Israelis Watch Afghanistan and Remember Lebanon

Israel’s 20-year war with its neighbor to the north ended in ignominy and Hezbollah’s rise. Former defense and intelligence officials see a grim replay in America’s withdrawal from its 20-year war

Israelis Watch Afghanistan and Remember Lebanon
Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz takes part in a ceremony in the northern town of Metula by the Lebanon border, on July 4, 2021, to inaugurate a monument commemorating members of the “South Lebanon Army”, a proxy militia of Israel during its 1982-2000 military involvement in Lebanon, who died in fighting / Jalaa Marey / AGP via Getty Images

Senior Israeli military officers have looked on at the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the speedy collapse of the Afghan government and army with a glimmer of recognition.

Those now leading the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) came of age as young soldiers and junior officers during Israel’s own ill-fated foreign expedition in southern Lebanon during the 1980s and 1990s: A bloody, inconclusive guerrilla war — “Israel’s Vietnam” it came to be known — that culminated in an equally shambolic withdrawal in May 2000, after two decades of fighting.

While Israel isn’t the U.S., and Lebanon isn’t Afghanistan, the common themes that run through both sets of wars are jarring, especially in the way a Western democracy tries to end a military campaign and how it manages (or not) the fate of local allies who fought alongside it.

“Israel left Lebanon with its tail between its legs,” Brig. Gen. Eli Amitai, one of the last Israeli commanders in southern Lebanon, told me. “This wasn’t a withdrawal — it was a house of cards, like dominoes falling.”

Israel’s misadventure in Lebanon began, as many recent wars have, with the objective to counter terrorism.

By the mid-1970s, Palestinian militant groups led by Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had relocated to southern Lebanon, using the area as a springboard for artillery fire and cross-border attacks on northern Israel. At the same time, the Lebanese Civil War broke out, fracturing the country along sectarian lines with each grouping raising its own armed militia.

The Christians of Lebanon’s south were pitted against the new and unwelcome Palestinian interlopers — and looking for allies. Beginning in 1976, Israel came to the rescue.

The IDF started small, first sending in World War II-era British rifles, ammunition and basic food supplies to local Christian villages. It then established medical clinics and training camps near the Israel-Lebanon border and began delivery of newer and heavier weapons (modern rifles, mortars, artillery, Sherman tanks).

Then came the economic and civil aid under the rubric of what was called the “Good Fence” policy: roads, schools, water and electricity infrastructure, agricultural assistance, and medical care and work permits for Lebanese inside Israel. With southern Lebanon cut off from the north because of the civil war, the IDF at a certain point mediated the sale of south Lebanon’s entire tobacco harvest to the Israeli cigarette monopoly.

“They needed us, and we needed them. South Lebanon was the battleground against terror groups,” Col. Reuven Erlich, an Israeli intelligence officer and one of the architects of this policy, explained to me.

The local Lebanese Christians were quickly joined by Shiite and Druze neighbors who also wanted Israeli aid and protection, buttressing a line of village militias all tied to the IDF. As stated in an Israeli intelligence analysis in the late 1970s: “Local forces need our heavy covering fire, and … we must not leave them to their own fates. Without us they won’t be able to exist.”

This budding south Lebanon-Israel alliance system only partially succeeded in keeping the PLO at bay. Artillery fire and cross-border attacks into Israel remained a worrying fixture. Losing patience, the hard-line Likud government invaded Lebanon en masse in June 1982.

The stated aim of the Israeli offensive was to, once and for all, smash the PLO, forcing it out of southern Lebanon and restoring “peace to the Galilee” (as the operation was officially called). In reality, then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon had a grander vision of driving his forces all the way to Beirut and foisting a peace deal on a friendly (Maronite Christian) Lebanese government.

It was one of the first modern instances in the Middle East of, if not nation building, then “nation engineering” — with predictably catastrophic results. A faux peace deal between Israel and Lebanon lasted less than a year, and the IDF redeployed back south in ignominy after the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps.

In southern Lebanon, however, the situation was evolving.

Under the tutelage of Meir Dagan (later head of Mossad), Israel formalized its military and economic ties with the local population. A more structured and professional organization, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), was born: a 2,500-person fighting force led by Christian officers but consisting also of local Shiites, Druze and Sunnis. By the end of 1985, the SLA, in combination with the IDF, governed a swath of southern Lebanon called the “Security Zone,” ranging from 4 to 19 kilometers (2 to 12 miles) north of the Israeli border and consisting of some 150,000 Lebanese citizens.

“The IDF presence in the Security Zone wasn’t limited in time. The assumption was that the presence would continue until a diplomatic agreement was reached, or conversely, until the SLA could maintain itself by itself, with limited IDF support, and without a permanent IDF presence in the Security Zone,” Erlich would later write.

Neither one of these eventualities would come to pass. Mission creep had far overtaken the 1982 war’s ostensible counterterror objective: The PLO was out of Lebanon, while Israel now found itself firmly in.

In the PLO’s stead, a new and more lethal foe was rising: Hezbollah.

The Shiite militant group Hezbollah had many advantages that the Palestinians lacked. It was, for one, an authentically Lebanese force. After the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990, it also had the strong backing of the pro-Syrian government in Beirut, along with the close military support of Iran. The group quickly went to work launching an insurgency in southern Lebanon in a bid to collapse the Security Zone and evict the IDF.

The IDF and its SLA allies, for their part, initially held strong. The SLA was spread out across some three dozen outposts and positions in southern Lebanon, providing static defense and control of the territory. The IDF — whose force numbers never surpassed a modest 1,000 soldiers active inside Lebanon — also held 10 outposts but focused more on mobile guerrilla warfare and heavy firepower support (along with the usual training and equipping of the SLA).

In addition, the “hearts and minds” campaign of earlier years was continued in full force. Development aid flowed into southern Lebanon, while Lebanese laborers — with preference for SLA relatives — traveled into Israel daily to take up jobs in factories, hotels and hospitals. By one estimate, an SLA soldier and his family could be taking home three times the official salary of the Lebanese president.

In what seems like science fiction now, given the state of Israel-Lebanon relations, Lebanese school kids attended summer camps in southern Israel, while Lebanese traders and tourists drove into Israel regularly.

All of this, however, didn’t stop the guerrilla war that escalated throughout the 1990s. Like the PLO before it, Hezbollah began firing rockets into northern Israel, and IDF casualties inside the Security Zone were running at some two dozen a year. Increasingly, the impression inside Israel was that this was a campaign with no end and with no discernible objective.

Coming out of the domestic tumult caused by the 1982 war, inside Israel the “L-word” — Lebanon — had turned into a “rude word,” Erlich told me. “There was no willingness to get involved again in internal Lebanese affairs, and the public didn’t accept losses every year. The Security Zone began to be viewed as serving Syrian interests, bleeding Israel.”

Withdrawal started becoming popular.

An airborne crash in 1997 between two IDF helicopters ferrying troops into the Security Zone claimed the lives of 73 soldiers. A roadside ambush by Hezbollah in 1999 killed the senior IDF commander inside Lebanon, a brigadier general; the intelligence necessary to carry out the killing was almost certainly provided by agents who had infiltrated the SLA. A grassroots protest movement — the “Four Mothers” — began clamoring to bring the boys home.

Looking back at this period, Brig. Gen. Ephraim Sneh, himself a former IDF commander for Lebanon and future deputy defense minister, faulted the resolve of the Israeli public.

“We won the guerrilla war with Hezbollah. Every clash with them we won,” he told me, a refrain repeated by every military officer from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. “But Israeli society turned more egocentric, more individualistic. Israelis began looking at their own personal security, not national security.”

Regardless, the political tide was shifting. In 1999, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak won the election as Israeli prime minister. One of his core campaign promises: to extricate Israel from Lebanon within a year.

It’s one thing to proclaim the intention of ending a two-decade war; it’s quite another to find a way to actually do it.

Barak’s original plan was to tie a Lebanon withdrawal to an overall peace deal with Syria — that is, a diplomatic track. As part of an Israel-Syria deal, it was thought, Hezbollah would be disarmed, and Israel’s southern Lebanese allies would be allowed to stay in their homes under the sovereignty of the central Beirut government.

Yet by early 2000, peace talks between Israel and Syria had stalled. Hezbollah, for its part, used this period to increase its attacks on the IDF and SLA inside Lebanon. Barak directed the IDF to begin preparing for a withdrawal scenario with no agreement — that is, unilaterally. To the extent there was any strategic planning about the SLA’s fate, the idea — more a hope really — was that the SLA wouldn’t disarm, but likely revert back to its old village militia structure.

As one SLA battalion commander, Lt. Col. Elias Noura, told me in retrospect: “Throughout the 1990s, the chance of IDF withdrawal hovered. But the idea was to move our area in, hold the line and wait for the French and U.N. — to sit in the middle between Israel and Lebanon, and not let anyone enter our area.”

Throughout the first half of 2000, the SLA held together. Barak himself made a visit to the Security Zone in February to meet with SLA commanders, calming nerves and stiffening spines. But Israeli intelligence during this period warned about the “fragile” state of affairs permeating its northern ally. Behind the scenes, Barak set a deadline of July 2000 for withdrawal, with or without a deal — a date set, per Israeli military recollections, not by conditions on the ground but by Barak’s original campaign promise to be out by the end of his first year in office.

By April, the SLA’s legendary commander, Gen. Antoine Lahad, gave a speech vowing never to leave Lebanon. “We won’t be refugees in Israel,” he said. “We will keep fighting and prefer suicide like in Masada,” a reference to the last stand by Jewish rebels against the Roman Empire two millennia ago.

In the ensuing weeks, the IDF began thinning the number of its forces inside the Security Zone and handing off outposts to the SLA. Hezbollah upped its attacks on the SLA while also promising amnesty to any soldier who defected. Israeli planning for the potential absorption of SLA fighters inside the Jewish state was slow and piecemeal.

And then it happened: On May 20, members of the SLA’s Shiite battalion in the Security Zone’s western sector left their post, took off their uniforms and returned to their villages. The next day another SLA outpost was abandoned without a fight, and so it went into the following day, too, as SLA units began disbanding one after the other.

Barak was left with no choice: He ordered the IDF to move up the withdrawal, starting immediately. The last of the IDF positions was blown up, and soldiers evacuated May 23-24.

Closing the gate behind him, the last Israeli soldier to leave Lebanon was the IDF’s commander for the Security Zone, Benny Gantz, the current defense minister. A 20-year project was undone in four days.

As chaotic as the exit was for Israel, it was much worse — so much worse — for its southern Lebanese allies.

As chaotic as the exit was for Israel, it was much worse — so much worse — for its southern Lebanese allies. SLA fighters and their families made a mad dash for the Israeli border with Hezbollah fast on their heels. Scenes of pandemonium and heartbreak broke out at various crossings as masses of southern Lebanese of all ages clamored to be let in.

“There was lots of confusion, chaos, families separated,” Noura sorrowfully remembered. “In less than 24 hours we left everything. I didn’t make it home. I called my wife and told her, ‘You have 10 minutes [to leave].’ My family only had the clothes on their backs.”

Some weren’t as fortunate, held up at Hezbollah checkpoints that began to sprout up on roads the SLA had controlled just days earlier. But there was no shooting, Noura recalled. “Only Hezbollahis on the side of the road, laughing at us.”

Nearly 10,000 SLA fighters and their families evacuated to Israel. Some later chose to immigrate to the West or return to Lebanon and take their chances. Because of a lack of foresight and planning, their arrival into Israel was as chaotic as their exit from Lebanon — a situation that persisted years later.

Some financial support and jobs were provided to senior SLA officers, but the lower echelons received little. Adding insult to their injury, the Lebanese refugees were issued the same green ID cards given to Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories. “Israel didn’t fulfill its promises. … We got some things from the state, but the money declined gradually. They have no shame, only talk,” Noura told me years after his forced exile, from his new home in the northern Israeli city of Nahariya. “Everything was lost in an instant.”

The sentiment is echoed by every Israeli officer and official who dealt with the SLA: It was a betrayal, made worse by their shoddy treatment afterwards.

“Today, my former officers are the ones helping the SLA. Not the government! There’s no moral imperative and accountability to these people,” Sneh told me. Amitai, the former IDF commander in Lebanon, told me much the same: “I’m ashamed. I can’t look the SLA in the eyes.”

Only in the past several months, over 20 years after the withdrawal, has the Israeli government begun to try to mend the damage. In March, the Israeli government finally recognized the Security Zone as a military campaign and issued medals to both Israeli soldiers and SLA fighters. Last month a new memorial was unveiled near the Israel-Lebanon border honoring the SLA fighters who fell.

As IDF chief of staff Aviv Kochavi said at the ceremony: “Lebanese and Israeli soldiers were deployed side by side, reported to each other and covered each other. I stand here not only as chief of staff, but as someone who served in Lebanon with you. In all your roles, I saw your dedication, sacrifice and heroism.”

Yet few in Israel regret the decision to end the country’s Lebanon quagmire — only the manner in which it was implemented.

“Barak’s decision was the right one, but withdrawal could’ve been done better, in particular regarding the SLA,” Erlich told me, echoing much of the current commentary regarding the U.S. war in Afghanistan. “Israel doesn’t know how to repay those who helped us.”

The question remains, however, whether a dramatically “better” way could have been found. The real lesson of Israel’s experience in Lebanon is likely that the decision itself to withdraw unleashes its own dynamics: Preparations to withdraw, like the IDF did, almost inevitably lead to the collapse of your local partners, which in turn forces an early withdrawal, compounding the collapse and leading to a humanitarian crisis.

Israel’s hasty withdrawal (“with its tail between its legs”) from Lebanon emboldened Hezbollah and decreased Israeli deterrence vis-à-vis its enemies, leading directly to the Second Lebanon War of 2006. “A corrective war,” Israeli strategists call it, that has contributed to 15 years of relative quiet between Israel and Hezbollah.

Watching events unfold in Kabul over the past two weeks, Israeli officials are less concerned about what it says about the U.S. commitment to Israel and other close allies. “I’m not sure it’ll have a major impact on us directly and on how the U.S. does things here,” one senior Israeli government official told me when queried regarding Afghanistan. Yet there is concern in some Israeli quarters that a similar dynamic will play out among America’s enemies as happened after the Lebanon withdrawal.

“Everyone is looking at these pictures,” a senior IDF official told me. “Iran and Hezbollah, too.”

As Israel found out the hard way, even after you rightfully end a war, the war never really ends.

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