Playing Defense in Lebanon

A new book explores the changing tactics, and essential continuities, in Israel’s decades-long but mostly undeclared war against Hizballah.

Israeli artillery soldiers, covered in dirt from their work, take a break between firing 155mm shells into Lebanon on August 13, 2006. Chris Hondros/Getty Images.

Israeli artillery soldiers, covered in dirt from their work, take a break between firing 155mm shells into Lebanon on August 13, 2006. Chris Hondros/Getty Images.

Observation
Dec. 27 2018
About the author

Matti Friedman is the author of a memoir about the Israeli war in Lebanon, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War (2016). His new book, Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (Algonquin) comes out in March.


One day in the mid-1950s, at a time of rising guerrilla incursions from Gaza, the Israeli chief of staff, Moshe Dayan, arrived to inspect a base on the border. The local commander proudly showed the one-eyed army chief the fortifications he’d built with his men, including trenches and reinforced emplacements. Imagine the commander’s rude surprise when, instead of praising him, Dayan asked furiously: “What did you dig in for? If anything serious happens, we want to attack, not defend!”

Dayan not only ordered the junior commander to fill in the trenches and take apart the emplacements but, according to his biographer Shabtai Tevet, went on to “forbid the digging of defensive networks anywhere along Israel’s borders.” The new Israeli army was supposed to be mobile and unpredictable, not to hobble itself in earthworks and concrete.

Just over 40 years later, in early 1998, I arrived as an infantryman at an Israeli outpost in south Lebanon. At this outpost, a forward position in the army’s long war against Hizballah fighters, there were trenches, concrete emplacements, and bunkers where we sheltered from shelling. Similar positions were to be found on nearby hilltops, all accessed by lumbering armored convoys that came up the roads from Israel. Beyond some minor activity like preparing ambushes or patrolling roads, and the odd special operation generating great excitement but little value, the army seemed to have no mobility, no real plan, and no hope of winning. We had fortifications and technology. The enemy had the initiative.

The story of the long, strange war against Hizballah in south Lebanon, and of the deep changes it wrought in the thinking of Israel’s army and society, has gone largely unnoticed amid the better-known episodes in the country’s history. This is striking, given the impact this nearly four-decade conflict has had on Israel; the number of Israelis who’ve been touched by it; the way that Hizballah tactics have inspired other players, like Hamas; the way that Hizballah itself has gone on to become a regional player, particularly in the Syrian conflict; and the war’s persistence to this day along Israel’s frontier with Lebanon, where Israeli engineers are busy right now demolishing Hizballah attack tunnels near the border town of Metullah.

And yet, as Raphael Marcus writes in his new book, Israel’s Long War with Hizballah, “in the literature on the Arab-Israeli conflict there is surprisingly no authoritative military history chronicling the IDF’s involvement in Lebanon.” This is true not only in English but even in Hebrew. The long affair in Lebanon was never quite considered a real war, Marcus writes, and the Lebanese theater itself was “viewed as not worthy of rigorous intellectual or operational attention.”

 

Marcus’s own excellent analysis aims to address this deficiency, and deserves the attention of any informed reader interested in Israel or modern military history. A visiting research fellow at King’s College London, where the book began as a doctoral dissertation, Marcus comes at the topic through the academic study of war and insurgency. He begins with the summer 1982 invasion, in which Israel’s allies were Lebanese Christians and its enemies were the guerrillas of Yasir Arafat’s PLO and Syrian troops. From there, making use of Israeli and Lebanese sources, including visits to both sides of the border, he is able to follow Hizballah, the “Party of God,” as it rises from the downtrodden villages and slums of Shiite Lebanon, powered by the ideology, and the money, of the revolutionary new Shiite regime in Tehran.

The Israelis were at first oblivious of the dangerous changes taking place beneath their gaze. Instead of pulling out immediately after the successful expulsion of the PLO, the IDF, believing that a full withdrawal would expose northern Israel to terrorist infiltration, set up a “security zone” inside Lebanon along the Israeli border. But the ongoing Israeli presence ended up antagonizing the local Shiites and serving, Marcus writes, as a “focal point for the massive militant energies that had been fomenting in Shiite society.” Soldiers in the field struggled to adapt to an enemy they weren’t expecting and to new threats like the suicide bomber—a Hizballah innovation first employed in the fall of 1982—and the increasingly deadly bombs planted on roads or in bushes along the routes of Israeli patrols.

Until the early 1990s, Marcus writes, “the IDF conceptually viewed Hizballah as a routine security threat that was easily dealt with in reactive, low-intensity operations.” That was a mistake, and as more Israeli soldiers died, the perception changed. Realizing belatedly that they were facing a potent guerrilla threat, Israeli generals took steps like creating the Egoz Reconnaissance Unit, an anti-guerrilla outfit that achieved some success in the mid-1990s. But the aims of the war remained muddled, and in fact Israeli society never really realized it was a war at all. The only memoir written about those years by a senior commander, Moshe (Chico) Tamir, is called Undeclared War. If you don’t know you’re fighting a war, you’re probably going to lose.

Under public pressure to keep casualties low, and under political pressure not to endanger the fragile peace negotiations of the 1990s with Arafat’s PLO and the regime in Syria, the army forgot Dayan’s wise reprimand from the 1950s. Commanders played it safe to keep casualties low, building concrete fortifications, and limiting offensive operations. The invading army in 1982 had still been thinking like Dayan’s army (even if the political idea behind the invasion was increasingly seen as a grave error of judgment), but by the time eighteen years passed in the Lebanese “security zone,” the IDF had become the army of Dayan’s subordinate with his static trenches and guard posts, facing an enemy that was weaker but more dedicated and creative.

After an account of Israel’s withdrawal from the security zone in May 2000, a move forced by public anger over army casualties, Marcus describes the buildup to the Israel-Hizballah war six years later, and follows the way both sides have maneuvered in the uneasy but unexpectedly quiet years since that round ended twelve summers ago.

 

The importance of Marcus’s book lies in seeing the muddled decisions of the 1980s, the attacks and counter-attacks of the 1990s, the 2000 withdrawal, the 2006 war, and the years afterward not as isolated episodes but as part of the “long war” of the title. This realization is only now beginning to sink in, but it is crucial to understanding the current and future incarnations of the Hizballah threat.

The Israeli army, for example, still has no memorial site for the long Lebanon war, let alone an official history. Although the 1982 invasion was officially declared a war, and so was the 2006 conflict, everything in the middle, accounting for about 700 IDF fatalities, wasn’t a war. The period has no military ribbon, and no name. The only place you’ll find a complete list of casualties is at a private memorial established by a woman named Orna Shimoni, whose son Eyal was killed commanding a Merkava tank in south Lebanon in 1998 and who herself was one of the leaders of the protest movement that helped force the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.

In designing her memorial, Shimoni grasped that the events needed to be placed on a historical continuum—which she did, to overwhelming visual effect, by listing on a single wall all Israeli fatalities throughout all the years of fighting. Similarly, by skillfully pulling together many disparate events over a period of decades and sketching the evolution of the conflict from its inception, Marcus provides a kindred service in this book.

Because of its origins in an academic project, Israel’s Long War with Hizballah has sections heavy on military theory and laced with acronyms like RMA, OTRI, and SOD. These are likely to be more interesting to a specialist than to a general reader or to someone (like myself) whose strategic decisions in Lebanon involved the number of sandbags to fill on a given day, or how to get more than two consecutive hours of sleep. But Marcus’s investigation of how successive theories were tried and abandoned by army commanders fleshes out the book’s message, which is that the Israeli experience in Lebanon has always been shaped by the army’s ability—or inability—to keep up with the enemy. It’s a story, in his words, of “slow strategic adaptation and disjointed operational adaptation,” adding up to a saga that is still playing out.

 

Although there hasn’t been a significant eruption since 2006, Israel’s war in Lebanon has by no means come to an end, as demonstrated most vividly by the engineering units now documenting and demolishing Hizballah’s attack tunnels at the border. This latest Israeli operation is very much representative of the long war described in Marcus’s book, offering grounds at once for confidence and for concern. The intelligence work, seismic technology, and robots used to spot the new tunnels join a long list of canny Israeli adaptations in Lebanon: devices for jamming cellphone-triggered IEDs, reactive armor on tanks, electronic ears that can pick up footsteps in the bushes a mile away.

But, as in all of the former cases, Israel is still playing defense as Hizballah sets the rules. The IDF has found these tunnels, but within a few months there’ll be something else. The long war isn’t over, and its underlying dynamic, ably documented by Raphael Marcus, remains unchanged.

Welcome to Mosaic

Register now to get two more stories free

Register Now

Already a subscriber? Sign in now

More about: History & Ideas, Israel & Zionism