Ehud Baraq promised an end to the presence of Israel in South Lebanon both as a candidate and as Prime Minster. He spoke of the devastating consequences the years of Israeli presence had upon Israel and appealed to Israeli parents to support his plan of withdrawal. Spurred on and encouraged by Leftist groups such as the Four Mothers, he made the withdrawal a lynchpin of his platform.
Upsetting many, Baraq doggedly held to a withdrawal but without establishing any guidelines that promised Israeli security, the major reason Israel established the security zone. Also, ignoring the members of the South Lebanese Army who faithfully served Israel's cause, Baraq proceeded to pander to the HizbAllah terrorists of the region and ignored U.N. S.C. Res. 520 calling for the removal of all foreign entities and agreed to fulfil the defunct U.N. S.C. Res. 425.
All assumed incorrectly that Baraq would only withdraw in the context of an overall peace agreement that included both Lebanon and Syria but that was not to be. Baraq said he would withdraw sometime about the middle of July 2000 and vacillated upon terms of the withdrawal. Surprisingly, Baraq unknown to most Israelis, members of the Cabinet, members of the General staff, ordered a withdrawal in May that can only be described as a rout and a surrender. Baraq set into motion a tragic set of events that only benefitted HizbAllah and destroyed the SLA as a fighting force. Baraq also devastated the Lebanese Christian civilian opposition "The Guardians of the Cedar" and forced most to abandon their homes and country. The negative consequences of Baraq's surrender to terrorism are many, and today Israel is faced with a strengthened HizbAllah and an emboldened Islamic enemy, in many countries, especially Palestine, that considers HizbAllah as the victor over the Israeli army.
However, by the end of February, beginning of March, reports surfaced of Baraq's willingness to withdraw prior to his announced date. An Israeli newspaper wrote 1 :
Prime Minister Ehud Baraq has instructed the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] to be ready for a possible pullout from Lebanon by late May, a month and a half before the deadline cited so far.
A senior political source said Baraq issued the instruction at a meeting with Chief of Staff Sha'ul Mufaz a few days ago. The source stressed the possibility should not be ruled out that the pullout may be carried out before the date Baraq cited to Mufaz.
Defense establishment sources say that the reinforcements, fences, and outposts along the border with Lebanon will not be completed by late May. Military sources said the army would make up for this "shortage" by increasing the number of troops along the border and installing electronic equipment.
The IDF had asked Baraq for a one-month advance notice before a Lebanon pullout. If the withdrawal is indeed carried out at the end of May, the army will have been given enough time.
Israeli radio 2 reported only a few weeks before the retreat the lack of knowledge the leader of the SLA Gen. Lah'd had of the withdrawal details:
General Antoine Lahd, the commander of the South Lebanese Army [SLA], says that the SLA will continue to exist even after the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] withdraws from south Lebanon.
Speaking at a news conference at the northern border, Gen. Lahd affirmed that in view of the alternatives facing them, his soldiers and their families preferred the Massada option [reference to the mountain from which Jewish zealots held off the Roman legions before committing mass suicide in the first century AD] of remaining in Lebanon. It is better to commit suicide, Lahd said, than to become a refugee. The SLA commander said that people along both sides of the Israeli-Lebanese border are vilifying his soldiers as traitors and collaborators.
Lah'd attempted to make the plight of the SLA known in Israel and was stymied by Baraq at every opportunity. An Israeli radio station reported 3:
The efforts of MKs Nisim Ze'ev (SHAS) and Ayyub Qarra (Likud) to have Rabbi Ovadya Yosef and South Lebanon Army Gen. Antoine Lahd meet have been thwarted by the Prime Minister's Office. Ze'ev and Qarra said that the meeting, which they coordinated during a tour of south Lebanon last week, was designed to express appreciation for Lahd's work on behalf of Israel over the past two decades, and to bolster the spirits of the northern residents in anticipation of the upcoming withdrawal. The PM's Office thwarted the meeting, likely fearing that Lahd would impress upon Rabbi Yosef the dangers of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal.
Lah'd was desperate for help and was willing to unilaterally fight HizbAllah even if the Israeli army unilaterally withdrew. At a private meeting in Tel Aviv, Lah'd said: "The situation in the South is critical, I speak to Gen. Mofaz frequently, and he is not helping at this stage for he needs political approval."
Lah'd emphasized "I need three things: 1 - I need Israel not to stop the money, keep the flow of money coming so I can keep pay my soldiers. 2- I need logistical support so the SLA will have adequate ammunition 3- I need the border to remain open because I don't have sophisticated hospitals in the South, and in this instance all my wounded should be transported to northern Israel to be treated. When I'll have those three things, I can hold for 200 years. That's all I need."
Subsequently, a press conference was organized for General Lah'd the next day at the Likud Headquarters, May 11, 2000, 5 PM in the afternoon at Beit Jabotinsky in Tel Aviv. General Antoine Lah'd was to address the Israeli public, explain the situation and seek support for Southern Lebanon.
The press conference never took place and Lah'd was prompted to leave Israel for France. What happened? The Jerusalem Post printed an Itim report 4 that said:
Ronni Bondi, Prime Minister Ehud Baraq's political adviser, was involved in getting South Lebanese Army leader Gen. Antoine Lahd to cancel his appearance at yesterday's Likud bureau meeting, at which party officials were to discuss Israel's commitment to the SLA [South Lebanese Army]. Itim learned that Bondi, with the help of someone in the defense establishment, lobbied hard to prevent Lahd from appearing. Lah'd aides told Itim they did not know what made him cancel his appearance.
Channel 1 last night reported that the Likud believed the cancellation was due to fears Lah'd would criticize Baraq's government.
Tuesday, bureau chairman MK [Knesset member] Uzi Landau had spoken with Lahd to confirm his appearance. But yesterday afternoon, Landau was informed by a member of the Lebanon Liaison Unit that Lahd would not be coming. There was no explanation.
At the meeting, Landau accused the government of essentially abandoning the SLA, since Hizballah kills SLA men almost every day with no response from Israel. He called on the government to build a "deterrence infrastructure before the withdrawal," and to resist demands to disarm the SLA.
How did Baraq's office respond to this debacle 4?
The prime minister's bureau said: "You'll have to ask Lahd why he didn't appear. The Prime Minister's Office has no opinion on the matter."
Lah'd was deceived repeatedly by Baraq who reassured him that Israel would guarantee the safety of the SLA. Israeli TV reported 5:
Prime Minister Baraq met last night in Tel Aviv with the commander of the South Lebanon Army [SLA], General Antoine Lahd. The meeting was held at the initiative of the prime minister, who is also serving as minister of defense. Officials said the purpose of the meeting was to reassure Gen. Lahd about the future of his army following the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] withdrawal from the security zone, due to be completed by July 7. A Defense Ministry statement said the government is acting to guarantee the security of SLA members after the pullout.
IDF officers in the North were concerned over the restraint placed upon them resulting in their inability to respond to terror attacks. Israeli TV reported 6:
Senior Northern Command officers today criticized the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] policy of retaliation in Lebanon. Meeting with the prime minister, the officers said that the restraint forced on the IDF detracts from Israel's deterrent capability. Northern Command officers fear that despite the prime minister's determination, the withdrawal date will be dictated by HizbAllah, and the IDF will be forced to withdraw amid bitter fighting.
In direct contrast to the many reassurances Baraq gave to Lah'd, the Prime Minister is quoted as saying 6: "he doesn't know yet what is to befall the SLA but he believes that this move will eventually benefit everyone."
IDF Chief of Staff Sha'ul Mufaz had no idea of the surprise withdrawal as evidenced by his comments only a short time prior to the withdrawal. In an interview with an Israeli newspaper 7, he responded to a question and said: "The answer to that lies in our wish not be dragged into an escalation led by HizbAllah and to play along with them, certainly not before we have completed our preparations for the redeployment."
Mufaz clearly had no idea that the SLA would be abandoned and ordered to disarm, surrender, or enter exile, and said: "The behavior of the SLA and the southern Lebanon population depends on their decisions, not on ours. It is hard to say today whether they will leave south Lebanon or not, and General Lahd explicitly expressed his and his people's wish to continue living as Lebanese citizens in an independent and free state."
Mufaz added: "The issue of the weapons and the future relationship is in the process of being decided. It depends on whether SLA members headed by Gen. Lahd will decide to stay in south Lebanon, and on the kind of SLA they are seeking for the future. The general's statement on their continued existence out of a will to preserve their lives and defend themselves in the villages is a strong statement indicating a certain direction."
Lah'd was desperate and realizing that Baraq could not be trusted entertained the idea that his people could return home and be reintegrated within Lebanese society, he therefore petitioned the Lebanese government for a general pardon. The Lebanese government, Syrian stooges, responded negatively 8:
Lebanese Prime Minister Salim al-Huss has turned down Maj. Gen. Antoine Lahd's request for a general pardon for South Lebanese Army [SLA] personnel. Al-Huss found it strange for such a request to be made by Lahd, who is participating with the enemy in its attacks against civilians from his own people and is not sparing even the Lebanese Army. [Lahd] The SLA will stay. We came here before the Israelis and we will stay after they leave until the Lebanese state finds an appropriate solution for all.
Baraq's deception continued and the Israeli public read 9: "Israeli defense officials believe that the SLA will retain its weapons and continue to act as a militia after Israeli forces withdraw. Israeli officials expect the SLA to replace its current uniforms, which are similar to the IDF's, with uniforms similar to those of other Lebanese militias.
These fantasies were not to be and on May 24, 2000, members of the South Lebanese Army (SLA) found themselves refugees in numerous camps throughout Israel 10. These "camps" were makeshift, temporary, and representative of an unplanned, disorganized surrender and retreat thrust upon these allies of Israel - and by orders that can only be described as senseless and mindless, however, originating from the very top of the Israeli government.
I spoke by cell phone to an SLA Captain named Tony at a location described as Karmelia near Tiveria [town on the Sea of Gallilee]. Tony and others to whom I spoke could not speak English, only a bit of Hebrew, and spoke in Lebanese. My contact translated for me.
Toni was stationed in the Marjayun region, and his position involved him with tank maintenance. Tony's story began the day before, May 23, 2000, where he and the other members of the SLA were informed by Israel that their leader Gen. Lah'd was away and there was a communique from Lah'd telling his people they were to take their orders from Israel. Their orders were to withdraw from the Marjayun region. Tony stressed that this region was strategic, as it controlled the regions of Nabateyeh, Arab Saleem and Arnoon.
The orders to withdraw were given by Brig. General Beni Gantz, Commander of the IDF's Liaison with Lebanon. The destinations given them were Marjayun, and Kalaa. Tony clarified that Marjayun was a town and also a region.
They were ordered to redeploy to a few towns starting with Adayessee, Kfar Killa, and Kalaa. They were told they would be holding on to the Eastern Sector. After they left Arab Saleem and Kfar Tebnit they reached Mansoura. In Mansoura, they were positioned near a weapons storage depot containing heavy weapons such as cannons, armored personnel carriers, and other large weapons. The IDF began to shell the depot as the members of the SLA stood helplessly near by not knowing what to do nor where to hide.
Their proximity to the shelling brought the reality of the situation home, as they realized the undue haste of the Israeli withdrawal left behind large quantities of military equipment and sensitive information that the Israelis were now attempting to destroy.
The SLA man in charge Samir Nahra called Israeli Headquarters for information as to their status and spoke to Avi Lazaro, described as head of Israeli intelligence for the area, who in turn called Gen. Gantz. Lazaro told them they had one hour to withdraw and instead of going to Marjayun, they were to go to Majrdieh and to either surrender to HizbAllah or go to Israel.
Tony explained that these orders were a major factor in spreading fear and concern among the SLA members and that was the reason many deserted. Until this happened, they were all prepared to stay and fight. Others said that this experience was not unique as a similar situation occurred with all units of the SLA.
Tony chose to go to Israel and he along with many others were placed in this camp near Tiveria. He added that most members in the camp were high ranking officers. Tony was angry that they only had a covering where they slept and they had to sleep on bare earth.
Within seconds, I spoke to Sergeant Elie, 34 years old who confirmed everything I was told by Captain Tony and added some minor details. After the personnel carrier was shelled, they moved about 20-30 meters away and watched the carrier being destroyed by another shell. Elie added that they were about 200-300 meters away from the shelling of the depot..
Israel's confusion during the withdrawal was highlighted, as the IDF shelled an area called Bourj-Moullouk without notifying the civilian population who were terrified. Numerous Lebanese are available to discuss this rout in detail as they were the first to suffer the consequences of this debacle.
The results of Israel's uncoordinated and surprise withdrawal from Lebanon resulted in many unpleasant consequences for both Israel and Israel's allies -- as well as destabilizing the entire region. Israel's actions changed HizbAllah's fighting force from a few hundred civilians to a major threat to the region and adding to the dilemma are the many Israeli arms delivered gratuitously to this terrorist group.
These actions were the result of Baraq's extreme, leftist philosophies, inexperience in strategic planning, and authoritarian ways, that when combined allowed him to weaken Israel's security and to destroy Israel's allies who had no idea that they would be forced to flee Lebanon. Baraq had only spoken of an Israeli withdrawal and never spoke of forcing Israel's Lebanese allies to disarm, abandon their country, and desert their fight for freedom.
The distortion of Israel's military strategy was implicit in Baraq's public addresses and upset Israel's allies in the SLA for they were relegated to the position of onlookers in events leading to their destruction. The withdrawal details as given by Baraq's office were replete with complete distortions of all that transpired, including the fact that the Lebanese refugees in Israel are maltreated and under total Shabaq surveillance. A knowing accomplice was Dani Yatom, chief of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Baraq's political security staff, who on public radio 11 said:
The stay in south Lebanon seems to have originated a host of rumors. It is completely untrue. There is and there was no agreement [with HizbAllah]. We sought to pull the IDF out of Lebanon in the framework of an agreement with Syria, which we unfortunately failed to achieve.
No way was the withdrawal humiliating. The IDF pulled back its troops in an orderly, organized operation...
The SLA soldiers who came here are our friends, and we will do everything possible to ease their and their families' plight. They were all settled in organized housing units in the course of the first night, and we are seeing to all their needs. Moreover, we are holding contacts with international elements, including International Red Cross and the United Nations, on the possibility of enabling the return to south Lebanon of all those who wish that. I believe that, the situation permitting, quite a few of them will decide to return to Lebanese territory, and a small part will probably choose to settle down in Israel.
When the SLA disintegration began, it happened within a very short time, shorter than some of us anticipated. Unfortunately, there was no time at that point for the SLA to get rid of their heavy and other weapons and of their ammunition. Under Resolution 425, or the UN interpretation of that resolution, and according to the secretary general's report submitted to the Security Council, we were supposed to disarm the SLA of its heavy weapons, to free the Al-Khiyam Prison inmates, and to sever all ties with the SLA.
We meant to disarm them of their heavy weapons, although we were naturally going to leave the rest of the weapons in their possession. This is what every Lebanese household has, and there was no reason why the SLA households could not have light weapons.
Details and questions surfaced due to the unusual actions of Baraq and the strange, rapid withdrawal of the IDF, forcing the SLA to disband, disarm, surrender to HizbAllah or leave the country, under conditions that can only be described as bizarre. Lebanese intelligence at the time reported a secret deal between Baraq and HizbAllah, the details of which required a public, responsible source prior to any responsible release with open sources. However, the gloating, the sheer joy, HizbAllah felt after what they considered the defeat of the vaunted Israeli army could not be ignored as well as the inspiring effect on other terror groups. And they released the details of Baraq's abject appeal to them for an "arrangement" whereby the IDF could retreat from South Lebanon. HizbAllah's conditions were harsh and their demeanor in speaking to a despised enemy was not disguised as they remained aloof and disdainful of the Israeli delegation.
The details of the agreement were released to a respected Lebanese owned newspaper 12 in Paris and with enough detailed information to corroborate the story.
The paper reported that the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon ended at dawn on 24 May, with the departure of General Gabi Ashkenazi, commander of the occupied northern region, through the Fatimah Gate. They point out that security and intelligence experts and military advisers were trying to fathom the sudden and unusual withdrawal, especially because the withdrawal took place prior to construction of Israel's electronic fence and the fortifications planned to protect Israel's northern border and settlements. Also, Israel surprised its "supporters" at the Security Council by withdrawing before the Council had a chance to finalize a plan to send international forces to southern Lebanon.
In light of the direct accusations made by Robin Abbud, a Lah'd officer, who charged that there was a deal between Hizballah and Israel, the paper learned from well-informed European intelligence sources that some security agencies were secretly circulating reports speaking of secret contacts behind a deal between Hizballah and Israel.
According to the information of these European security quarters, meetings were held in one of the suburbs of the city of Berlin, starting on 1 March 2000. Four parties participated in the meetings: Hizballah, represented by three persons who are very close to its secretary general and one of them a member of the Shura Council; Iran, represented by an adviser at the Iranian embassy in Germany; Israeli envoys, led by Gen. Lubrani, coordinator of the Israeli activities in Lebanon and a senior officer in the Mosad; and German mediators who prepared the meeting. The German mediators included diplomats and an intelligence officer, who have good relations with the Iranians and with HizbAllah. These people had taken part previously in contacts to arrange prisoner swaps or to look for the missing Israeli pilot Ron Arad. The sources confirmed that the contacts focused on the post-Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and guarantees that no military operations would be carried out because of the consequences to the entire region. The report notes that the German mediators made several attempts to hold direct meetings between the parties, especially bilateral meetings between HizbAllah and the Israelis. Nonetheless, the HizbAllah delegation refused and threatened to withdraw; the solution was to hold meetings "by proxy."
The Germans conveyed messages between the two parties for two days in which very sensitive issues were discussed, forcing each team to go back to its leadership before providing answers.
On March 7, a second round of contacts was resumed on a higher level. The same Hizballah delegation took part in this round, along with three Iranian officials who came from Tehran, and Baraq's adviser, who came in the company of the assistant director of the Mosad and an official from the office of Uri Lubrani, and the former Israeli ambassador to Iran. This second round also took place indirectly. The Germans reserved two adjacent villas. The first villa had a garden with a view on the street and a fountain of Andalusian architecture in the middle. The delegation of Hizballah-Iran stayed at this villa. The second villa had an ordinary gate that hid behind it a small garden and was used by the Israeli delegation.
These details are significant, as they are given to allow other intelligence sources to verify the accuracy of the report.
The "proxy" negotiations started by an Israeli proposal stating that Tel Aviv is eager to withdraw from Lebanon as soon as possible and that it has no ambitions or demands from Lebanon. The proposal said that Israel is ready to withdraw to the international border "today and not tomorrow" provided that the withdrawal takes place quietly and without any disruptions or threats to carry out operations across the border. The Israelis told Hizballah that after the withdrawal, the future of Lebanon, or southern Lebanon, does not concern them. The Israelis said they do not care if Hizballah or others ruled, as long as the border remains quiet.
Israel then offered to demonstrate goodwill and trust by giving Hizballah the maps and agenda of the withdrawal to have enough time to fill the vacuum if it receives the required pledge. Here, the Hizballah representative asked a question about the fate of the SLA and whether Israel would take them with it or leave their positions in their custody.
The Israeli representative agreed that the SLA would not remain in southern Lebanon. Israel said that when we get your approval of the agreement, orders will be issued to disarm the Lahd army and Israel will not be concerned with Hizballah activities in southern Lebanon as long as these activities do not threaten it. The reply came from the Iranian side, which stressed commitment to preventing any incident in the south and readiness to control the situation and impose peace, security, and stability.
Baraq's actions had a serious and negative effect on Israel's security and substantial and long-lasting damage to Israel's Lebanese allies. Israel's North as far south as Haifa became hostage to HizbAllah weapons and the border towns exist in constant fear. From a small group of terrorists whose names were known to the SLA, HizbAllah, a legal political party in Lebanon, was transformed into an effective fighting force armed not only by Iran and Syria but by Israeli weapons left behind as they retreated. HizbAllah according to numerous reports have close to one thousand, Iranian manufactured katyusha rockets located in Christian villages throughout southern Lebanon. Upgraded Russian tanks have been supplied to HizbAllah by Palestinian elements located in Syria. The Lebanese government has no military presence in southern Lebanon and the region is controlled by HizbAllah. The Sec. General of HizbAllah NasrAllah is quite clear that their victory serves as a paradigm for all Islamic groups the world over and especially for the Palestinians. He fully supports the Palestinian intifada, and most if not all military analysts agree that it is only a matter of time before there is a unified attack by Israel's enemies. HizbAllah laughs at what they consider Israeli weakness and broke through Israel's security fence and kidnapped Israeli soldiers without any reprisal. Syria has strengthened its ties with Iraq and has assisted in building an oil pipeline across Lebanon from Syria for Iraqi oil to by pass U.N. sanctions. The Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, containing about four hundred thousand Palestinians, are only awaiting approval for them to invade Israel and destroy the Jewish State.
Baraq speaks of the withdrawal as a victory and frequently points to it as a major accomplishment,
ignoring the danger, the destabilization of the region, that ultimately threatens all western nations as
the West's energy supplies are placed in danger by both Iraq and Iran.
1. Yediot Aharonot, March 31, 2000
2. Kol Yisrael [The Voice of Israel] April 3, 2000
3. Arutz 7, 06 Apr 00
4. The Jerusalem Post, 12 May 00
5. Israel Television Channel 1, 11 May 00
6. Israel Television Channel 1, 11 May 00
7. Ma'ariv, 09 May 00
8. Paris Radio Monte Carlo, 09 May 00
9. Yedi'ot Aharonot,, 2 May, 00 May; Ha'aretz, 1 May, 00
10. Interviews with SLA refugees by M. Kahl
Note: The last names of the interviewees were omitted for security reasons; however, they would be willing to appear before any investigative function of the Likud party if they were assured confidentiality.
11. Voice of Israel 26 May 00
12. Al-Watan al-Arabi, 30 Jun 00