Lessons from Israel’s Security Zone: From “Pumpkin” to the Present

By Lauren Mellinger

(Re-published from Strife, Sept. 5, 2016) Ten years ago, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 brought the Second Lebanon War to an end. Almost immediately journalists, historians and policy analysts began grappling with the significance of the 34-day conflict. Yet to date, the pivotal events in the years that preceded that war – namely, the 15-year period between 1985 and 2000 during which troops maintained Israel’s security zone in southern Lebanon before unilaterally withdrawing all Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in May 2000 – have largely been overlooked.

“Bookended by two wars … the 15-year period in which Israeli troops were stationed in southern Lebanon still has no official name, and no official national monument.”

In his recent war memoir Pumpkin Flowers: A Soldier’s Story, author Matti Friedman begins to fill this gap.[1] Friedman’s own experiences as an IDF solider serving in southern Lebanon took place in the final years of the security zone – at a time when there was a growing and vocal movement within Israel advocating for withdrawing from Lebanon.

During his service, Friedman was stationed at Pumpkin (Dla’at in Hebrew), one of dozens of fortified hilltop outposts that comprised the security zone.[2] The self-proclaimed first historian of the outpost, Friedman provides a unique account of this period in a memoir that is part a history of the war and part-political analysis, recounting the experiences of a generation who grew up under the promises of a ‘new Middle East,’[3] only to find themselves in southern Lebanon, observing as the seeds of twenty-first century warfare were planted. Yet, this period in Israeli – and for that matter, in the region’s history – remains incredibly relevant. Indeed, as Friedman argues in Pumpkin Flowers, ‘It is hardly possible to understand current events without understanding these ones [the Security Zone years], and yet they have been overlooked.’[4]

Israel’s troubled history in Lebanon: 1982-2016

Prior to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the 1982 Operation Peace for Galilee, cross-border incursions perpetrated by Palestinian terrorist organisations based in southern Lebanon were a frequent occurrence. Though Israel ultimately achieved the mission’s stated purpose of routing the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO)[5] from its base of operations in southern Lebanon, in their place emerged a new, and ultimately more formidable adversary: Hezbollah.

Three years later, on January 14, 1985, then-Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin announced the cabinet’s decision to deploy IDF troops to maintain a 328-square mile buffer zone in southern Lebanon, to prevent the area from being used as a staging ground for acts of terrorism targeting northern Israel. For the next 15 years, those residing in northern Israel were able to maintain a relatively normal life, free of the fear of terrorist infiltration, (though they were still subject to occasional attacks from mortars and rockets launched from within the security zone by Hezbollah). Moreover, as a result of the relative quiet, residents in Israel’s north benefited from a thriving tourism industry during this period.[6]

But this improved quality of life came at a price. Between 1985 and May 2000, Hezbollah attacks on Israeli troops stationed in the security zone became the organisation’s raison d’être. The IDF lost an average of two dozen troops annually, which according to the army’s estimates amounted to 559 fallen soldiers, including 256 in combat operations.

When the IDF withdrew from southern Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah proclaimed an Arab victory. Indeed in a now infamous speech, given on May 26, 2000 – Hezbollah’s declared ‘Victory Day’ – Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah remarked, ‘Israel . . . is feebler than a spider’s web.’

But following the withdrawal the newfound ‘quiet’ along the border would not last, and in July 2006, the Second Lebanon War broke out in response to a Hezbollah provocation. Since the 34-day conflict ended in August 2016, the security situation along the Israel-Lebanon border has been governed by mutual deterrence, with neither Israel nor Hezbollah eager for the next round of fighting, despite Hezbollah’s efforts to enhance its military capabilities in the interim.

Meanwhile, the events that took place in the security zone between 1985 and 2000 foretold the type of conflicts that the United States and coalition forces would soon find themselves immersed in following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Why the security zone years are worth remembering

Visitors to Israel are familiar with the country’s painstaking efforts to memorialise its military history, especially the service and sacrifice of Israeli troops. Yet bookended by two wars, to date, the 15-year period in which Israeli troops were stationed in southern Lebanon still has no official name, and no official national monument. The ‘security zone’ era, as it is referred to, seems to have been largely forgotten. Yet, there are several reasons why the events that took place during this period are worthy of greater consideration …

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INSCT alumna Lauren Mellinger (JD/MAIR ’10) is a doctoral candidate in War Studies at King’s College, London, and a senior editor of Strife’s blog and journal. Her research specializes in Israeli counterterrorism and foreign policy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You can follow her on Twitter @Lauren_M04.

Notes:

[1] Matti Friedman, Pumpkin Flowers: A Soldier’s Story (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2016).

[2] Per Israeli military jargon at that time, it was common to name things after produce — hence a range of hilltops in southern Lebanon with names such as Red Pepper, Basil, and Crocus. Floral code words were popular as well – if the code word ‘flowers’ was sent over the radio, that meant there were wounded soldiers. Id, p. 24.

[3] Id; See also Shimon Peres, The New Middle East (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1993).

[4] Friedman, Pumpkin Flowers, p. 20.

[5] At the time, the PLO was classified as a terrorist organisation by the Israeli government.

[6] See Gal Luft, “Israel’s Security Zone in Lebanon – A Tragedy?” Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 7, no. 3 (September 2000), pp. 13-20.