Bennett defends actions during 1996 Lebanon operation
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Bennett defends actions during 1996 Lebanon operation

Jewish Home leader, then IDF officer, accused of panicking, setting off chain of events that ended with 106 dead civilians

Lazar Berman is a former breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Economy Minister and Jewish Home party Naftali Bennett. (Photo credit: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash 90)
Economy Minister and Jewish Home party Naftali Bennett. (Photo credit: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash 90)

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett found himself in a bitter spat with a prominent Israeli journalist this week over his performance during a 1996 operation in Lebanon.

The episode started over the weekend when Yedioth Ahronoth ran a story, previously reported in Maariv, about Bennett leading a special forces company during Operation Grapes of Wrath.

On April 18, 1996, Bennett was in charge of 67 Maglan soldiers operating inside of Lebanon. They had been in enemy territory for eight days, searching for rocket launchers and Hezbollah fighters. Bennett decided to change the plan, without telling his commanders, journalist Igal Sarna wrote.

One of the units under Bennett’s command found itself facing Hezbollah mortar fire as it advanced near Qana in southern Lebanon. Sarna said that Bennett reported the attack on the radio, but no ground forces could reach the area to provide support.

The IDF launched an artillery strike instead, firing dozens of shells, but some of them struck a United Nations compound, killing 106 civilians and injuring many more. The error led to intense diplomatic pressure that resulted in the Israel calling an end to the offensive.

Channel 10’s Raviv Drucker followed up the report with a revelation of his own Sunday, writing on Twitter, “A senior army figure, versed in the Kafr Qana investigation from 1996 said to me some time ago: On the radio, the young officer Bennett sounded hysterical, and his stress contributed significantly to the terrible accident.”

Mourners carry coffins draped in Lebanese flags as they arrive in the southern Lebanese village of Qana Tuesday, April 30, 1996 to bury 91 victims in a mass grave beside the UN post in which they were killed by Israeli shells on April 18. (photo credit: AP Photo/Ali Mohamed)
Mourners carry coffins draped in Lebanese flags as they arrive in the southern Lebanese village of Qana Tuesday, April 30, 1996 to bury 91 victims in a mass grave beside the UN post in which they were killed by Israeli shells on April 18. (photo credit: AP Photo/Ali Mohamed)

Bennett fired back on Facebook hours later, writing, “To all those keyboard hacks, who sit in their comfortable homes and dare write advice to the soldiers spitting blood at the front, you should be embarrassed… If you want to attack me, please do. My shoulders are broad enough. I am a public figure, even a politician (what can I do), I am responsible for my actions, in my military service as well, in which I was right — I certainly don’t apologize for them.”

During the current election season, Bennett has been running on a campaign that features prominently the refrain that he will never apologize for actions Israel takes to defend itself.

Later Sunday, Bennett challenged Drucker directly, writing on Facebook, “I remember well where I was that night in 1996. I was with my soldiers, deep inside Lebanon, facing the enemy.

“Where were you that night, Drucker?”

On Monday morning, Drucker responded on his own Facebook page to Bennett, with no small dose of sarcasm. “Naftali, I also remember that night well,” he wrote. “I lay in my warm bed, protected by heroes of Israel like you, who won the right to lead us because of their great heroism, and by the way they received a pass from having to give explanations. A hero of Israel such as yourself doesn’t need to explain why the attorney general found that 8 million shekels from the party that he led (with heroism!) disappeared without receipts during the elections…”

האמת על מה שקרה בלבנון.http://youtu.be/l_t9dlwDnc0**הבוקר התראיין ג', מפקד המשנה של הפעולה עליה פיקדתי בלבנון במבצע ע…

Posted by ‎נפתלי בנט‎ on Monday, 5 January 2015

Drucker laid out other scandals that he said Bennett did not address. “Don’t worry, Naftali, this doesn’t need to disqualify you from leadership roles, and it is definitely fine for a young officer to make a mistake, but it is very strange that throughout all these years you stubbornly refuse to explain what happened there [in Lebanon].”

On Monday, Bennett’s deputy during the operation called Drucker’s charges, “Vanity of vanities, nonsense, a pile of bullsh*t.”

The ex-Maglan officer, who gave his name as “G”, also said he knew nothing about Bennett changing any plans without permission.

The Haaretz daily’s defense analyst Amos Harel also defended Bennett, writing, “Even if we assume for a moment that he was indeed hysterical on the radio, because his soldiers were in danger — Bennett wouldn’t be the first or last company commander in IDF history to have that happen to him.”

Other officers involved in the incident told Harel that the charges against Bennett had “no connection to reality,” and that he did not make changes to their initial plans.

Amiram Levin, who headed the Northern Command during the operation, said that Bennett “commanded a force that operated deep in enemy territory and performed admirably. At some stage, they were exposed and Hezbollah started to fire 81-mm mortar fire. Since they were falling close to them, we initiated rescue fire. He demonstrated level-headedness and did not panic.”

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