To Beirut and back

To Beirut and back

Every generation of Israeli men is related in many ways to one of Israel’s conflicts or wars. If you are in your 70’s, you may have been active in the War of Independence or if you’re in your 50s or 60s you probably fought in the Six Day War, Yom Kippur War, or both. If you’re in your mid-40s you are part of the Lebanon generation. I am part of that Lebanon generation, having been recruited in January 198′.

Every year, around this time, mid-June, I think about the time I spent as a young IDF soldier, in a foreign Arab country. I once calculated that two out of my five years in regular service were spent in Lebanon.

When Israel first invaded Lebanon, in June 198′, I was still in my basic training, and therefore did not participate in the first stages of the operation. Two classmates of mine, who were both recruited earlier, lost their lives on the same day — June 10. Shalom Tamam and Doron Bar were the first friends I lost. They are both buried in the Mount Herzl military cemetery, six feet apart.

I still remember clearly our first entrance into Lebanon in July 198′. A convoy of armored personnel carriers created a long long line at the Rosh Hanikra border post. Eight terrified 19-year-old soldiers were with me in the APC, some with their heads out, some leaning on the machine guns, and some squashed under deck among crates of supplies, ammunition and personal belongings. Little did we know that this small vehicle would be our home for the coming few weeks.

The convoy entered Lebanon like a long, winding centipede. The coastal road along the Mediterranean shore was narrow, full of potholes and burned-out vehicles on both sides. We passed by the ancient biblical towns of Tyre and Sidon and took a right at the burned town of Damur. The evidence of a fierce battle was all around: demolished houses, burned overturned vehicles, rubble everywhere, and not a person in sight. We started ascending the Shuff Mountains. After several hours of driving up scenic, narrow, winding roads, we arrived at a small mountain village and planned to spend the night in the schoolyard. The surroundings were absolutely spectacular — a small river flowing gently, trees and orchards everywhere, beautiful terraces with fruit trees, and a magnificent view of green hills and meadows. No wonder Lebanon is considered the "Switzerland of the Middle East."

Not much happened that first month in Lebanon. The peaceful atmosphere was disturbed by an occasional distant explosion and the roaring of our armed vehicles climbing the steep mountains. Being the "freshman company," we were kept away from the heavy combat areas, and spent most of the time on patrols, roadblocks, and night ambushes.

On my first leave for a short vacation at home, my sergeant stopped a brand new local Mercedes Benz and told the driver to take my friend and me to the coastal road. There we hitched a ride with an Israel Defense Forces jeep to Nahariya. We took a bus to Tel Aviv and then another bus to Jerusalem. It took us eight hours to get home.

After three weeks, we received instructions to move east to the Syrian border. The convoy ascended the peaks of Jabel Baruch, and then descended all the way to the rift valley. We passed the Karun Lake and arrived at the hills of Kafar Kook. We were told to dig and build outposts, as the Syrians were just over the valley.

In the next three weeks we had our first taste of real "action." The border with the Syrians was still not clearly defined, and both sides were trying to promote their forces to better strategic positions. This created a series of seven to eight war days over a period of two to three weeks. A ridge of low, rocky hills changed hands daily. Every time we took possession of one of the hills, the high command would not allow us to stay there overnight, and we would retreat and start again after a couple of days.

The Syrians were pretty lousy marksmen, and after a while we started ignoring regular gunfire, but the scary part was the artillery. Once in a while heavy shelling started and all you could do was keep your head down and pray not to get hit. After a while you get used to that. The one thing you never get used to is the cold long nights.

Rosh HaShanah was approaching, and we were all dreaming of getting leave for the High Holidays. But the Lebanese had other plans for us. A car exploded outside a building in Beirut, killing Lebanon’s Christian president Bashir Juamail. The IDF imposed a siege on western Beirut, where the remaining Palestine Liberation Organization fighters had gathered. We were ordered to leave our posts and drive directly to Beirut.

We drove through the night and arrived at the outskirts of Beirut early next morning. The day broke into one of the most surreal visions of my life.

The whole city of Beirut, with the beautiful blue Mediterranean in the background, was under attack. Throughout the day the IDF conducted aerial attacks on the town. We sat in our armored personnel carriers watching the scene as in a movie. F-16 jets, in groups of four, were bombarding the PLO strongholds right in front of our eyes. Heavy artillery exploded everywhere, and the modern skyscrapers of western Beirut were covered with smoke and ashes. We did not know that Yassar Arafat was negotiating his final retreat from Beirut and was about to leave with his remaining militia to Tunisia.

This went on for a few days. When the IDF was pretty sure that no resistance was left in the town, we, the foot soldiers, were sent in to make sure the city was secure. We marched at night through the demolished Arab capital. Everything was ruined and broken. We marched through downtown Beirut and I still remember the names: Galerry Sam’an, Ba’abda, Suk El Arab, the bridge over Beirut river….

Later we learned that this was the week that the Christian militia massacred the Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla. This massacre changed the whole perspective of the war. This incident turned a great Israeli victory into a terrible mess. It was an event that drove Ariel Sharon to resign from his position as minister of defense, and he was to be remembered always as being responsible for the whole Lebanon "adventure."

But for us, the soldiers on the ground, this was a week of keeping our heads low, staying behind cover, and admiring the ability of the citizens of Beirut to restore their lives and businesses. It did not take more than one day for the Lebanese to reopen their shops, drive around in their cars, and go to the beach and coffee shops, as if there had not been a war.

I was lucky to go though so much without a scratch, but some friends of mine did not make it. I mentioned earlier Shalom and Doron, and a soldier from the other platoon, Alon Ben Shachar, was killed later on.

The memories are still alive — the sights, the smells, the earth shifting when a shell explodes, the long cold nights that never seem to end, and the camaraderie and the friendship that get you through all the bad times.

Our generation, the Lebanon generation, will never be part of proud Israeli history. We did not fight for independence, we were not around at the heroic battles of 1967, and we weren’t there to save Israel in the Yom Kippur war. It was our destiny to be part of a controversial conflict, one that split Israeli society, and one that will always be remembered as the first war Israel initiated while not being under existing danger.

But this was a real war for us, the young men and women who were there. Our country sent us there to defend the citizens of the Galilee from shelling and terror attacks from the PLO militia in southern Lebanon. We did our job with pride and honor. We are privileged to be part of the Israeli history of standing up, fighting, and confronting our enemies.

Every June, we should remember Lebanon, the men who fought there, and those who did not return.