Israel's "Little Vietnam": Negotiating Withdrawal from South Lebanon

By Honig, David | Harvard International Review, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Israel's "Little Vietnam": Negotiating Withdrawal from South Lebanon


Honig, David, Harvard International Review


David Honig is a Staff Writer for the Harvard International Review.

When Israel carved out a nine-mile security zone in south Lebanon in 1978, it could not have imagined that its forces would still be there in 1997. Nearly 20 years have passed, and Israel still finds itself mired in what one popular Israeli newspaper described as "our little Vietnam." This description is not far from the truth. Recently, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has had significant difficulty dealing with its principle nemesis, the Iranian-backed and Syrian-sponsored Hizbullah. Furthermore, human tragedies such as the shelling of the Qana refugee compound which killed scores of Lebanese civilians in April, 1996, and the helicopter crash which killed 74 IDF servicemen en route to Lebanon in February, 1997, have forced Israelis to question openly the wisdom of remaining in Lebanon.

Israel's presence in Lebanon began in 1978 when columns of IDF armor rumbled across the border in an effort to uproot the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which had been using southern Lebanon as a spring-board for launching terror attacks on Israel. The IDF halted its advance about 40 miles outside Israel at the Litani River, and then began to pull back. Instead of withdrawing all the way to the border, however, the IDF took up positions along a nine-mile, self-proclaimed security zone designed to thwart future infiltration into Israel by the PLO and other Palestinian forces. While there, Israel recruited local Maronite Christians and formed the South Lebanese Army (SLA), a proxy militia which to this day patrols the security zone alongside the IDF. Although Israel's fullscale invasion of Lebanon in 1982 successfully expelled the PLO, the IDF's continued presence prompted the formation of new anti-Israel groups like Hizbullah, or Party of God. With Iranian monetary and military backing and Syrian support, the Party of God has proven itself to be a far deadlier enemy than the PLO ever was.

This support from outside of the country has made South Lebanon and the security zone a staging ground for clashes between Hizbullah and IDF and its SLA allies. Hizbullah receives a third of Iran's total foreign aid funds and is trained by its elite Republican Guards. The Party of God also receives logistical and political support form Syria, the de-facto controller of Lebanon. In turn, Hizbullah has been used by Syria to pressure Israel to return the Golan Heights, a strategic mountain range Israel captured from Syria in the June 1967 war. The volatility of south Lebanon is especially dangerous because it can very easily bring Israel and Syria into direct conflict.

A Losing Battle

Israel has now found itself engaged in a low-intensity, protracted war with Hizbullah that seems to get more perilous as the conflict progresses. Just last year, approximately 30 IDF soldiers died and scores more were injured as a result of clashes with Hizbullah guerrillas. As the conflict drags on, it has become clear to Israeli military planners that Hizbullah has made significant gains in training, weapons sophistication, and overall fighting capability.

Not only is Israel sustaining losses on the battlefield, but the circumstances of the conflict also preclude it from ever achieving victory. The zone is designed to give the IDF strength in depth, a strategy which relies on geographic land-mass and not necessarily on fighting superiority to secure Israel's north. This battle tactic forces the IDF to take up static defensive positions, an order of battle ill suited for an army configured to execute rapid attack patterns. Regardless of the IDF's fighting design, taking up static defensive posts in any war is a disadvantaged position because it imposes a reactive and not a proactive battle strategy; it is the enemy who determines when and where the fighting takes place. From the very outset, the IDF finds itself in a war difficult to win.

Israel's predicament is further compounded by the psychological dimensions of the conflict. …

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