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Spring 2020

Israel's Potemkin War

An interview with Haim Har-Zahav, author of 'Lebanon: The Lost War.'

In Lebanon: The Lost War, author Haim Har-Zahav provides a two-page list of the names and ages of the 179 Israeli soldiers, most of them conscripts not yet 22-years-old, who died in Lebanon between May 1996 and May 2000, when Israel unilaterally evacuated the “security strip” in the south of the country.

He had to cull the names from different sources, because there is no centralized listing. These soldiers died, Har-Zahav writes, in a war that officially never happened, that the Israeli public, and even the soldiers who fought in that war, have preferred not to memorialize or even remember.

Har-Zahav fought in that war-with-no-name as a young conscript. Now 42, a journalist and an editor, he has written this book, he says, not only because the war was never named, “but also because it was completely unnecessary, the result of little more than military and political inertia.”

“The 179 soldiers who died, and the thousands that were wounded, deserve to be remembered, honored, and commemorated,” he says forcefully, his eyes tearing. “But the real heroes of that war were the members of the ‘Four Mothers’ movement, the women on the home front who had the courage to unravel the Gordian knot in which Israel was caught.”

Very little has been written about those years (with the noteworthy exceptions of Pumpkinflowers by Matti Friedman and Beaufort by Ron Leshem). Well-researched and full of insightful details, Lebanon: The Lost War, written as an Israeli “J’Accuse” and a lesson in civil responsibility, is an original and important addition to the literature.

I met with Har-Zahav in a coffee shop in Jerusalem. His writing is terse, yet he speaks expansively and engagingly, articulate and full of fresh slang. He attracts attention naturally, his voice compelling, loud, and confident. But when he talks about the soldiers who died, he becomes quiet, and his eyes frequently tear up.

***

In the first chapters of the book, Har-Zahav provides a clear and concise summary of how Israel came to occupy the “security strip” and repeatedly missed opportunities to vacate it. Initially established in 1978 after Operation Litani, the strip was meant to serve as a buffer between Israel’s northern border and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which had established itself in Lebanon following its expulsion from Jordan after Black September in 1971. Subsequently, in 1982, Israel launched the First Lebanon War, which resulted in the expulsion of the PLO, primarily to Tunisia, and the takeover of southern Lebanon by Christian factions (who came to be known as the South Lebanese Army – SLA), and were allied with Israel.

This meant there was no longer any need for the buffer against the Palestinians, yet Israel remained, ostensibly to train and support the SLA in its war against the other Lebanese militias, especially the newly-established Hezbollah, and to continue to “protect” Israel’s northern border.

But while the SLA dithered, the IDF established additional outposts, including one nearly 20 kilometers from Israel’s border. And when a peace treaty put an end to Lebanon’s civil war, leaving the SLA with little purpose in the absence of sectarian fighting, Israel persisted. It continued to persist, even after the 1996 agreements with Hezbollah following Operation Grapes of Wrath, when the IDF committed not to engage with civilians and Hezbollah committed not to fire on Israeli settlements.

But Hezbollah made it very clear that it believed it had every right to attack IDF soldiers, whom they regarded as enemy forces on Lebanese soil. And so, from 1996 until 2000, the security strip, meant to protect Israel’s north from the PLO, became a battleground between Hezbollah and the IDF. And as the Hezbollah grew stronger and gained better equipment, that war cost more and more Israeli lives.

The war that went on from 1996 to 2000 was a stupid war, but not an evil one,” Har-Zahav tells me. “It was never about contractors making money and it was never based on any great lie like ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ It was based on stupidity, because the politicians, the military, and the public never questioned their basic premise that a military presence in Lebanon was the only way to defend the civilian population on Israel’s northern border.”

Most of the soldiers serving there didn’t question that basic premise, either. “The idea was so much a part of the public’s consciousness, that we, the conscripts and the higher commands, truly believed that our service in Lebanon was important, that we were defending Israeli citizens. Like other soldiers, I asked to serve in Lebanon because I wanted my military service to be meaningful and to serve a purpose.

“And unlike serving in the West Bank, we had no contact with civilians,” he continues. “We were dealing with Hezbollah – and let’s be honest, they really are bad guys.”

Much of Lebanon: The Lost War is dedicated to descriptions of the soldiers’ service during that four-year nameless war with the Hezbollah. Based on hundreds of interviews and extensive research, Har-Zahav tells the individual stories of dozens of soldiers, those who died and those who survived. His stories reveal the numbing routine in outposts and bunkers with incongruously evocative names such as Pumpkinflower, Basel, Carnation, Tulip, Poppy and Crocus. The night-long ambushes in the cold and the mud. The treks to the ambush site, the drives from outpost to outpost, the constant fear of attacks, mines, or snipers. The horror of the inevitable accidents, including instances of “friendly fire” and human error and equipment failure.

Over time, lacking any strategic goal, the IDF began to present enemy body counts to the Israeli public. “Body counts became our goal. But killing isn’t supposed to be a goal in itself, it’s supposed to serve a diplomatic objective,” Har-Zahav says.

But the Israeli body count grew, too. In response, the IDF confined the soldiers almost exclusively to their bunkers, forgoing almost all military activity.

“We were supposed to be defending the settlements on the northern border,” Har-Zahav writes. “Eventually, we wound up mostly defending ourselves, and we didn’t do that too well, either.”

A fatalistic mood took over. “No one wanted to die from a mine or anything like that,” he writes. “But lots of us wanted to be wounded, but without turning into cripples. We fantasized about lying in a clean bed, safe, surrounded by chocolate…There was a rumor going round that the prettiest female soldiers [to take care of the wounded] were in Haifa.”

And yet, Har-Zahav says, “we still never questioned what the hell we were doing there.”

Throughout the book, Har-Zahav provides sharp insights into the army as a social institution. But it is in his analysis of the relationships between the military and political establishments and civil society that Har-Zahav is at his sharpest.

In February 1997, two military transport helicopters carrying soldiers into Lebanon collided, killing 73 soldiers. In controlled but ghastly detail, Har-Zahav describes how soldiers were brought in to pick up the scattered body parts. The crash, which shocked the Israeli public and led to days of official mourning, was the impetus for the establishment of what became known as the “Four Mothers” movement, which called for a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon.

The women presented their non-military positions as an important perspective, as valuable – or even more valuable – than the perspective of the military and the government; their very name was a challenge to the military-macho discourse. Har-Zahav describes the ridicule and insults they endured from the politicians, the military establishment, the public, and even most of the soldiers themselves. Yet, through their determined persistence, they eventually broke through the public’s blind belief in their leaders.

“Basically, they asked, ‘why?” Har-Zahav says. “In all their demonstrations, interviews, and appeals to the public, they were basically asking the simple question that every citizen must ask its government. And when they asked, it became clear that the government had no answer.”

Even immediately after the helicopter accident, Har-Zahav writes, only 20 percent of the Israeli public was in favor of a unilateral pullout from Lebanon. But by November 1998, as the Four Mothers group grew stronger, more than 40 percent said that they were in favor of a unilateral withdrawal without any diplomatic arrangements.

Recognizing that the tide was turning, Labor’s Ehud Barak made the promise of a unilateral exit from Lebanon a central part of his successful 1999 campaign for prime minister. True to his word, in May 2000, he ordered the immediate pull-out of all Israeli forces.

After 18 years, the IDF pulled out of Lebanon in less than 24 hours. “The retreat wasn’t heroic,” Har-Zahav says. “And there weren’t any great victory parades or photo-ops, either – maybe because the decision was motivated by mothers and civilians, and not by army brass.”

One-hundred-and-seventy-nine deaths and four years after Israeli signed the agreements with Hezbollah, the army abandoned the Security Strip. “And nothing happened,” he writes. “The sky didn’t fall. Hezbollah didn’t attack the northern border and civilians slept safely in their beds. All that happened is that soldiers stopped dying. One day it was all over. Just like that.

“And then you had to ask yourself, ‘Why did it take so long? If we left today, maybe we could have left a month ago? Or a year ago? Or four years ago?’”

In one moment, he writes, “the politicians took away our sense of meaning. They emptied out all of the meaning from our experiences, from all of the friends we lost, from all those who were wounded, from all our post-traumas. A person can go through really awful things, if he knows there’s a purpose. The minute he knows that there is no purpose, that is was all for nothing – that’s when it becomes really painful. And then we find that our war has been swept under the rug of history. That is almost intolerable.

He continues, “Every Memorial Day, I watch the names [of the fallen soldiers] on TV, and I realize that ‘our soldiers’ aren’t part of the Israeli narrative. I am offended for them, and, from my interviews, I know that other soldiers who served there are offended, too. I don’t need the ridiculous pin that the IDF hands out to everyone who participated in a named war or campaign. I’m happy to save the State of Israel the five cents that it costs to produce that pin. But a war has to have a name, a particular collective day of mourning. Wars have names so that we can talk about them, even if we talk about it in non-heroic terms.

“Even the history books don’t talk about this period. If the government took responsibility, then it would be official. But it won’t, so it’s my responsibility, that’s why I wrote this book.”

Israel’s wars in Lebanon, and the time in the security strip, are sometimes referred to as Israel’s Vietnam. Har-Zahav only partly agrees.

“Yes, the situation was like Vietnam because it was a useless war that never had a real purpose, and, in the absence of a purpose, there’s no way to win,” he says. “But no, it wasn’t like it because it wasn’t happening 10,000 miles from home.”

Har-Zahav is known to hold left-wing views and has been accused of being politically motivated in writing this book. For example, in Makor Rishon, a Hebrew daily identified with the political right, Moshe Meirsdoff accused Har Zahav of adopting a left-wing narrative that serves supporters of future withdrawals.

That’s ridiculous,” he says. “No one – not the right, not the left – comes out OK in this story. All the governments kept on doing the same thing. This isn’t about left and right. Ironically, I opposed the withdrawal from Lebanon at the time. I was wrong, but at least I had a reason.

“I wish we would get over ourselves and this stupid screwed-up talk about right and left. I want us all to learn to ask, ‘why?’ A democratically-elected government has the right to conduct its policies, but it owes the public the explanation of why it’s doing what it’s doing. As citizens, asking why is our very basic responsibility.

“I don’t care about national narratives – screw them. Countries go to stupid wars. The Crimean War was fought over the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher thousands of miles away, and untold numbers of people died. Those who died, are dead and the dead don’t tend to come back and make demands. So at this point, all we can do is limit the damage. First, by caring for anyone who was hurt, physically or mentally, and for their families. And then, by making sure that people realize that by asking why, we might be able to save the future. But we still haven’t learned to ask why.”

Along with his scathing criticism, Har-Zahav sees himself as an Israeli patriot and is optimistic for the future. “We are still an immigrant society, and immigrant societies are based on belief and trust in leaders. It will take another generation or two, and then we will be normal, and then we will begin to fulfill our potential. I was born here; I will not take out a foreign passport, because I intend to die here. This place is mine. And so I will do everything I can so that it will be the best place possible.”

Towards the end of Lebanon: The Lost War Har-Zahav writes about watching the withdrawal from Lebanon on TV, as tears filled his eyes. He didn’t know then, he writes, if they were tears of joy or rage.

I still don’t know,” he concludes.

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Eeta Prince-Gibson

Eeta Prince-Gibson is the Israel Editor for Moment Magazine and a regular contributor to Haaretz, The Forward, PRI, and other Israeli and international publications.

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