The collapse started when a civilian parade of Hezbollah supporters embarked on a march towards the Taibe outpost belonging to a South Lebanon Army (SLA) regiment. The regiment, most of whose members were Shiite residents of the area, held several outposts in the Ramin mountain range. The parade participants approaching the outpost held up yellow Hezbollah flags and were not deterred by tank shells fired to warn them. They were also undeterred by gunship fire.
IDF Chief of Staff Mofaz and Major-General Ashkenazi, who were in the central war room at the time, decided not to shoot-to-kill, because the marchers were unarmed. It was also clear that SLA fighters in the outpost will not fire at their fellow villagers, and there were fears that these soldiers will be taken captive by Hezbollah once the parade enters the outpost. And so, Mofaz, and Ashkenazi ordered the SLA forces to evacuate the outpost.
We know what happened next: The other SLA outposts collapsed one after another and their people fled. The IDF and government faced a difficult choice between two options: Bringing in reserve forces that will retake the outposts and hold them until the government decides on withdrawal and until SLA members are evacuated to our territory in an orderly manner - a move that would have prevented the appearance of a rushed withdrawal, but could have claimed the lives of many IDF troops; or alternately, prepare for an early and quick IDF evacuation of the security zone, in line with the plan and without casualties.
The IDF Northern Command was already prepared for implementing the withdrawal, including the demolition of IDF outposts. The Barak government therefore chose the second option.
The withdrawal was carried out in a very orderly manner, without any casualties among our troops. Hezbollah fired a little but it seemed surprised. Its men apparently realized what was going on only after they saw the huge smoke billowing from the blown up Beaufort.
However, the SLA was left behind, apparently on purpose – so that the intention to withdraw would not be leaked to Hezbollah and so that Nasrallah’s men will not boost their efforts to attack our retreating forces. General Lahad was indeed privy to the secret, yet most of his men and their families only knew in retrospect that the IDF left Lebanon overnight. They saw it on television and heard about it through rumors, and this prompted the frightened mass escape of women and children, photographed helplessly converging at the Fatima Gate.
At the same time, Hezbollah entered the SLA outposts and had a field day with the equipment and tanks it found. These scenes were the ones entrenched in the world’s collective memory, and also in our own collective memory, reinforcing the notion that the withdrawal from the security zone marked a victory for Nasrallah and his men. The perfect and rapid IDF execution of the withdrawal and the quick redeployment in a new strategic line were only noted by those in the know and by military experts.
It could have been different
Things could have been different had Barak and his ministers listened to those who recommended that the withdrawal be brought forward once SLA’s moral collapse started to emerge. It may have been possible to carry out the withdrawal quickly and over one night in March or April 2000, with the IDF and SLA operating together, under the cover of heavy fire directed at Hezbollah facilities and launch sites.
Hezbollah would have likely responded by firing rockets at the Galilee, yet the IDF’s heavy bombardment would have created a deterrent effect, as indeed happened six years later in the Second Lebanon War. However, it wasn’t done. And so, we were left with the media-covered disgrace, which we paid a high price for.
The second Intifada broke out five months later, to a large extent because of the encouragement which Arafat and Hamas drew from the events surrounding the Lebanon withdrawal. Nine days later, Hezbollah ambushed and killed IDF soldiers, abducting three of them at Mount Dov. This is when the second error was made, and it was worse than the first one.
Instead of responding “deep into Lebanon,” as Barak promised after the withdrawal should Hezbollah continue to attack Israel, we made do with a localized lukewarm response. Barak explains it by his wish to avoid intensive warfare on two fronts. He did not wish to open a Lebanese front while the IDF and Israel Police were trying to contain the Palestinian Intifada that just broke out, as well as the violent clashes vis-à-vis Arab Israelis in the Wadi Ara area.
The international backing that Israel could have used - because of the Lebanon withdrawal - for a harsh response against Hezbollah was wasted instead of being utilized. These facts, and the restraint shown by the Sharon government that followed Barak for years later, apparently reinforced the insight that Israel is a piper tiger among Nasrallah and his men, and marked the final death throes of our deterrence. Six years later, this prompted Hezbollah to embark on another abduction operation, which caused the Second Lebanon War.
As we know, the story isn’t over yet. Although the IDF left Lebanese territory almost to the last inch, the danger posed to us by Lebanon today is graver than what we faced in May 2000 and in July 2006. The reason for it is not the Shabaa Farms and the village of Raghar, which Israel holds on to, but rather, the way Iran and Syria make use of Hezbollah, while exploiting Lebanon’s territory and its government’s political weakness for their own strategic needs.
At this time, Hezbollah serves as Iran’s long strategic arm, aimed at deterring Israel from attacking Tehran’s nuclear program by threatening the Jewish State’s military and civilian home front. For the Syrians, Hezbollah constitutes an important component in its war plan, and therefore Damascus arms it with whatever it possesses. In Syrian eyes, the group’s aim is to pulverize the Israeli home front, while splitting the IDF’s offensive effort between Lebanon and Syria, thereby also preventing an outflanking operation on the west that would target Syria’s defensive posture in the Golan.
For that reason, a solution to the Lebanese problem cannot be found in Baalbek, in Beirut, or in Hezbollah’s fear of other ethnic groups in Lebanon. The root of the Lebanese problem is in Damascus and Tehran, and this is where Israel should be seeking a solution, with American help. If possible, this should be done via the combination of military deterrence and effective international pressure. Yet should this fail, the other option is a well-planned military campaign, which will be launched before the rockets start to explode in our territory.