“What the hell are you guys doing getting a suntan on a day like this?” said the voice on the other end of the line. “Don’t you know that everything around you is falling apart?” That scolding from a friend of mine, a staff officer at the Israel Defense Forces’ western command in Southern Lebanon, was the first time we soldiers ever realized something was seriously wrong.
It was the morning of May 22, 2000, when Israel’s 22-year presence in southern Lebanon was disintegrating before our eyes. Even more staggering was the fact that there wasn’t anything we could do about it. Within 48 hours, the previously unchallenged Israeli control of southern Lebanon had fallen apart. The Israeli-installed South Lebanon Army, Israel’s proxy that bore the brunt of the fighting against Hezbollah in the security zone for two decades, was withering away. One by one, almost every garrison in every sector was either being abandoned or evacuated. Without time to do anything but react, the Israeli army and government, which had always been firmly in control, suddenly found themselves helpless.
At a time when the United States is facing challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan in anticipation of eventual pullouts, the tenth anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon this week teaches us one very important lesson: how not to withdraw in the Middle East.
From the moment Ehud Barak became prime minister in May 1999, it had become clear that he intended to keep his campaign pledge to withdraw from Lebanon within a year. But he needed the army’s help to do so. “I need the time to reach an agreement,” Barak told senior officers in a meeting in early 2000, “and you will have to do your best to prevent a forced withdrawal.” As Moshe “Chico” Tamir, one of the top commanders in Lebanon, later wrote in his memoir, Undeclared War, the proposed mixed policy revolved around the flawed assumption that the fighting could go on as if there was no withdrawal while preparations for withdrawal would continue as if there was no fighting.
In response to this policy, brainstorming conferences were convened and meticulous plans drawn up. Orders were handed down in late April to begin executing a gradual withdrawal. Barak, who was pursuing peace negotiations with Syria at the time, had hoped that by summer an agreement could be reached that would facilitate a coordinated pullback.
Codenamed “Morning Twilight,” the initial plan called for an intensive though clandestine evacuation of non-essential equipment—ranging from kitchen utensils to workout treadmills—from forward Israeli garrisons in anticipation of transferring those garrisons to the SLA. But as often happens in war, the more elaborate the plans were the more worthless they would eventually become. Once the SLA got a whiff of what was happening, the only thing the IDF could do with the mountains of battle plans already disseminated was to throw them in the trash.
After a particularly deadly period of fighting against Hezbollah in the spring of 2000, the SLA, the weakest link in the IDF’s defense strategy, sensed that Israel’s days there were numbered and began to come apart. On the morning of May 22, hundreds of villagers carrying Hezbollah flags set out to march from Kantara to the nearby town of Taibe. Once there, they continued toward the heavily fortified garrison at the town’s outskirts, which only weeks earlier had been transferred from Israel to the SLA as part of its gradual withdrawal. The SLA troops didn’t even bother to resist; they fled, thereby enabling Hezbollah to achieve through non-violent measures what they had never been able to do through fighting: take an Israeli garrison.
Ironically enough, the storming of Taibe—with flags, not guns—set in motion a series of events that within 48 hours created a completely new reality on the ground. One by one, SLA units began to evacuate their outposts, with Hezbollah and its hordes of supporters storming in to take their place and instantly coloring the reoccupied garrisons in Hezbollah’s yellow-and-black flags. The IDF decided that evening to evacuate its western command located in the village of Bint-Jbeil. From there, things only got worse.
At daybreak on May 23, the decision to withdraw had finally filtered down through the ranks. A mere 24 hours after the SLA had begun to dissolve, IDF brass decided that without their presence, the security zone was unmanageable; there was only one logical solution left: a complete and unilateral withdrawal of all Israeli forces, to be implemented that night. So unexpected had the decision been that even top commanders like Tamir, who oversaw the entire eastern sector, had actually suggested their subordinates go on leave just days before, in preparation for a withdrawal they assumed was weeks—not hours—away.
Even to a young, low-ranking officer like me, serving in one of the infantry battalions in the western sector at the time, it had become obvious that something strange was in the air. Evacuations naturally carry a scent of panic with them, and this case was no different. Dozens of trucks and tank transporters were gradually amassing near the border, clogging the main roads. The arrival of media hounds and a couple of enterprising snack trucks (an army’s got to eat) further contributed to the mayhem along the border.
Speeding across the road that runs along the border between Lebanon and Israel that morning as part of a reserve rescue force, I watched as my pastoral drive took a sharp turn toward surrealism. On the northern side of the border, it seemed like the Wild West had come alive: Mushroom clouds covered the rolling hills of southern Lebanon, and roaring shell bursts sporadically rocked the air as Israeli jetfighters and artillery barrages methodically demolished the recently abandoned SLA outposts.
The scenes at the border crossings were especially heart-wrenching: Scores of SLA soldiers and their families waited, patiently though anxiously, to enter Israel. Knowing it was a matter of time before Hezbollah would purge their villages of former collaborators, the loyal SLA soldiers, who only a few days before had been the unchallenged sovereigns of the region, had overnight become refugees with barely enough time to gather what was left of their lives and make their way to the border. It was there that I witnessed a timeless portrait: an army on the run, its soldiers with knapsacked kids in one hand and an AK-47 in another, flanked by wives holding Persian rugs and by old relatives carrying the coffee table.
The scenes would get even wilder as the day went on. Hovering just across the border, not far from kibbutz Zarit (where the two reserve soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were kidnapped six years later), a pair of Cobra helicopters could be seen unloading their anti-tank canons on a couple of beat-up civilian vehicles that had been trying to make their way up the road to the nearby Israeli garrison of Karkom. As it turned out, a few overzealous Hezbollah supporters, mistakenly thinking the outpost had already been abandoned, tried to occupy it. Unfortunately for them—and by any measure it was an unfortunate scene—not much was left of either cars or people once the Cobras’ guns fell silent.
At nightfall, all seven remaining garrisons within the security zone were successfully evacuated. Only a few weeks before, we had been repeatedly warned by anxious intelligence officers that “Hezbollah was going to pound” us on withdrawal. But with the exception of the Beaufort, there was surprisingly little fighting. According to one assessment, Hezbollah was so caught off guard by the rapidness of the withdrawal that it didn’t have time to prepare an attack. Just after 2 a.m., as the last convoys were making their way into Israeli territory, the abandoned garrisons, like a grand fireworks display, began to go up in flames: One by one they were blown up, with Israeli jets later coming in to finish the job.
The morning after was anything but festive. Coming into a formal debriefing, Tamir responded to then-Chief of Staff Gen. Shaul Mofaz’s “good morning” with a polite rebuke: “No sir, it’s not a good morning.” Although there were no casualties that night, a considerable amount of military equipment was left behind, only to serve as valuable propaganda tools for the media-savvy Hezbollah, which didn’t waste time displaying them in front of international camera crews. Tamir’s colleague, Col. Noam Ben-Tzvi, who was also a regional commander at the time, put it even more bluntly in a recent interview: “It wasn’t a withdrawal, and it wasn’t a retreat. We ran away, pure and simple.”
Since those fateful 48 hours, two competing narratives have developed to explain Israel’s befuddled withdrawal. The first, which continues to register with most Israelis, considers the event an historic inevitability that remains to this day Barak’s finest hour (an interpretation that Barak himself avidly supports and promotes). In contrast, the alternative narrative that has steadily gained momentum in recent years views the withdrawal as a strategic blunder that contains the roots of all of Israel’s problems since. The Palestinians in the West Bank, it is argued, inspired by Hezbollah, were emboldened to start the second intifada; Hamas was similarly invigorated to take control of Gaza and stage the rocket attacks on southern Israel that eventually led to Israel’s “Cast Lead” offensive; Hezbollah, backed by Iran, secured the confidence to kidnap on two different occasions Israeli soldiers from Israeli territory, the latter incident in 2006 providing the casus belli for the Second Lebanon War. Even Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah seems to have adopted this latter position. Speaking last weekend to mark the anniversary, he noted that “since the south was liberated, Israel began to experience one setback after another.”
Reading the Israeli newspapers, one can see just how widespread this alternative narrative of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon has become. Writing in Haaretz, former Likud Defense Minister Moshe Arens argued that the withdrawal “was the wrong move” and caused “fundamental change in the strategic balance in the area.” Similarly, Barak’s own deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, claimed that by withdrawing, Israel was sending “a message of weakness” that “we run away from places where we bleed.” Both men directly attributed an erosion of Israel’s deterrence capabilities to the legacy of the withdrawal.
While such causal deduction is certainly tenable, even if we discount the significant drop in IDF casualties since 2000 (before the withdrawal the IDF was averaging 25 deaths a year), there are two main arguments often overlooked, that help justify the withdrawal.
The first is technological. The Jerusalem Post’s Caroline Glick’s recently complained that “without the security zone, Israel had no buffer between its civilian population and Hezbollah.” Such arguments, often made, consistently ignore the changing nature of the battlefield. After all, the gradual modernization of Hezbollah’s arsenal in the 1990s refitted the organization with longer-range attack capabilities that left Israel’s defensive strategies mostly obsolete. The security zone in southern Lebanon originally constructed to prevent terrorists from infiltrating into northern Israeli towns was becoming increasingly futile in countering rocket attacks. The IDF’s failure to sufficiently silence Hezbollah’s Katyusha fire onto northern Israel during the “Grapes of Wrath” campaign in 1996 already foretold this technologically changing reality.
Furthermore, not only did the presence of Israeli soldiers within the security zone not contribute to Israel’s ability to defend its northern border—the primary objective of the IDF’s presence there in the first place—but it eventually became a tactical liability by leaving the soldiers vulnerable to ever-increasing threats by anti-tank weaponry that Hezbollah was steadily mastering (in early 2000 seven Israeli soldiers were killed within days in different incidents from coordinated missile attacks). Avigdor Kahalani, the 1973 war hero and longtime Knesset member, ignited a public firestorm when he famously remarked that the soldiers had become “sitting ducks.”
However, the most overlooked argument in favor of ending the occupation of southern Lebanon remains the most obvious one: History simply could not tolerate it anymore. Arens, like many on the right, ridicules those who believe that the occupation of Arab territories is the core of Israel’s troubles. He may be right. But what he doesn’t understand is that such thinking is not simply a tenuous left-wing fantasy but the defining rationale of post-Cold War geopolitics. Like Arens, many of those still lamenting the withdrawal from Lebanon do so because they have not made the transition into the 21st century and prefer living in the pages of a Graham Greene novel in which “our men in Lebanon” were able to acquire and retain power the old-fashioned way: through the barrel of a gun.
For the soldiers—at least for me and those around me—there wasn’t any time to really ponder the larger ramifications of the event. It is not the duty of soldiers, as Tennyson famously reminded us, “to reason why.” Instead, sensing the opportunity to take part in the making of history, we succumbed to the euphoria of the moment, with little if any concern for what the future may hold. Old men after all are the ones who make wars; young men simply have to fight them.
Shutting the gates to Lebanon on that spring morning nevertheless left a bittersweet sensation. On one hand, service in Lebanon had been a rite of passage for an entire generation of Israeli men. It was the place where one could fulfill the Spartan experience that for good or bad has long since been an integral part of Israeli life. And yet, in those final glimpses across the border, it was difficult to erase all the bad memories that had been left behind there. Hundreds of men, boys actually, had sacrificed their lives, not to mention innocence, in a war that after 22 years of legitimacy had suddenly become illegitimate, virtually overnight. By withdrawing from Lebanon without securing anything that even resembled a victory, the question that remained—and still remains—on many of our minds as the adrenaline wore off, was not whether the sacrifice had been worth it; but rather, what had been its very purpose to begin with.
In retrospect, it’s clear that the problem with the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon was never one of content but rather of form: It had to be completed; the question was going about it the right way. And herein also lies a valuable lesson for any future U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East.
Withdrawals can never truly be successful, because they contain within them the mark of failure. Whether it was Napoleon’s Grand Armée staggering away from Moscow or the last American chopper launching off the embassy roof in Saigon, withdrawals are a military expression of political failure. Israel’s failure to obtain a political resolution that could ensure regional stability through an organized transfer of power to a sovereign entity (such as the Lebanese government or the United Nations) was therefore by far the most crucial mistake in its 22-year military operation in Lebanon—a mistake that can be traced back to Barak’s adherence to a strict timeframe (within a year of being elected he promised to withdraw). Although such promises are beneficial for internal elections, they are self-destructive in international relations. And indeed it was this pledge that pressured the government into making decisions the army was not yet ready to execute.
Southern Lebanon descended into chaos ten years ago this week because Israel allowed events on the ground to dictate political policy and not the other way around. Setting arbitrary deadlines, some would argue, is a recipe for disaster—one that can too easily be imagined in Iraq and Afghanistan—that would result in a power vacuum from which the eventual ascension of the radicals is all but assured.
Yoav Fromer is a New York-based journalist and a former columnist for Maariv.
Yoav Fromer teaches politics and history at Tel Aviv University.