On June 6, 1982, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) invaded Lebanon to eliminate the threat from Palestinian militias on its northern border. When the IDF finally withdrew on May 25, 2000, Hezbollah claimed it had defeated and ejected the Israelis. Hezbollah’s claim seems believable: the IDF withdrew six weeks before schedule, ostensibly overnight, and abandoned its South Lebanon Army (SLA) allies in the process. In reality, complex domestic Israeli factors – not Hezbollah’s fighting prowess – both constrained the IDF’s military actions and eventually prompted its pullout.

Israel Demoralized but Unbroken       

Large segments of Israeli society opposed the Lebanon invasion from the outset. They believed it was an unnecessary war of choice to accomplish political goals, rather than guarantee Israeli security. They were mostly correct: the IDF chased the Palestine Liberation Organization to Beirut – far beyond where they could threaten Israel – to support the Phalangists, their Maronite Christian allies, in exchange for a promised peace treaty. Ultimately, Israel’s Maronite gamble failed, and it began to gradually withdraw from Lebanon. However, Hezbollah’s risecatalyzed by the IDF’s invasion and its neglect of Lebanese Shiites, who had initially welcomed the Israelis as liberators – precluded a full Israeli pullout.

As Israel redeployed to the Security Zone in June 1985 – a 328 square mile buffer zone on its northern border – Hezbollah exploited this dynamic to keep the IDF focused on casualty-prevention rather than seeking to destroy the group in a massive ground operation. It launched countless attacks on Israeli troops to create a constant trickle of casualties. Hezbollah’s propaganda organs then amplified their impact by broadcasting edited recordings exaggerating its successes. Due to Israeli military censorship rules, these recordings often reached the Israeli public before the IDF’s version of events, and made them believe south Lebanon was a killing zone for their soldiers.

Hezbollah succeeded in locking the IDF up in its Security Zone fortifications, but its war of attrition to expel the Israelis from Lebanon failed. Israeli casualties – on average, 1 death every two weeks – were too small and infrequent to create a critical mass of Israelis supporting withdrawal. Most deemed the price proportionate to the group’s threat, and continued supporting the Security Zone even when Hezbollah had virtually bridged its casualty gap with the IDF.

That changed on February 4, 1997, but Hezbollah wasn’t responsible. Two Israeli transport helicopters entering Lebanon collided in mid-air and killed all 73 soldiers on board. Within weeks Israeli support for unilateral withdrawal – 21% in January 1997 – doubled and rose to 70% by May 25, 2000. The helicopter crash thus accomplished in one day what Hezbollah – in 6,058 operations between June 1985 and May 2000 which killed only 235 IDF soldiers – couldn’t. It also created the Four Mothers Movement, a large social current demanding immediate withdrawal, and whose numbers swelled with every subsequent Israeli casualty.

Nonetheless, Hezbollah never succeeded in its goal of crushing or demoralizing the IDF. If anything, Israeli soldiers were demoralized not by Hezbollah’s attacks, but by being constrained by domestic political forces from fighting the group. In fact, during the occupation’s final two years, the IDF eagerly struck back at Hezbollah. The IDF regained the initiative against the group, and reduced its own casualties – 13 in total – by half from the previous year. Hezbollah tried to save face, claiming the drop in IDF casualties resulted from an Israeli troop reduction in the Security Zone. In reality, the IDF had doubled its forces there after 1996, while group conducted 4,928 of its total operations during those years.

Domestic Constraints and Unexpected Events

Ehud Barak – who had privately opposed holding the Security Zone since 1985 – capitalized on the swelling opposition to the occupation and was elected, on a promise to withdraw from Lebanon within one year of taking office, either through a peace deal with Syria – which controlled Lebanon at the time – or unilaterally. He began planning for withdrawal shortly after taking office.

When peace talks with Syria failed in March 2000, Barak ordered the IDF to prepare for a gradual unilateral withdrawal to be completed by July 7. The IDF vigorously opposed Barak’s plan, wanting to hold the Security Zone for at least “another couple of years” to defeat Hezbollah. But Barak wouldn’t heed their advice. He needed a political accomplishment to shore up his plummeting poll numbers, and believed that a unilateral withdrawal would deprive Hezbollah of its excuse to carry arms or attack Israel, thus accomplishing the occupation’s goals without its casualties.

Hezbollah had been trying to create the impression of an Israeli withdrawal under fire ever since Barak’s promise to withdraw from Lebanon, feverishly increasing the rate of its attacks: 1,528 attacks in 1999 alone, and 325 in May of 2000, as the July 7 pullout deadline approached. Rather than strike back decisively, the IDF – constrained by Barak’s orders – proceeded with withdrawal. By May 19, only 120 soldiers remained in Lebanon, to man stripped-down outposts until the pullout deadline.

Unexpected events, however, overtook the Israelis. On May 21, the demoralized SLA abandoned the strategically critical Taibe outpost – handed to them by the IDF a week before – to a crowd of Lebanese civilians who had broken through its defenses. Taibe’s fall led to a domino-effect collapse of the Security Zone. Rebounding from its surprise, Hezbollah encouraged the civilians to press forward to the Israeli border, hoping to capitalize on the Security Zone’s premature disintegration to claim it had expelled Israel.

Barak rejected a final plea from the IDF to massively redeploy into the Security Zone to stop the flow and save the SLA. He knew the Israeli public would oppose such a move so close to the withdrawal deadline. His priority was now withdrawing Israeli troops safely, rather than on time. With his cabinet’s support, he ordered an immediate pullout six weeks ahead of schedule.

The IDF looked like it had been routed, allowing Hezbollah to claim victory. Ever since, the May 25, 2000 withdrawal has become the cornerstone of the group’s “resistance” mythology, and the engine of its growth.

David Daoud is a research analyst on Hezbollah and Lebanon at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).