The Prisoners of Lebanon

By Haim Watzman
Sunday, July 23, 2006


I ran alone through a spring-green valley washed by rivulets descending from a ridge still patched with snow. In the Bekaa, below the central Lebanon range, the cherry orchards were in bloom. Other than an M-16 slung over my shoulder, I had nothing to protect me.

This is the most idiotic thing you've ever done, I remember telling myself. It was 1983. I was a 26-year-old infantryman with Israel's occupying force in Lebanon, and a perfect target for kidnappers. Any of the ancient cars rumbling by could have contained guerrillas. I could have been stuffed in a trunk and smuggled across the frontier into enemy hands. In violation of standing orders, my commanding officer had approved my 30-minute run. If you're more than five minutes late, he warned, we'll assume you've been captured.

If I had been, every Israeli army radio in the occupation's eastern sector would have crackled with the codeword -- Hannibal -- indicating the abduction of an Israeli soldier. Soldiers would be roused from bed. Patrols would rush to pre-assigned locations. Armored personnel carriers would block escape routes. While running, I felt a perverse sense of power, knowing two divisions stood ready to find me.

Today, with one Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and two others by Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel has responded with airstrikes, naval blockades and ground action. As a soldier, Hannibal gave me confidence and boosted morale among my comrades. And today, I believe that deploying our military to stop Hezbollah's rocket attacks and to obtain the return of our troops is fully justified.

However, I fear that we might not stop there, and that we might succumb to the delusion that military action can transform Lebanon's political and social realities. That same delusion led Israel to occupy Lebanon for an agonizing decade and a half in which hundreds of our troops -- and many more Lebanese and Palestinians -- were killed.

I went running that spring day because I was desperate for exercise after days cooped up at our mountain outpost. But my run was also a small act of protest. Caught in what I considered a wrongheaded war, I was flouting standing orders and common sense.

We were occupying Lebanon, but Lebanon had become our captor.

After settling in Israel in 1978, my first home was in Kiryat Shmonah, a town near the Lebanese border. A few years earlier, Palestinian terrorists had crossed over and killed 18 residents in an apartment building there, including nine children. Every two or three weeks, Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas fired Katyusha rockets on our town and other northern settlements. Time and again, Israeli forces swept into southern Lebanon to clean out the terrorist bases. Eventually, however, the bases would regroup and the attacks would resume.

In early 1982, when I received my army induction notice, Ariel Sharon was minister of defense. He thought he could solve the Lebanon problem with a massive military operation that would install a pro-Israel government in Beirut and kick out the Palestinians. Because the cabinet probably would not approve such a grandiose effort, Sharon and his supporters obtained permission for a more limited operation and then, at their own discretion, sent the army to Beirut.

The following winter, helicopters suddenly descended near the muddy clearing in Galilee, where my unit was training. We were sent to Beirut, where before long I saw that our mission had little to do with protecting my neighbors back home. Instead, we served as a wedge between Christians, Muslims and Druze, who were taking advantage of the occupation to settle old scores. It would be the first of several tours of duty for me in Lebanon.

Sharon's grand plan failed. True, the PLO was forced out three months after the invasion, and the rockets stopped falling on Israeli settlements. But we paid a huge price in Israeli troops killed and wounded -- not to mention the casualties suffered by the Lebanese. Instead of remaking Lebanon, we found ourselves bogged down there much as the United States is now bogged down in Iraq. During some of my tours, we spent most of our energy keeping Lebanese from killing one another, rather than protecting Israel's borders and civilians.

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