Former Israeli Soldiers Seek Answers on Facebook, 20 Years After Lebanon Withdrawal

The border between Israel and Lebanon looked quiet and green on Wednesday, like a postcard of a pastoral scene sent from Europe in better days. On either side of the boundary, two heat-stricken countries are still trying to recover from the depredations of the coronavirus, and are more worried about the economic crisis that accelerated in its wake. Lebanon’s challenge is immeasurably more difficult. The country is grappling with the worst economic distress it has experienced since the civil war that devastated it in the mid- 1970s.

From the vantage point near the perimeter fence of Kibbutz MIsgav Am, it is possible to see without any difficulty many of the sites whose names were common parlance until two decades ago: Marjayoun, Kaliya, Taibeh, Nabatiya and Reihan. A bit to the southwest, in the town of Bint Jbeil, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivered his famous “spider web” speech. That was on May 20, 2000, two days after the Israel Defense Forces completed its withdrawal from southern Lebanon – 20 years ago this week.

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Nasrallah was the main speaker at the victory rally his organization held in the town. By means of that speech, he aimed at establishing the narrative that Hezbollah had forcibly expelled the Israelis from the Arab territory. His words were etched in the memories of the Lebanese nation and perhaps all the Arab nations: “My dear brothers, I am telling you: Israel, which has nuclear weapons, is weaker than the spider’s web.”

Twenty years later the border remains quiet, apart from one large outbreak of hostilities – the second Lebanon War in 2006 – and a few brief, smaller flare-ups. At the time of the 2006 war, the defense minister at the time, Amir Peretz, planned a victory speech of his own at Bint Jbeil. Fortunately, the plan was abandoned, but in the public anger at the failure of that war, a place of honor was taken by stories of reservists from an Armored Corps brigade that suffered losses after they were sent into an unnecessary operation in an attempt to fly the Israeli flag there again.

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The forced inactivity of the coronavirus days, in conjunction with the approaching anniversary, led to a unique Israeli phenomenon: a kind of mass group therapy by means of a Facebook group. Thousands of former soldiers who had fought in Lebanon during the era of the security zone (1985-2000) shared the experiences they had carried around locked within themselves for years. Their commanders quickly joined in – major generals and brigadier generals in the reserves and on active duty. Despite all that has happened since then – the second intifada, the second Lebanon War, three operations in Gaza and innumerable smaller incidents – Lebanon has remained the experienced that defined a generation in the IDF.

Brigadier generals of the current General Staff served as company commanders and in some cases even battalion commanders in the security zone. There, they also learned the daily reality of war against guerillas and terror: small achievements, which did not add up to an overall victory but rather ended as a sort of disappointing tie, at the end of which there was a retreat and the folding of the effort. Today, in the consensus crystallizing now that did not prevail at the time, the long and continuous time spent there is perceived as unnecessary, costly and even stupid.

Maj. Gen. Itai Virov, commander of the Military Colleges, spent many years in southern Lebanon as an officer in the paratroops, rising from platoon commander to battalion commander. A few years ago, in an interview with Haaretz, he related that the company with which he had enlisted in the IDF in November 1985 had held a reunion. “We’d always said that we didn’t have any trauma from Lebanon. But then, we met and went through four hours of collective post-trauma.”