In the midst of Israel's election campaign in 1999, then-prime ministerial candidate Ehud Barak pledged to "bring the boys home" within one year of the inauguration of his government. And he did just that. On May 24, 2000, Israel completed its unilateral

In the midst of Israel's election campaign in 1999, then-prime ministerial candidate Ehud Barak pledged to "bring the boys home" within one year of the inauguration of his government. And he did just that. On May 24, 2000, Israel completed its unilateral withdrawal and deployed its forces along the 1949 Israeli-Lebanese armistice line. In so doing, it complied with United Nations Security Council Resolution 425, dating from 1978, calling for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from all Lebanese territory.

Why then did the Barak government take this step? Was it because the occupation was a military failure? Because its costs, human and financial, were too high? Or because the Israeli public simply tired of a drawn-out guerrilla war?

The Security Zone's Utility

Prior to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, cross-border incursions were a popular mode of operation among Palestinian guerrilla organizations. Many of the cases in which terrorists crossed the fence and broke into Israeli settlements ended in murderous attacks on civilians. In 1970, Palestinian terrorists attacked an Israeli school bus en route from Moshav Avivim, killing twelve children. Four years later, twenty-one school children were murdered in Ma‘alot. In another attack, eighteen Israelis were killed in Kiryat Shmona, and in July 1980, terrorists took hostages in the nursery of Kibbutz Misgav Am. The brutal and surprising nature of the attacks had a devastating effect on the sense of personal security and morale of Israel's northerners, thus hampering the socioeconomic development of Israel's northern district. Terrorism and Katyusha attacks prompted the 1978 invasion of Lebanon. But after the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) withdrew a few months later, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) reestablished themselves in southern Lebanon, complete with tanks and artillery. Intent on permanently removing this threat, Israel recaptured the area—all the way to Beirut—in June 1982. This campaign war succeeded in driving the PLO away from Lebanon but failed to create the new order Israel desired; instead of the PLO, Israel now faced Hizbullah, an Iranian-inspired organization of radical Shi`i Muslims. Negotiations between Israel and Lebanon finally brought about, on May 17, 1983, a peace treaty between the two countries, but massive Syrian pressure forced the Lebanese government to suspend the treaty.

The collapse of the May 1983 Israeli-Lebanese peace agreement put an end to prior Israeli hope of creating a new order in Lebanon, and Israel began to look for a way to disentangle itself from its involvement in Lebanon. Two options were debated by the national unity government headed by Shimon Peres. One option was a unilateral withdrawal from all Lebanese territory; the other was the establishment of a security zone controlled by the IDF and the South Lebanese Army (SLA)—a militia controlled, trained and paid for by Israel. The proponents of the security zone, among them cabinet ministers Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon, and Moshe Arens, believed that the only way to protect the Jewish settlements in northern Israel was by maintaining an Israeli military presence on Lebanese soil. They believed that an "insulation layer" between Israel and the non-Christian population of Lebanon would deny terrorist groups access to the border and would reduce the threat of artillery fire against targets in Israel. They assumed that an Israeli presence on the ground would prevent south Lebanon from becoming what it was before June 1982: an arsenal and training ground for anti-Israeli groups.

These proponents got their way, and on January 14, 1985, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin announced the cabinet decision to deploy the IDF in southern Lebanon. By June 1985, Israel and the SLA took control over what would be the security zone. The depth of this zone ranged between three and twelve miles, depending on the terrain. Forty-five SLA and IDF outposts were built in strategic locations to obstruct the free movement of would-be infiltrators. The number of Israeli soldiers deployed in the security zone ranged between 1,000 and 1,500. The SLA was 2,500 strong in addition to a few hundred members of the intelligence service called Mabat (an abbreviation of manganon habitachon, or "security apparatus") working under the supervision of the Israeli General Security Service (GSS).1

From the outset, the main purpose of the security zone was to prevent the infiltration of terrorists into Israel. It worked. The 328-square-mile security zone shielded Israel's northern settlements from the wrath of Hizbullah, AMAL, and the rejectionist Palestinian groups. In the fifteen years the security zone existed, only nine guerrilla squads succeeded in reaching the border; of those nine, just two successfully crossed into Israel. In both cases, the terrorists were killed before they were able to attack civilian targets. In the first years of the security zone, many terrorist squads were ambushed and eradicated by IDF and SLA forces long before they reached the border. The high rate of success in targeting terrorists en route to the border reduced the motivation of these groups to continue their attempts to infiltrate into Israel. The great success of the security zone in preventing infiltration enhanced the sense of security among the residents of northern Israel. For fifteen years, Israel's north was relatively secure, and its residents could maintain a relatively normal life style. The civilian population grew accustomed to an improved quality of life. People could move freely at all hours of the day without fear, and a successful tourism industry has developed in most of the border settlements, attracting thousands of tourists every year and becoming a major source of income for the region's residents.

The Katyusha Problem

Even the harshest critics of Israel's security zone policy acknowledged its success in preventing cross-border incursions, but they still held that the policy was, in fact, a failure due to the fact that the residents of Israel's north were not entirely secure because throughout the fifteen-year occupation of south Lebanon, they were subjected to Hizbullah mortar and rocket attacks. Critics point out that despite the IDF's overwhelming technological superiority, Israel failed to supply a decisive answer to the Katyusha threat. Katyusha alerts forced the civilian population to spend days and nights in bomb shelters inflicting financial losses on the frustrated northerners. Two large-scale military operations—the 1993 Operation Accountability and the 1996 Operation Grapes of Wrath—demonstrated how difficult it is to hunt down well-hidden rocket launchers in Lebanon's mountainous terrain. The pullout proponents argued that since the security zone failed to eliminate the threat of Katyushas, there was no point in maintaining the military presence there.

This argument is only partially correct. Yes, Hizbullah and rejectionist Palestinian groups fired thousands of rockets into the Galilee, but at almost no point did they succeed in firing Katyushas from within the security zone. Most launching sites were either north of the Litani River or in the Nabatiya area at a distance of 10-12 miles from their targets. The buffer zone prevented Hizbullah from launching its Katyusha rockets from their most effective and accurate range of 6-8 miles. This made most Hizbullah artillery attacks inaccurate. Furthermore, the topography of the security zone denied Hizbullah the ability to position forward observers to look into the Galilee and adjust their fire. As a result, hundreds of rockets fell in open, uninhabited areas causing minimal damage. More than 4,000 Katyusha rockets landed in the Galilee in the years 1985-2000, but remarkably, only seven civilians were killed by this weapon.

The claim of the pullout advocates that the security zone was totally ineffective in protecting against Katyushas is, therefore, misguided. With Hizbullah moving closer to the borderline following the Israeli pullout, 145 Israeli localities now fall within the range of Hizbullah's artillery as opposed to 81 in range previously. That is, the overall number of Israelis threatened by Katyushas after the pullout has jumped from 200,000 to approximately 350,000.2

Abandoning the South Lebanese Army

The 2,500-strong SLA, Israel's staunchest ally in the Middle East, shouldered most of the burden of the operational activity in south Lebanon: out of forty-five outposts in the security zone, only eight were occupied by the IDF; the rest were held by the SLA. The SLA also paid a very heavy price for its loyalty to Israel. Since 1985, more than 450 SLA soldiers have been killed, and more than 1,300 wounded. This casualty rate came from a total south Lebanese civilian population of approximately 100,000. If not for the SLA's assistance, Israel would have had to deploy many more troops in Lebanon and surely would have sustained more casualties.

The cooperation of the SLA and IDF in the security zone also had important implications for Israel's strategic environment. The SLA facilitated friendly relations between Israel and the Christian population of the south, which were essential to preventing the region from falling into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists or Palestinian rejectionists. In this sense, the security zone was not only a geographical barrier but also a cultural and ideological obstacle to the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and Syrian expansion toward the Israeli border.

The SLA's familiarity with the region provided Israel with important intelligence on the whereabouts of the slippery Hizbullah fighters. This information helped prevent many terror attacks and enabled the Israeli intelligence services to identify relevant targets for the IDF to attack. Former head of the GSS Ya'akov Perry defined the relations between the GSS and Mabat as "a very tight alliance."3 The destruction of the SLA in May 2000 also closed down Israel's relations with the civilian population of south Lebanon.

A unique combination of circumstances brought about the emergence of that alliance; one can only wonder at the Israeli readiness to give it up. The Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon is completely irreversible. The set of circumstances that allowed Israel to hold a buffer zone in a neighboring country and at the same time maintain friendly relations with the population of this zone was extraordinary and unlikely to ever repeat itself. In the event of renewed violence along the border, the bitter taste the Israeli occupation left in the south will deny Israel the option of reestablishing the security zone if such a need ever arises. The withdrawal from the south and the dissolution of the SLA has created a sense of betrayal among the Christians of south Lebanon; they will never trust Israel again and will never cooperate with it.

In all, although the proxy militia in Lebanon was one of Israel's most important strategic assets Israel ever had, the withdrawal from Lebanon sealed its fate. On May 22, 2000, the SLA crumbled, and many militiamen turned themselves over to Lebanese authorities while others took refuge in Israel. The collapse of the SLA was not due to its weakness but rather a direct result of Barak's pledge to withdraw unilaterally. SLA members, aware of their organization's dependence on Israel, realized that without Israel's support their cause was lost. Under such circumstances their only option was to lay down their arms.

The SLA was the first, and will probably be the last, Arab force actively committed to serve Israel's security.

The Cost in Blood and Treasury

All these benefits did not come for free, of course; Israel paid a high cost in blood for maintaining the security zone in south Lebanon. During the years of the security zone, Israel lost 256 soldiers in combat; another 840 were injured. On average, this means that under twenty soldiers per year were killed in action (that is, not including soldiers killed in accidents and non-combat activities), although in some years, such as in 1997, the number exceeded thirty-five.

Israeli society is extremely averse to casualties, whether among its citizen body or among its armed forces. Public protest against the occupation traditionally emerged after clashes and bombings in south Lebanon inflicted heavy Israeli casualties. Concerned parents whose sons were serving in Lebanon became involved in the protest groups, demanding the government to expedite the pullout. The general feeling in the Israeli public was that the war in Lebanon was not a just war, and the rate of casualties Israel had to suffer did not justify the ends.

Did Israel pay too high toll in Lebanon? This question cannot be addressed in an objective manner. A nation's ability to stomach casualties is derived from the size of its population, the approach it brings to human life, the conviction in the cause for which it fights, and the influence of the media. That said, even for a small country like Israel—a country that tolerates the death of more than 400 in traffic accidents every year— a toll of 20-30 dead per year cannot be considered heavy considering the fact that the IDF was fighting one of the most competent guerrilla organizations in the world. To understand how bloody a guerrilla war can become and how minimal the toll Israel had to endure, consider the costs Turkey has paid in its war against the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Since 1985, Turkey has suffered more than 6,000 dead soldiers and more than 12,000 wounded. This is in addition to more than 6,000 Turkish civilians who died and approximately 7,000 wounded in PKK attacks.4

In recent years, in an attempt to minimize casualties, the IDF relied heavily on air power in its war with Hizbullah. The Israel Air Force (IAF) launched 15-20 air raids each month, many of them directed against targets north of the security zone, using the most sophisticated and pricey aircraft and munitions. Though the costs of using air power were high, this approach had one important side-benefit, providing the IAF with more of its most scarce resource - airspace for training. With the loss of the Sinai Peninsula after the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt, Israel's airspace shrank considerably, and Lebanon became the main training ground of the IAF and a paradise for its combat pilots. More: for over fifteen years, Israeli pilots gained the experience of launching pinpoint air strikes against real targets with live munitions. As a result, Israeli pilots have been among the most well-trained combat pilots in the world. Withdrawal from Lebanon might have serious implications for the readiness of Israel's pilots.

Further, Israel's strategic doctrine has traditionally emphasized the importance of operational depth and advocated the transfer of the battlefield deep into the enemy's territory. The security zone provided Israel with such a depth and enabled it to fight the war against Syria's and Iran's proxies miles away from its northern settlements.

Pullout proponents argued that the occupation of south Lebanon was an economic burden. They pointed to the high cost of daily IDF operations in Lebanon and funding for the SLA, adding up to $300 million per year, out of which only $32 million funded SLA wages and another $10 million were allocated to civilian projects for the welfare of the population of south Lebanon.5 All these costs would be avoided, it was claimed, if Israel pulled back to the international border.6 This assumption is, again, only partially correct. The price tag for redeploying the IDF and resettling Israel's former Lebanese allies fleeing south will not be cheap. According to the estimates of the Israeli Ministry of Finance, the bill might be as high as $750 million,7 the equivalent of the cost of keeping the SLA operational for the next fifteen years. In addition, absorbing about 5,000 SLA refugees and providing each of them with benefits worth several thousand dollars costs in all about $100 million. Further, there are other costs related to the protection of dozens of Israeli towns and villages that became potential targets for Katyushas once Hizbullah deployed along the Israeli border. As for the saving of the daily operational costs of the IDF, if the aggression against Israel continues from Lebanon and the IDF must renew operations along the border, the costs could be just as high as before.

Reasons for the Withdrawal

Why then did Ehud Barak decide to give up such a successful policy in exchange for the unknown? Furthermore, why did the Israeli public so gladly rid itself of a policy that for fifteen years served it so well?

By any yardstick, the policy of security zone met its defined objectives. The Israeli decision to withdraw unilaterally did not result from strategic expediency or a fundamental change in Israel's strategic environment. A careful and sober cost-benefit analysis shows that the strategy of occupying the security zone was far from being a failure. It provided the residents of Israel's north with a relatively high level of security with a minimal casualty rate, and at the same time it enabled Israel to maintain friendly relations with the south Lebanese population, thus keeping Hizbullah, the Syrians, and anti-Oslo Palestinian groups away from the Israeli border. Under the difficult circumstances that Lebanon posed, it was probably the most useful policy Israel could have adopted.

Nor was the Israeli decision a result of the Israel Defense Forces' poor operational performance. On the contrary, in recent years, the IDF succeeded in improving its tactical sophistication, establishing special counter-guerrilla units, introducing new technologies, minimizing its rate of casualties, and inflicting heavy losses on Hizbullah.

Further, to fulfill his campaign promise to leave Lebanon within a year of reaching office, Barak had to ignore the professional advice of the IDF general staff and the intelligence services. By and large the defense establishment vehemently, though not vocally, opposed the idea of unilateral withdrawal, arguing that such an action could lead to an escalation that would end in a military confrontation with Syria.8 Barak's decision to override his generals raises the suspicion that in the process of national security decision-making, considerations of popularity and expediency outweighed strategic interests.

Rather, the decision to withdraw from Lebanon resulted from the demands of Israel's domestic politics. Despite its merits, the security zone was constantly vilified in Israel by opponents who ignored its benefits. Specifically, Barak's decision to end the occupation of south Lebanon reflected two developments: what he sensed to be a general disapproval of the policy on Lebanon by the Israeli public and his belief that a peace agreement with Syria was attainable and that withdrawing from Lebanon would be part-and-parcel of such an agreement.

Disapproval of Israeli policy. Until 1997, few Israelis openly opposed Israel's policy on Lebanon. But after two helicopter crashed on February 4, 1997, leaving seventy-three soldiers killed on their way to the Lebanese front, followed by a failed attack on September 5, 1997, by an IDF elite commando unit in which twelve soldiers were lost, the Israeli public's support for an indefinite occupation of southern Lebanon began rapidly to erode. Further casualties, such as the February 1999 killing of Brig. General Erez Gerstein, commander of the IDF's liaison unit in Lebanon, exacerbated this feeling. Protest groups such as Four Mothers and Red Line comprised of active, concerned citizens took it upon themselves to expedite the withdrawal of the IDF from south Lebanon. Caught between passion and reason, the Israeli public chose the former. In less than two years, the proponents of unilateral withdrawal succeeded in convincing more than 60 percent of the Israeli public of the futility of Israel's occupation of the security zone. In this spirit, leading politicians called maintaining the security zone a "march of folly"9 and "a serious mistake."10 Or, in the candid words of Deputy Minister Defense Ephraim Sneh, "We are leaving because of problems with the ability of the Israeli public to stand firm. That is the whole truth. There is no point in pretending."11

Belief in a peace agreement with Syria. One of Barak's first moves upon assuming power as prime minister was to revive negotiations with Syria in the hope that these would lead to a comprehensive agreement with both Syria and Lebanon. Barak's campaign pledge to Israeli voters had stipulated that the withdrawal would be in the framework of an agreement, and so be done with Syria's blessing.12 When an agreement with Syria proved elusive, Barak could have backed down from the promise to leave Lebanon, but he did not, preferring instead to withdraw from Lebanon unilaterally. He did so out of belief that this declaration of an intent to withdraw unilaterally would pressure Syria's President Hafiz al-Asad to show more flexibility in the negotiations. But this ploy did not succeed (if anything Asad made new demands), and Barak found himself left with no choice but to fulfil his pledge.

As the last Israeli soldier crossed the border on May 24, Barak declared the end of "the tragedy of Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon."13 Tragedy? As the dust settles along the Israel-Lebanon border, it will soon become apparent whether or not the Israeli occupation of the security zone was indeed a tragedy or whether the real tragedy is yet to unfold.

Gal Luft, a former battalion commander in Lebanon, is a research associate at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
1 Andrew Rathmell, "The War in South Lebanon," Jane's Intelligence Review, Apr. 1, 1994; Ronen Bergman, "Fighting Blind," Ha'aretz (Tel Aviv), Magazine May 14, 1999; Yaakov Perry, Strike First { Ha'ba Le'horgecha }(Tel Aviv: Keshet, 1999), pp. 115-116.
2 The Last Arab-Israeli Battlefield? Implications of an Israeli Withdrawal from Lebanon, ed. Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt (Washington DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2000), p. 98.
3 Perry, Ha'ba Le'horgecha, p. 116.
4 Adapted from the website of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs at
5 The Arieh O'Sullivan and David Rudge, "Fighting Against Time," Jerusalem Post, July 31, 1998, June 19, 1999.
6 Sever Plozker, "Twenty Billions Too Many," Yedi‘ot Aharonot, May 26, 2000.
7 To pay for the costs associated with the building of an improved electronic fence along the border, the deployment of electronic sensing devices, laser decoys, observation blimps to spy on Lebanon with remote control video cameras, and listening posts to monitor guerrilla activity.
8 See Yaakov Erez, "Interview with Shaul Mofaz," Ma'ariv (Tel Aviv), Sept. 20, 1998, Nov. 30, 1999; Alex Fishman and Tomer Shadmi, "Interview with Director of IDF Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amos Malka," Bamachane, no. 14, July 9, 1999.
9 Yosi Beilin, Ha'madrich Le'yeziah Mi'levanon (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1998), p. 10.
10 Ha'aretz, Aug. 3, 1999.
11 Zvi Zinger, "The IDF pullout-Due to Problems in the Israeli Staying Power," Yedi‘ot Aharonot, May 19, 2000.
12 Ha'aretz, Mar. 2, 1999.
13 The New York Times, May 24, 2000.