Twenty Years After the Lebanon Withdrawal, Ghosts Come Back to Haunt Israel

A photograph of the family of David Granit next to his grave in the military cemetery on Mount Herzl, Jerusalem appeared on the front page of Haaretz on Monday. They came early this year for their annual Memorial Day visit, in keeping with government directives in the time of the coronavirus.

First Lieutenant David Granit, from the settlement of Ofra, was killed in an encounter with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in February 1999. It was one of the worst and most widely reported incidents in the period before the Israel Defense Forces withdrew from the security zone. Three officers were killed, including the commander of the paratroopers commando unit, Maj. Eitan Balahsan. A week later Brig. Gen. Erez Gerstein, the commander of the Lebanon Liaison Unit, was killed by a roadside bomb, along with two other soldiers and Israel Radio correspondent Ilan Roeh. That helped accelerate the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon a year and two months later.

The deadly incident with the paratroopers commando unit reverberated widely for another reason. Balahsan and another officer, First Lt. Liraz Tito, were hit by Hezbollah fire while advancing inside a narrow crevice. David Granit, a team commander in the commando unit, jumped inside the crevice to help the wounded, and was also wounded. One of the commando unit’s fighters, Staff Sgt. Ofer Sharon of Kibbutz Ashdot Ya'akov Ihud, later told Haaretz correspondent Avihai Becker that he hesitated about descending into the wadi, although his commander Granit called him to come and help. “I knew that to storm ahead now was to die in a dumb war. I didn’t dare to go down. I knew that anyone who did wouldn’t return. The story of ‘I don’t believe that we should be in Lebanon’ overcame me.”

Sharon, who was considered an outstanding fighter and a favorite of his commander Granit, is the son of Bruria Sharon, a prominent activist in the “Four Mothers” anti-war movement, which caused a seismic change in Israeli society and led the calls for withdrawal from Lebanon. The story provoked a public uproar and the army’s chief education officer, Elazar Stern (today a Knesset member with the Yesh Atid party) wrote a letter to Sharon’s commanders, condemning the conduct of the fighter who did not attack. But it also reflected the depth of the crisis within the IDF, 17 years into a war that nobody told the IDF to wrap up and win.

The matter of the protracted, superfluous stay in Lebanon is arising anew, in connection with Memorial Day. That has partly to do with this being the 20th anniversary of the withdrawal, which this year falls on May 24. In addition, a book, a documentary TV series and a Facebook page on which former soldiers tell about their experiences in the security zone have brought the forgotten, nameless war back into public awareness.

Under the influence of all this, the defense establishment is thinking about giving a medal to soldiers who fought there in the period following the first Lebanon war. Apparently being cooped up at home due to the coronavirus is also bringing back memories. Lebanon, between the first war there in 1982 and the withdrawal in 2000, remains an open wound for members of the generation that fought there.

The fraught debate included a moment of comic relief, the contribution of the Deputy Prime Minister Benny Gantz. He was the last commander of the security zone, called in to replace Gerstein, shortly after Gerstein’s death. In a post on the Facebook group the former chief of staff waxed nostalgic about his time in Lebanon and described two nights there, one as a young soldier in the paratroops in the Litani Operation and the second as the commander of Lebanon Liaison Unit, on the last night of the withdrawal. But Gantz, atypically, erred in the date of his post and moved the date of the withdrawal forward by a day.