The grave of any soldier killed fighting in the Battle of Ammunition Hill on June 6, 1967, clearly identifies them as one of the roughly 800 IDF soldiers who fell in the Six Day War. Soldiers killed in the 1948 War of Independence, the 1973 Yom Kippur War or 2014’s Gaza war, Operation Protective Edge, are similarly identified according to the wars that took their lives.
But a soldier killed during Israel’s 18-year presence in southern Lebanon gets no such recognition. They are listed as having been killed “in Lebanon.”
“What’s ‘Lebanon’?” journalist and now filmmaker Matti Friedman asked The Times of Israel, rhetorically, last week.
Friedman and veteran television producer Israel Rosner sought to answer that question with a three-part, three-hour documentary series, “A War with No Name,” which was aired on Kan this month and is available to watch on YouTube. It is, for now, only available in Hebrew, though Friedman said a version with English subtitles is in the works.
Using archival footage and revealing new interviews, Friedman and Rosner tell the story of Israel’s occupation of Lebanon, from 1983 after the previous year’s First Lebanon War to May 24, 2000, when the Israel Defense Forces pulled out the last of its troops from the country on the orders of prime minister Ehud Barak.
The result is an impressive, infuriating and enlightening account of how a haughty Israel attempted to remake the Land of the Cedars into something more to its liking, but instead ended up getting “sucked into the Lebanese mud,” as the saying goes, for 18 brutal, bloody years.
As the title of the series suggests, this period has no official designation. The 675 soldiers who were killed during that time are not seen as having fallen in a single war, campaign or overall operation. Indeed, that number — 675 — is not an existing official government figure, but a rough tally calculated by three enterprising Israeli citizens: Haim Har-Zahav, Yossifoon Kaufman and Oded Kramer.
That the war and its casualties have no official recognition or designation “is an insult,” according to Friedman, who was drafted into the IDF in 1997 and served in Lebanon from 1998 to 2000.
“I think it’s quite shocking that the period hasn’t been given the minimal, minimal respect of a name, of being recognized as a war,” Friedman said, in a phone interview.
“We decided to invade a neighbor country, to build an enormous apparatus of outposts and operations and an allied local military, and we lost about 700 guys there and the enemy lost more, and we spent billions of dollars and 18 years there. That’s a war, there’s no other word that works other than war,” Friedman said.
Friedman credits this disinterest in the period to a number of factors: that it has a long, muddled, and confusing narrative; that a comparatively small number of soldiers served in Lebanon; that few journalists were permitted to visit the area; and that it “literally happened in another country,” out of sight and thus out of mind.
Friedman and Rosner recorded hours of interviews, about “one percent of which made it in” to the documentary, with Barak, a host of former IDF generals and front-line soldiers, and the leaders of the Four Mothers Movement, which led the country’s protests in favor of withdrawing from Lebanon.
The documentary miniseries was Friedman’s second major work on the topic of Israel’s Security Zone in southern Lebanon, the first being his 2016 book “Pumpkinflowers,” an account of the on-the-ground experiences and emotions of soldiers serving there in the mid- and late-1990s. The title from the book came from the name of the fortress where Friedman served in Lebanon — Dla’at, or Pumpkin in English — and the IDF’s code word for casualties — flowers.
Appropriately, his first paid written work ever was also about Lebanon, an article he wrote while still serving in the IDF, for Times of Israel founding editor, then the editor of the Jerusalem Report, David Horovitz. “I scribbled it on the back of a paper target because that was the only paper I had and read it to him over the phone,” Friedman recalled, laughing.
Similar in some ways to the United States’ wars in Vietnam and Iraq, Israel entered Lebanon in 1982 with one goal in mind, but stayed for years and years as its mission changed and grew more confusing and complicated and detached from the original reason it had gone into the country in the first place.
After repeated, deadly attacks by the Palestinian Liberation Organization and other terror groups based in southern Lebanon, the IDF entered the country to drive them out under prime minister Menachem Begin and defense minister Ariel Sharon.
The war itself was successful in that immediate goal, forcing the PLO to move its headquarters to Tunisia. But with grandiose plans of turning Lebanon into a friendly country, instead of leaving Israel instead teamed up with Lebanon’s Maronite Christian population to form the South Lebanon Army and the so-called Free Lebanon State.
As Lebanon descended into a brutal civil war, Israel was forced to take a greater and greater role in ensuring the stability of the SLA and southern Lebanon in general, leading to the construction of 16 IDF outposts in the Security Zone, known in Hebrew as Retzu’at Habitahon. These drab sandbag, concrete and metal fortresses received colorful, floral names like Basil, Turmeric, Pumpkin, Cypress. Perhaps the most famous of these outposts retained the name of the original Crusader fortress next to which it was built: Beaufort.
Their mission was written in clear signage on each of them: “Defend the communities of the north.”
In filming the series, Friedman was able to get an answer to a question he’d long been thinking about: Who wrote that slogan, that exceedingly superficial description?
“It was Yossi Peled,” he said. Peled was the head of the IDF Northern Command from 1986 to 1991; he is interviewed in the documentary.
Troops indeed sought out teams of Hezbollah fighters who periodically launched Katyusha rockets at Kiryat Shmona and other towns of northern Israel.
But the outposts themselves were constant targets for Hezbollah attacks — mortar fire, roadside bombs and later anti-tank guided missile strikes. And much of what the soldiers ended up doing, cyclically, was to conduct raids to find and fight the fighters who attacked them.
The generals interviewed for the series lament that their “hands were tied,” that if they’d been given more leeway by the political leadership to launch larger and bolder assaults on Hezbollah operations, things could have turned out differently.
But over time, public opinion turned against Israel’s ongoing occupation of southern Lebanon, especially following the tragic crash of two transport helicopters headed for Lebanon, killing the 73 soldiers on board. The killing of IDF Brig. Gen. Erez Gerstein in 1999 by Hezbollah was the final nail in the coffin. Barak, who ran on a campaign of leaving Lebanon, was elected prime minister that same year, making the withdrawal only a matter of time.
During this period, in the final months of the IDF’s presence in southern Lebanon, the mission of the soldiers there was effectively nothing more than to not get killed.
On the night of May 24, 2000, the IDF pulled the last of its troops from Lebanon, using tons of explosives to destroy the 16 outposts it had built there 14 years earlier, in order to leave behind nothing useful for Hezbollah.
People died who shouldn’t have
Though hotly debated at the time, this period is now overwhelmingly seen — including by many of its architects — as having been a disaster and a mistake, which should have ended well before the 2000 withdrawal.
“It was a decision that should have been made much earlier,” Brig. Gen. (res.) Moshe “Chico” Tamir, who served in a variety of key roles in Lebanon and literally wrote the book on the IDF’s operations during this period, said of the withdrawal in the series’s third episode.
This was echoed by comments from interviews with Shaul Mofaz, who served as chief of staff during the withdrawal; Amiram Levin, who served as head of the Northern Command during the occupation; and Moshe Kaplinski, who commanded the Galilee Division, which is responsible for the Lebanese border, during the withdrawal.
“It was always the claim: this is the least bad [option],” Levin told the interviewers.
These four former IDF generals were among the staunchest supporters of Israel’s presence in Lebanon at the time, but speaking about it in retrospect, all of them indicated that — at the very least — it went on for far longer than it should have.
“We were very surprised to get those answers. It was incredibly brave of them to say it,” Friedman said.
“It means that there were people who died and shouldn’t have,” he added.
Friedman’s “Pumpkinflowers” is far less damning than the documentary series, which leaves the viewer with little doubt that Israel’s Lebanon policies were, at the very least, misguided.
“I didn’t have such a clear verdict going into the project. My book is more agnostic,” Friedman said.
Friedman said that he and Rosner tried to find officials from that period to argue in favor of the country’s strategy, to argue that it was “right at the time,” but came up short.
“It was hard to find someone who would defend it,” he said.
Friedman, after years of contemplating Lebanon, credits this failed policy to groupthink, to politicians refusing to take responsibility for the country’s national security and instead ceding the decision-making to the military, to a deadly version of the sunk cost fallacy in which “to justify the guys you lost, you send in more guys.”
“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,” he said.
“But I blame the army less than the political side. The political side is supposed to lead and decide where this country is headed,” Friedman said.
Friedman, who writes now for the New York Times and previously worked for the Associated Press, stressed that this was not a partisan, left-right issue, but one that began under the right-wing Begin, was continued by the left-wing Yitzhak Rabin and right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu, and was eventually ended by the left-wing Ehud Barak.
A post-Lebanon country
Though Friedman believes many lessons of Lebanon have yet to be learned, the period has had an undeniable, outsized influence on Israeli national security and society.
“The country now is a post-Lebanon country,” he said.
This experience knocked a once-hubristic Israel down a peg, having attempted to reshape the Middle East and failed miserably.
“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.
“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.”
With its failed Lebanese adventurism, Israel learned that getting deeply, publicly enmeshed in another country’s affairs carries major risks.
We came out of Lebanon a much smaller country. Maybe a smarter country, a more realistic country, but a smaller country too
When a civil war broke out in Syria in 2011 and an opportunity presented itself to again reshape a neighboring country into something friendlier, Israel consciously refrained, repeating over and over again that it would not get involved in Syria’s domestic affairs.
When Israel had a chance to team up with Syrian rebel militias in the Golan Heights, it was careful not to repeat the mistakes it had made with the South Lebanon Army. Many of the alumni of the SLA currently live in Israel with their families — roughly 2,700 in all — because they face the threat of violence and death back home, both due to their cooperation with Israel and, no less importantly, for the SLA’s brutal tactics, particularly in its notorious al-Khiam prison.
Though Israel provided a degree of support to the Syrian rebels, the relationship was deliberately never at a level similar to that between the IDF and SLA. When southern Syria fell to dictator Bashar Assad, there was no serious discussion in Israel of allowing Syrian rebels to settle in Israel. And the reason was clear: They may have received some support from Israel, but they were never “our guys” in the way the SLA was.
On a cultural level, the development of the Four Mothers Movement — started by four mothers whose sons were killed in Lebanon — also marked the moment when IDF troops started being considered “our boys,” rather than men, Friedman asserted.
“There’s an idea now that soldiers are children who need to be protected from the army,” he said.
According to Friedman, this view could be seen in the protests that pressed the government to negotiate the release of Gilad Shalit, an IDF soldier who was held captive by the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip, as well as in the controversy surrounding the trial of Elor Azaria, a soldier who was convicted of manslaughter for shooting dead an incapacitated injured terrorist who’d minutes before stabbed one of his comrades.
“You hear this discourse in Israel that soldiers are everyone’s children,” he said. “This comes from the Four Mothers Movement. They were the first to really drill that into the country’s brain,” he said.
Giving it a name
The 20th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon has breathed new life into the topic, with newspaper articles, TV reports and the creation of a dedicated Facebook group, “Stories from Lebanon — What Happened in the Outposts,” where some tens of thousands of veterans of this period have been sharing photos and memories, arguing and telling jokes.
Last month, then-defense minister Naftali Bennett, who himself served in southern Lebanon in the 1990s, said he’d instructed the military to consider creating a special pin for soldiers who served in Lebanon during this period.
The Action Committee for the Recognition of the War in the Security Zone, led by Haim Har-Zahav, who tallied the number of people killed in Lebanon, has also sent a letter to Israel’s new defense minister, Benny Gantz, who served in Lebanon as well, urging him to recognize and name this period. His office has not yet responded.
Friedman, despite his disappointment in Israel not giving the military’s 18-year presence in the south Lebanon Security Zone a proper name, also isn’t quite sure what to call it.
When asked, he recommended that this reporter look through the “Stories from Lebanon” group.
One thread in the group, with dozens of responses, is indeed a search for a name.
Some are jokes, like “The First-and-a-Half Lebanon War,” or historical callbacks, like the “The Second War of Attrition.”
A few have actual potential: “The Security Zone War” and “The 18-Year War.”
But whatever it’s called, for the thousands of people who served in Lebanon and for the hundreds of families of soldiers who never returned and for the country in general, the repercussions and reverberations of this unrecognized war will always be there.