A generation of Israeli soldiers fought, died and bore the scars of Israel’s 18 years in southern Lebanon. May 23rd marked the 20th year since the end of the war without a name — without a national memory. On that day in 2000, the IDF blew up its fortresses and raced (some would say fled) southward. Men and tanks returned home, taking some of their South Lebanese Army Christian allies with them to escape the retribution awaiting them for their alliance with Israel.
The years in Lebanon cost the lives of more than 600 of our sons, a number that included 73 IDF soldiers who died on February 4,1997, when two transport helicopters collided over Israel on their way to bunker fortresses. Their destinations in southern Lebanon bore soothing names — Pumpkin, Turmeric, Basil, Cypress, Beaufort–and on Israel’s border, Gladiola. Each fortress was emblazoned “Our Mission Is to Protect the Northern Border.”
This year, the generation of the silent and unrecognized IDF veterans found each other. A Facebook page, “Stories from Lebanon — What Happened in the Outposts,” received over 36,000 individual members and 100,000 posts. There were ears to hear and to share and mourn and to feel pride and anger.
On that day two decades ago, Prime Minister Ehud Barak fulfilled his campaign promise to pull out of Lebanon. His was a commitment to the nation and to the “Four Mothers,” who, in the name of those whose sons had died in Lebanon and in the tragic helicopter collision, demanded IDF withdrawal. Their fervor became a national movement.
I did not add my voice to the Four Mothers. When the pullout occurred, I wrote in disagreement with how it was done and with apprehension about its consequences. I knew I would be heard even if not supported. Our son Alex had been killed in Lebanon 12 years earlier. He died on September 15, 1987, his 25th birthday, in a battle that prevented terrorists from entering a northern Israeli village on a mission to kill. Alex, a platoon commander in Givati, his company commander, Ronen Weissman, and Sergeant Oren Kamil all died by the same hidden sniper as they ran to help each other. The remaining young soldiers, now without their commanders, continued to fight as they had been trained and the terrorists fled. Families in Israel remained safe in their beds that night.
It was a time when Israel and the South Lebanese Army were allies protecting the territory against terrorist incursions between the Litani River and the northern border with Israel. Alex answered an American friend who argued passionately against his volunteering to risk his life in the IDF, after graduating Cornell. He wrote: “Just remember that being where I am is not the result of my worldview, but of the fact that if we (I) weren’t here, Israel would live in terror, and because we are here, and what we do, even the settlements on the border are quiet at night.”
We will never know the lives saved in Israel’s border settlements by soldiers lying all night on the ground next to their tank, fearful that the enemy was watching, listening for sounds, preparing to intercept, racing to their bunkers. When they completed their service, they received no insignia or recognition of where they had been. Their missions to watch and prevent the enemy from moving south were harrowing. But that was the job they had been given.
Only this week, I learned more from our son Daniel about the three times he had served in Lebanon, lastly during a month on reserve duty in 1990, at Beaufort. First in our family to make aliyah, Daniel joined the Paratroops in 1983. Communication with my husband, Max, and me in Washington, DC, was at best slow and Daniel was not eager to share his experiences. I write here about him, knowing he might object, but as a way to honor him and all those who have not revealed what they did.
Two decades ago, I wrote these words in my column in Moment, after Israel shut the gate to Lebanon:
I could not demonstrate with [the Four Mothers] because I do not have enough confidence that unilateral withdrawal will enhance either security in the north or movement toward peace with Syria and its proxy Lebanon. And I believe that there are times when soldiers must stand as a shield to allow civilian life to go on without paralyzing fear….For Israel to appear defeated by Hezbollah (even if this is far from the truth) and for Syria…to be courted as a peace partner may be messages of weakness that will encourage Arabs to dream again and plan for Israel’s defeat.
Today, I read the names, dates, and ages of Israelis killed during the Second Intifada, September 2000-2005. During those terrible years, 1,137 Israelis were killed, most by suicide bombers. 887 of the dead were civilians — from babies to elderly who happened to be at bus stops, in restaurants, wedding halls, homes and schools — wherever bombers ventured, seeking to ignite themselves and die with their Israeli targets. Scrolling down the list of names and ages and places where they perished, I cried. Our family was here in those years. How did we and our nation move on from such sorrow and fear?
But I also thought, again, could it be that Israel pulling out of Lebanon in May 2000 was encouragement for the terror carnage that followed? Is it possible that Palestinians witnessing Israelis unwilling to sustain more deaths of soldiers in Lebanon by Hezbollah concluded terror pays? And can anyone deny a connection between Israel’s departure from its fortresses and the presence of Hezbollah in south Lebanon today with their deadly arsenal hidden in villages in clear sight of our own border?
Unintended consequences are the inevitable burden of choice. Reflecting on Israel’s 18 years in Lebanon, I continue to believe that neither the losses of Israeli lives nor the outcomes of the decision to leave should diminish recognition of the noble purpose served by soldiers protecting their land.
It is not too late.