Why Israel’s retreat from Lebanon marked the birth of today’s Middle East

Why Israel’s retreat from Lebanon marked the birth of today’s Middle East

The May 2000 withdrawal seemed to be part of a larger land-for-peace trend; instead it raised the curtain on the wars of the 21st century

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Hezbollah fighters celebrating on the day the IDF left South Lebanon, May 24, 2000. (AP: Enric Marti)
Hezbollah fighters celebrating on the day the IDF left South Lebanon, May 24, 2000. (AP: Enric Marti)

Standing before the microphone, looking like he was delivering a eulogy, Shaul Mofaz, the commander of the Israeli army on May 24, 2000, told the citizens of Israel that after 15 years in the Security Zone in South Lebanon, the IDF had withdrawn. He called the move “historic.” He said the “boys had been brought back home.” There was no mention of victory.

After the invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, Israel had departed in January 1985 from most of the country, leaving some 10 percent of Lebanon in the hands of the Israel Defense Forces. It was called the Security Zone. The thinking was that the territory would serve as a buffer against the sort of terror attacks that plagued the civilians of the Galilee in the 80s.

Instead, it birthed a different sort of conflict. Israeli troops, deployed along a string of forts, battled Hezbollah guerrillas night after night in the hill country of South Lebanon.

The 15-year-long war of attrition still has no name. There is no national monument, nor a ribbon given to soldiers who served there. In many ways, it has been forgotten amid the two wars Israel has fought in Lebanon.

But its significance for the Middle East today is considerable.

Israeli troops open the gates on the northern border for a tank during the IDF's 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon. (Photo by Flash90)
Israeli troops open the gates on the northern border for a tank during the IDF’s 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon. (Flash90)

Looking back 15 years in time, at the climax of the war, a comet’s tail of question marks remain: Was the withdrawal a failure? Was it long overdue? Did it merely whet the appetite of jihadist groups, cementing in their minds the notion that violence, and only violence, pushes Israel from territory?

Or was it a sensible, feminist victory, led by a group of women known as the Four Mothers, finally staunching the drip of blood from a campaign that no longer provided the residents of the Galilee with an appropriate form of security?

The short answer, of course, is that it was both. But the details are important in that the Security Zone war, for want of a better name, has, more than many other campaigns, shaped Israel’s thinking about the Middle East of today.

An illustrative photo of the Israeli border fence with Lebanon near Metula (Ayal Margolin/ Flash 90)
The Israeli border fence with Lebanon, near Metulla (Ayal Margolin/Flash 90)

Matti Friedman, a prize-winning author who served in South Lebanon and has recently completed a forthcoming book about the forgotten war there, was picking roses at a farm in the Galilee on the morning of the withdrawal, not long after his discharge. The withdrawal had come early and had surprised him. “Just like that, this entire world, this entire universe for guys my age, vanished,” he said. [Full disclosure: Friedman is a close friend.]

He said that at the time there seemed to be a problem — that the war was killing more Israelis than it was saving, roughly two dozen soldiers per year on average — and it seemed that the problem could be solved by retreating. “People had the idea that we could withdraw our way out of our predicament,” Friedman said.

Defence minister Ehud Barak inspects a tank during a visit to the IDFs Northern Command, January 12, 2010. Photo by Michal Shalev/Ministry of Defence/FLASH90)
Then-defense minister Ehud Barak inspects a tank during a visit to the IDF Northern Command, January 12, 2010. (Michal Shalev/Ministry of Defense/Flash90)

Prime minister Ehud Barak, on the afternoon of the withdrawal, described the defense concept of occupying a security zone in South Lebanon as “having run its course.” The forts were stationary, the soldiers’ behavior predictable, the roads perilous.

Friedman agreed, and believes the withdrawal was justified. But he said that the solution of withdrawal “not only failed to placate Hezbollah, but was interpreted as weakness and emboldened it and all of its allies.” He called the retreat from Lebanon a “tipping point” for jihadist group across the Middle East.

Brig. Gen. (res) Yossi Kuperwasser, today a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, saw the effects in real time. He was, in May 2000, the chief intelligence officer of the IDF Central Command. Hezbollah’s ability to oust Israel from Lebanon, he said, was “wind in the sails” of the Palestinian militant groups in the West Bank, which, four months later, launched the bloody Second Intifada.

Palestinians, he said, would tell him often that two dozen dead soldiers a year for several years in a row was an attainable goal for the Palestinian groups if it proved sufficient to pry Israel off certain parcels of land. He said he would always tell his Palestinian peers that there was a big difference between the West Bank — the land of the Bible and a strip of land in which Israel had built civilian settlements — and Lebanon, which was neither settled nor part of the Promised Land. “But they would say to me: 25 soldiers a year? We are easily capable of that.”

The 1,000-square-kilometer buffer zone, along the length of South Lebanon and no more than 20 kilometers deep, was, Friedman said, “the laboratory for 21st-century warfare.”

Lebanese supporters of Hezbollah in the southern town of Nabatiyeh on May 24, 2015, watch a televised address by Hassan Nasrallah, the movement's leader. A sign reads in Arabic and Hebrew: "Invasion of the Galilee - the promise will not be broken." (Mahmoud Zayat/AFP)
Lebanese supporters of Hezbollah in the southern town of Nabatieh on May 24, 2015, watch a televised address by Hassan Nasrallah, the movement’s leader. A sign in Arabic and Hebrew reads: ‘Invasion of the Galilee — the promise will not be broken.’ (AFP/Mahmoud Zayat)

In his book, “Pumpkinflowers: A War Story,” to be published in 2016, Friedman makes the case that many aspects of modern warfare — roadside bombs, hit-and-run strikes, the filming and broadcasting of them — were born there. A Hezbollah squad attacking the outpost of Dla’at, which he focused on, was hardly news; a video of that [1994] attack, including the hoisting of a Hezbollah flag on the Israeli-held hill, was sensational and carried across the world.

Today Hezbollah is considered by many to be the strongest non-state actor in the world. It has upward of 100,000 rockets in its possession and a veto vote in Lebanon’s national government. Would it have reached this position without an Israeli withdrawal? Would the Second Lebanon War have been necessary?

Matti Friedman (photo credit: Courtesy)
Matti Friedman (Courtesy)

Friedman said it is impossible to tell. The 15 years since the withdrawal have taught only that nothing can be predicted in the Middle East. At the time, he said, withdrawal from the Golan Heights seemed like a good idea. The same for East Jerusalem. “Any observer who has not been humbled by the events in the region has not been paying attention,” he stated.

Two years after the withdrawal, Friedman shed his Israeli clothes and passport and traveled to Lebanon. He thought he might go to Beirut and from there to the battle grounds of South Lebanon and find that he had come full circle. Perhaps, he thought, he’d find people who, like him, were interested in reconciliation — “to find a sort of [WWI] Christmas truce.”

Instead, “What I saw from there — what I thought might mark an end — was only just a beginning.”

He had thought that the war against Hezbollah was just a marginal event amid the larger tide of land-for-peace deals. “It turns out it was the opposite,” he said. “What we saw in Lebanon in the 1990s was the Middle East of today being born.”

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