpost on the northern edge of the security zone. The disconnect went the other way as well. Many soldiers returned home for weekend leave after a month of ambushes, patrols, and firefights to a country that didn’t understand or even discuss what was happening just beyond its northern border.

Israel moved on quickly once the campaign ended in 2000, burying the humiliating images of IDF forces retreating across the border and lines of SLA soldiers and their families seeking refuge in Israel. In any event, there was a new threat to focus on, as Palestinian suicide bombers began slaughtering Israelis in cafes and on buses, and the veterans of the long fight against Hezbollah began the work of building their careers and families.

While the period never fully disappeared from the country’s consciousness — the 2007 movie “Beaufort,” about a platoon’s last days at the infamous fortress of the same name, won local and international attention, as did the book it was based on — the first stirrings of a broad reflection on the events of the campaign would not come until 30 years after the establishment of the security zone and 15 years after the withdrawal.

In 2015, the IDF military colleges conducted a series of interviews with key commanders, creating a textbook and holding a well-received conference studying the period. The IDF also opened key archives, allowing researchers to begin examining decision-making, IDF adaptation — how the military responded to changing adversaries during the conflict — and civil-military relations.

The soldiers who served in Lebanon in the 1990s, during the height of the guerrilla war between the sides, began writing as well.

Canadian-Israeli author Matti Friedman wrote “Pumpkinflowers,” an on-the-ground account of the experiences and emotions of soldiers serving there in the mid- and late-1990s. The title of the 2016 book combines the name of the fortress where Friedman served in Lebanon, Dla’at, which means pumpkin in English, with the IDF’s code word for casualties — flowers.

In May 2020, the 20th anniversary of the withdrawal, the Kan broadcaster released a three-hour documentary series on the security zone produced by Friedman and veteran television producer Israel Rosner. “A War with No Name” sought to explain what the Lebanon period was, according to Friedman.

“The value of a series like this is to study Lebanon and study that period and stop ignoring it, to learn those lessons and to hear people who led troops in the security zone say that looking back, that it was an error. Not that they erred, but that the policy was an error,” said Friedman, a former correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Haim Har Zahav also wrote his crowdfunded book to coincide with the 20th anniversary, fearing paper-thin treatment by the agenda-setting TV news channels that would would lean on the well-trodden images of the start and end of the occupation and its most flagrant failure, a mid-air helicopter crash that cost the lives of 73 soldiers in 1997.

“I said to myself, that’s not the story. The story is much deeper than that,” he said.

“Lebanon was a formational event, a life-altering event for everyone that took part in that war, including me,” he said. “It was an event that defined us. Whether you wanted it or not, you went into Lebanon as one person, and left as someone else. I’m not saying you became a worse person or a sadder person, It’s not necessarily negative. But you came out different.”

“Then I discovered than no one remembers that it happened,” he added.

The veterans of the period were deeply hurt that the fight was forgotten, said Har Zahav, and he himself feared that the lessons of the war would be lost on future generations.

“When you have an incredibly meaningful experience, then find out that no one remembers it, the only word to describe it is insulting. How did you forget? How can it be that no one remembers?”

IDF historian Ohad Leslau’s book on the Lebanon campaign, “From Routine Security to Guerrilla Warfare: The Southern Lebanon Security Zone 1993-1998″ was also slated for 2020, but came out this year instead because of delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I felt that the country was missing the story of our generation,” said Leslau. “Especially, soldiers were missing the understanding of what they did in Lebanon.”

At the same time as veterans were wrestling with the memories and lessons of the 18-year occupation, some were also seeking official recognition of their service. Last year, the Action Committee for the Recognition of the War in the Security Zone, led by Har-Zahav, tallied the number of people killed in Lebanon and sent a letter to Gantz urging him to recognize and name the campaign.

The 20th anniversary “opened the door for how we look at wars and how people look at where they were,” said Dotan Druck, an Israeli military historian who commanded an infantry platoon that was caught in a fatal brushfire near Lebanon’s Saluki River in 1997, in which five Golani soldiers died.

But there were other vectors that converged around the same time, enhancing the push for official recognition.

The veterans who served during the most difficult and intensive fighting in the mid-1990s have passed the age of 40. In the past two decades, they were focused on traveling, studying, and building careers and families. As they settled into their lives, memories began coming back.

“I’ve heard it from a number of people,” explained Har Zahav, “that at night they have dreams, or flashbacks, suddenly everything came back to them at the age of 40.”

The pandemic also played an important role. The 20-year anniversary came around just after the first and strictest lockdown in Israel. Veterans, at home with time on their hands, began reflecting on and discussing their shared experiences.

A striking Facebook group opened by Eyal Shahar, a director, in March 2020 — in the wake of Har Zahav’s book — called “Stories from Lebanon: What happened in the outposts,” — attracted over 36,000 followers. The top generals from the period, including Gantz, shared raw and revealing thoughts and memories.

“The book and the Facebook group created the dynamics that caused Naftali Bennett, as one of his last actions as defense minister, to tell Kohavi to create the committee to debate this issue,” argued Har Zahav, who was invited to appear in front of the IDF committee studying how to recognize the campaign.

The final factor was the fact that the IDF’s senior brass, including the chief of staff, deputy chief of staff, head of the Operations Directorate, head of the IDF Military Colleges and other officers in the General Staff, came of age during the fighting in southern Lebanon as junior officers. The push by the soldiers and NCOs who battled Hezbollah immediately resonated with the IDF’s decision-makers.

Still, the decision to recognize the era as a distinct campaign and to issue a campaign medal was not without controversy. The Mofaz committee — which included retired officers like Giora Eiland, who commanded the Operations Directorate in 2000, past IAF commander Ido Nehoshtan, and top IDF thinkers like then-Head of the Training and Doctrine Division Yaacov Bengo and IDF Military Colleges chief Itay Virob — heard arguments for and against the recognition.

The main claims opposing the move were that the years in Lebanon were part of the routine maintenance of security — or a period of “Batash” in the IDF’s acronym-laden lingo — and not a distinct campaign, and that issuing the medal would cause veterans of other tense periods, especially the Second Intifada, to make similar demands.

The path to approval had been cleared years earlier by veterans of the 1967-1970 fighting that would come to be called the War of Attrition. That conflict, which took hundreds of Israeli lives, was also initially seen as a long period of routine maintenance of security. It took until January 2003 for Israel to recognize the fighting as one of the country’s wars.

A novel approach

Even with the decision to recognize the campaign, there were important decisions to make about who would receive the medal, many of which were unprecedented.

“There is definitely something new here,” `historian Leslau said.

In other wars and campaigns, every soldier serving at the time is issued a campaign medal, even if they had nothing to do with the actual fighting. The security zone never had many soldiers inside — less than two brigades even at the height of the conflict — and the committee decided in this case that only those who had served for at least 30 days in Lebanon, or supported those soldiers directly, would receive a medal. Still, decisions had to made around whom that includes — intelligence soldiers serving in the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv? Technicians who worked on the planes that struck Hezbollah launchers?

Also unprecedented is the decision to issue medals to soldiers who were never in the IDF: SLA fighters now living in Israel.

The committee also had to determine when the campaign began. Should veterans of the 1978 Litani campaign — which featured a significant ground incursion — receive the medal? Should the campaign officially start with the establishment of the security zone in 1985?

Ultimately, Israel decided to put the start date at September 30, 1982, the day after the official end of Operation Peace for the Galilee. It would have been almost impossible to exclude the 1982-1985 period before the security zone was established, during which half the deaths in the campaign occurred, including in the two bombings of IDF local headquarters in Tyre, in which 75 Israelis were killed in 1982, and 28 killed in 1983.
From Beirut to Gaza

The recognition of the long Lebanon occupation as a campaign is a statement that the IDF is fully aware that modern conflict has changed. Since the May 2000 withdrawal, it has waged successful multi-year efforts against Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank, and more recently, against Iranian entrenchment in Syria. The ongoing campaign against Hamas since 2007 has proved more challenging, and many see parallels between Gaza and southern Lebanon, or view the situation in the Strip as a result of Israeli fearing another Lebanese quagmire.

Through Israel’s first half-century of existence, it was actively involved in attempting to shape the region in accordance with its interests by employing local proxy forces. In the 1960s and 1970s, Israeli officers and intelligence agents trained and supplied Kurdish insurgents in Iraq in an effort to keep Iraq from sending expeditionary forces during Arab-Israeli wars. At the same time, Israel was supporting royalists in Yemen against a military coup backed by Israel’s enemy Egypt.

Lebanon was the culmination of Israel’s attempt to shape the region and intervene in the internal politics of an Arab country. The scars from the 18-year attempt have left Israeli leaders with an instinctive aversion to moves that could get them stuck in anything resembling the “Lebanese mud.”

“We go into Lebanon in ’82 with very big ideas about what we’re doing. We’re trying to change the Middle East. We’re a military power and we’re going to rewrite the regional dynamic,” Friedman said last year.

“And we came out of Lebanon a much smaller country. Maybe a smarter country, a more realistic country, but a smaller country too. And that’s the country we’re in now.”

Today, even as Iran uses local proxies to threaten Israel from multiple fronts, the IDF prefers using airstrikes to counter Tehran. When it does employ local forces or agents, it is done with secrecy, and usually through civilian intelligence agencies.

In Gaza, Israel has waged round after round of deterrence operations while refusing to countenance a re-occupation of the Strip or an extended campaign to destroy Hamas’s military capabilities and install Palestinian Authority forces in its stead.

In addition, for most of the Lebanon period, leaders on both the right and left of the political spectrum were caught in the same paradigm and didn’t initiate a debate about Israel’s goals and whether the security zone was the best way to achieve them. A similar lack of serious debate currently marks Israel’s Gaza policy; the latest series of elections produced no real reflection on the ongoing blockade of the Hamas-run territory.

“It’s definitely similar,” said Druck. “We don’t know what to do with Gaza. We want to conquer Gaza, we don’t want to conquer Gaza… We don’t decide so we do an operation like Guardian of the Walls.”

The legacy of the 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon has also left a tactical imprint on the Israeli military. The IDF convoys supplying the ever-growing Israeli presence in outposts in the security zone were the occupation’s soft underbelly, and Hezbollah mines took a toll on troops heading to and from their bases.

Hezbollah even managed to kill Brig. Gen. Erez Gerstein, the head of the Lebanon Liaison Unit, along with an Israeli journalist and two aides, using an IED that exploded under his armored car in 1999.

The IDF continues to be extremely careful when convoys move through enemy territory, said chief IDF historian Eli Michelson, taking a range of strict precautions that also limit commanders’ freedom of action in the field.

Israel was not the only one to take lessons from Lebanon. So too have Hamas and Hezbollah, which learned that missile attacks on Israeli civilians will limit the IDF’s freedom of action, turning it into a centerpiece of their strategy.

After Israel assassinated Hezbollah’s leader in 1992, Hezbollah fired Katyusha rockets at Israeli border communities. Israel’s reaction indicated to Hezbollah’s new chief Hassan Nasrallah that he had stumbled into a game-changing revelation.

“After we fired the Katyushas at the settlements, we understood that the enemy ceased his attacks against us, and from that day forward we understood the lessons that stood at the heart of the incident,” said Nasrallah in a 2003 interview.

The political directive to IDF commanders was that success meant no rocket fire on the north. If Hezbollah fired in response to IDF operations that killed Hezbollah fighters, then those operations were failures in the the government’s eyes.

Hezbollah was effectively able to dictate the rules of the game in southern Lebanon, forcing Israel to agree not to target Hezbollah fighters within villages or to assassinate senior leaders.

What was left was an Israel-sanctioned tactical fight on the roads and in the wadis in southern Lebanon in which the IDF’s advantages could not be brought to bear.

Since then, Israel’s enemies have invested intensely in their rocket arsenals, and the threat of rocket fire on Israeli cities continues to cast its shadow over Israeli decision-making, even with Iron Dome’s protective umbrella providing some leeway.

A major lesson the IDF History Department emphasizes in its briefings on the period is the importance of understanding the enemy, according to Michelson. The security zone was created to keep Palestinian terrorists from infiltrating Israel, but by the end of the 1980s, IDF troops were battling an entirely different foe. Hezbollah had no interest then in crossing into Israel to carry out attacks, and in fact never even attempted to do so, but instead wanted to expel Israeli forces from Lebanon.

“The lesson is in the context of understanding the enemy,” Michelson explained. “To understand his changes, to understand his intentions… It’s not enough to understand his capabilities, you also must understand his intentions.”

In his book, Leslau stresses the arms race between Israel and Hezbollah, especially around mines. Hezbollah mines and Israeli countermeasures continuously improved and adapted, and Israel became extremely proficient at thwarting Hezbollah’s most advanced mines. Hezbollah understood this, and went back to simpler mines that Israeli countermeasures were too sophisticated to stop.

Hamas and Hezbollah are still in a continuous race with Israel, adapting to Israel’s defensive measures like walls and missile defense, and constantly finding new ways to threaten Israeli soldiers and civilians.

IDF skill in fighting Hezbollah improved markedly in the 1990s, as officers like Northern Command head Gen. Amiram Levin led the development of new tactics and opened the Egoz unit specializing in guerrilla warfare. But, Leslau pointed out, as long as there was not a relevant operational concept that could take IDF tactical achievements and form a coherent campaign that achieved clearly defined goals, they ultimately had no effect on the outcome of the fight.

Today, Israel continues to fall into the same trap. It has developed impressive tactical and technological responses to threats like Hamas tunnels and enemy rockets, but struggles to come up with coherent campaigns that lead to clear accomplishments.

“Tactical improvement doesn’t help if the operational level is not relevant,” said Leslau.
The meaning of a medal

Despite the lengthy fight for it, many soldiers who served in Lebanon don’t seem especially moved by the actual medal they are now being awarded.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” said Itamar Malka, who served as a paratrooper in the security zone in 1996-1999. “We were there because we wanted to be there. The fact that there is a medal is too late, in my opinion. There are a lot of good people who died along the way, and they won’t be getting it.”

“For me personally,” said Leslau, “the medal doesn’t speak to me… The unit I served in, they were all veterans of Lebanon, hardcore Golani. They’re laughing about it: why is the army suddenly remembering now? But this is less personal, it’s a recognition of the campaign by the state, and there are people that it is important to.”

For Har Zahav, the official recognition is a counterweight to the feelings of many veterans who watched the withdrawal and felt as if their service had been for nothing — restoring a sense of accomplishment and acknowledging that the country values their efforts.

“The decoration itself is a piece of plastic and medal,” said Har Zahav. “I’ll never wear it… But what’s important is what stands behind the decoration. It’s two things – first, that Israel embraces you, and says thank you and appreciates what you did.”

“There are all kinds of feelings about this decoration,” agreed Druck. “I personally feel that this decoration is a form of recognition by the state, by the army, that this was a period with different characteristics than other periods.”

It is also of critical importance for the soldiers who lost their lives in the security zone and for their families.

“Our fallen will have a historical context,” Har Zahav explained. “They are part of the nation of Israel’s history book.”

“It’s hard for me to describe in words how emotional it is for me. “

In spite of the long years of the blood ballet with Hezbollah and the ongoing national trauma, the veterans of the security zone maintain a mystifying connection with Lebanon, especially its “addictive and deceiving” natural beauty, as a popular Hebrew double entendre puts it.

Har Zahav finds himself staring into Lebanon when he drives near the border. Talking to other veterans, he was surprised to discover he’s not the only one.

“It turns out that we’re all like this,” he said. “Our eyes wander back to the places we served. If it’s in the eastern sector, toward Dla’at, Beaufort, we see the slopes of the Reihan ridge. Whoever served in the west like me, it’s Carcur, Zarit, the area of Ras Bayada and the Rotem outpost.”

“I had a wonderful time there, as hard as that is to say,” said Malka. “Despite all the grind and the burden and the lack of sleep.”

“Whether you want or not, it’s like a magnet,” reflected Har Zahav. “It’s the place that defined us. It’s the place that turned us into the men that we are.”

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