Part 1 of article
To this day, I cringe with shame when I recall that night in May 2000. I cannot forget the Armored Corps soldier screaming into his cell phone: “Mom, I’m out.” I can’t forget the regional commander locking up the Good Fence gate behind him with a frozen expression; I can’t forget Four Mothers group members celebrating their political victory in a press conference (an odd one, to say the least) with the army chief and Northern Command head.
In the face of these images, I also cannot forget Nasrallah, who during the same hours likely polished his famous “spider-web” speech. He already knew that the withdrawal from the security zone was merely the beginning of a new chapter, rather than an end to the bloodshed.
The irritating thing is that the withdrawal from the southern Lebanon security zone was the proper act in and of itself. Barak, who as an IDF general back in 1985 objected to the army’s presence in the zone, realized as a politician how right he was: Eighteen years after entering Lebanon, it became clear that our presence there does more damage than good. This mountainous area did not provide northern residents with protection from rockets, and also enabled Hezbollah to gain experience, self-confidence, and expertise in guerilla warfare and the utilization of explosive devices and anti-tank missiles.
What’s worse, with the aid of Syria and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah members got to know us. They learned not only the IDF’s modus operandi and vulnerabilities, but also Israeli society’s sensitivity to casualties, as well as the benefits inherent in the endemic dispute between Israel’s leftist and rightist camps. For that reason, in 1999 Barak pledged to pull the IDF out of Lebanon should he be elected, and if possible, in the framework of a deal with Syria.
After being elected, Barak decided to realize his election promise even without a deal with Syria. This was done despite the justified concern that an IDF withdrawal would be perceived by Hezbollah and its patrons as a victory that will completely erode the IDF’s and Israel’s deterrent power. It was also clear that a pullout may encourage the Palestinians to launch their own terror offensive (as indeed happened.)
In order to resolve this problem, former Northern Command Chief Amiram Levin proposed a powerful and destructive blow against Hezbollah’s Lebanon strongholds before a the withdrawal. His proposal was rejected for fear that such blow would deprive Israel of the international legitimacy and support sought by Barak, as well as of the quiet he hoped would prevail in the wake of the pullout. In order to secure this legitimacy, Israel marked the borderline with Lebanon along with the United Nations.
‘They won’t wait for us’
The timing of the withdrawal was set for July 2000, prompting the Northern Command, under General Gabi Ashkenazi, to thoroughly prepare IDF troops for the pullout and our defensive posture the day after. The outposts, including the Beaufort, were emptied out and prepared for demolition. Up to that point, things were being managed in a logical and reasonable manner. Had everything been executed as planned, the IDF and South Lebanon Army (SLA) would have left the area on a summer night in an orderly and well-organized military operation, without leaving behind equipment and heart-breaking sights of civilians running for their lives, as is the case in a rushed withdrawal.
Such orderly withdrawal, similar to the Gaza Disengagement, would have been perceived in the world, and also among Arabs, more as the realization of a strategic Israeli decision and less as a Hezbollah victory. However, domestic Lebanese dynamics came into play and proved once again the extent to which it can thwart any military strategic planning.
Just like in the First Lebanon War and other military campaigns, we failed to properly assess the weakness of our Lebanese allies and Hezbollah’s ability to utilize the Shiite majority in south Lebanon to neutralize our military moves. Israel’s declared intention to leave Lebanon aroused great and justified concerned among SLA members. They knew well that should the IDF withdraw, leaving them and their families in the villages, Hezbollah would proceed to take its revenge on them with merciless brutality.
Israeli officials knew it as well, and for that reason established an Administration months before the pullout that secretly prepared a plan for the evacuation and relocation of SLA members. However, SLA troops, whose fears grew with every passing week, were only given vague promises and hints. For example, they were told that there was no final decision on the withdrawal and that there’s still a chance to secure a deal with the Syrians that would allow SLA members to remain in their villages.
Israel’s conduct was premised on concerns that should SLA forces know that the upcoming withdrawal is a done deal, they may defect and cooperate with Hezbollah in order to save their own skin, or alternately, demand to move to Israel at once. This is also the reason why the IDF did not remove equipment from SLA outposts and did not prepare them for withdrawal.
However, SLA soldiers saw the equipment removed by the IDF from its own outposts and realized what was going on. I recall a meeting between then-Northern Command Chief Ashkenazi and senior SLA commanders in April 2000. The Lebanese officers, who wore IDF uniforms, grimly described what Hezbollah may do to them and their families and demand to know what Israel plans for them. Ashkenazi expressed his sympathy and promised that Israel will not abandon them if and when it decided to withdraw. However, he did not provide any details.
The faces of SLA officers at the meeting grew grimmer. They did not touch the coffee and snacks on the table before them. The meeting ended in a dismal atmosphere. On the way to the helicopter I heard Ashkenazi telling one of his officers: They won’t wait for us. They will run away from their outposts even before we decide when to withdraw.
Indeed, this is what happened a month later.
Part 2 of analysis to be published Tuesday evening