The upcoming twentieth anniversary of the IDF’s withdrawal from Lebanon has sparked much discussion about the nameless war that lasted from 1985 to 2000, during which the Jewish state held on to a strip of territory in the southern part of Lebanon, together with its local allies, and fought a protracted, low-grade conflict there. Having served as a battalion commander on the ground in this conflict, and later having overseen units involved in it, Gershon Hacohen admits that, in hindsight, he did not pay sufficient attention to the strategic dilemma Israel faced:
The IDF found itself pulled in three different directions by three different goals. The first and most important: to secure our communities in [northern Israel from PLO and Hizballah rockets and terrorist infiltrations]. The second: to ensure that [Jerusalem’s ally], the South Lebanese Army (SLA), remained intact and to secure the civil population in the security zone while minimizing harm to IDF and SLA troops. The third: attacking Hizballah’s forces and reducing its battle capabilities. Hizballah identified the tension playing out between those three missions and maximized the potential that lay with keeping it running high.
Starting in the early 1990s, when Hezbollah entrenched itself in a way that allowed it control over southern Lebanon, a major change took place. While the IDF was still defending border communities . . . from incursions by terrorists, Hizballah was focusing its activities toward a goal, openly declared, of liberating its homeland [from Israeli occupation]. Secretly, . . . under the direction of Iran, Hizballah wanted to end the Israeli presence in south Lebanon and thereby strike a blow to Israel’s image of military superiority by underscoring its inefficacy in either winning or defending all its vulnerabilities.
For years, the IDF has been criticized for supposedly neglecting the desire to achieve victory. The expression “Let the IDF win” is a simplistic slogan that prevents an in-depth understanding of the [problem at hand]. A renewed look at the war in the security zone provides a vital lesson in understanding the change that Hizballah instituted in how wars against Israel are fought, . . . at a time when it is urgent to form the concept of Israeli security necessary for victory.