[This article is based on an article written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon and other books about Israeli security and diplomacy.]
In May 2000, the IDF’s Military Intelligence branch (the agency known as Aman) obtained reports and photographs from observation points and aerial patrols proving that senior Hezbollah figures were coming to tour southern Lebanon. The Lebanese Shi’ite officials would be checking on the IDF’s preparations to withdraw from the security belt which Israel’s army had held since 1982.
Hezbollah believed the IDF would leave that July, and the group hoped to come up with a plan to sabotage the withdrawal and launch an attack on the retreating troops.
“They wanted to turn the withdrawal into an inferno,” says Brig.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilboa, who has written a new book that explores the issue: Dawn. The Real Story of the IDF’s Withdrawal from Lebanon (available soon, only in Hebrew).
“Dawn” was the IDF’s codename for the operation to withdraw from Lebanon.
The full menu of aggression planned by Hezbollah’s commanders included rocket launches, gunfire, setting off roadside bombs and car-bombs, and dispatching suicide bombers.
The IDF began a series of discussions about what could be done to stop senior Hezbollah officials from patrolling in southern Lebanon. On May 21, Military Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Amos Malka held a meeting that included “Little Mofaz.” That referred to Shlomo, the brother of then-IDF chief Shaul Mofaz.
Shlomo Mofaz was the head of the terrorism department in Military Intelligence’s research division.
“Mofaz presented information that the most senior officials in Hezbollah are coming to south Lebanon. It’s a certainty, and we have already made preliminary operational and intelligence preparations among ourselves. This is a one-time opportunity to assassinate them, or at least, their most senior member. We’ll present this to the IDF chief,” the book quotes Malka as saying.
“Shlomo,” Gilboa writes, “thought deeply about it and suggested that we transfer the responsibility to decide — from his brother the IDF chief, to the prime minister or defense minister,” who was then Ehud Barak.
The following day, a meeting was to take place to decide whether to take advantage of the opportunity and try to assassinate the senior Hezbollah officials.
What Gilboa does not write in his book and this writer has already published, is that the senior officials in question were “the Fab Five” of Hezbollah’s military wing.
They included the head of the military wing, Imad Mughniyeh, whom Israel, it was claimed, had failed to assassinate on a number of occasions.
Also in the group: his deputies, Talal Hamia and Mustafa Badr a-Din (Mughniyeh’s cousin and brother-in-law), who is the Shi’ite group’s military commander today; and two others, one of whom was a senior officer in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards who was supervising Hezbollah plans against Israel.
At a meeting between Barak and Gadi Eisenkot, the current IDF chief of staff who was then Barak’s military secretary, the following day, “Gadi got into a car with the prime minister and the defense minister and updated him on the planned assassination of senior Hezbollah officials that Malka was suggesting. Barak listened, and his face lit up when he heard the name of the most senior Hezbollah official [Mughniyeh],” Gilboa writes.
Later, Malka presented the issue of the assassination at a meeting that included Barak and senior IDF officers, including Malka, Shlomo Mofaz, division commander Moshe Kaplinsky and Col. Benny Gantz, who was then the head of the IDF’s liaison unit in Lebanon.
However, it was clear to those present that Barak was distracted. After a few minutes, Barak stopped Malka and declared: “Continue with the intelligence gathering against the object of the assassination.” His meaning was clear. Barak was not authorizing an assassination.
In Gilboa’s words: “The assassination that the meeting was meant to discuss was thrown in the garbage.”
IDF officers present at the meeting and senior Mossad officials who were aware of the plan, were disappointed since everything was ready.
Had Barak given his approval, the entire leadership of Hezbollah’s military command would have been erased from this Earth. Hezbollah would have been beaten.
A golden opportunity was wasted, and it would take Israel eight more years and a war (The Second Lebanon War of 2006) until intelligence and operational feasibility would converge again to enable the assassination of Mughniyeh.
According to foreign reports, the assassination of Mughniyeh in February 2008 — in Syria’s capital, Damascus — was mainly a Mossad operation aided by and carried out in coordination with the CIA.
Barak had refused to approve the action in Lebanon because he feared the ramifications it would have on his bigger plan – to fulfill his election promise to bring the IDF back from its 18-year presence in Lebanon.
Initially, Barak had hoped the withdrawal would be carried out through an agreement or understanding between Israel and Syria mediated by U.S. President Bill Clinton.
However, in 2000, after just a few months, he understood that the chances of reaching such an agreement were slim, and Barak ordered IDF Chief of Staff Mofaz to prepare for a withdrawal without agreement.
The timing of the withdrawal was dictated mainly by the rapid collapse of Israel’s mostly Christian allies — the South Lebanon Army (SLA) — to which the IDF turned over control of some of the outposts it evacuated.
When Barak understood that the SLA could not hold the outposts, he gathered IDF commanders on the evening of May 22 – the same day on which he had earlier rejected the assassination operation – and announced that he had ordered Chief of Staff Mofaz and OC Northern Command Gabi Ashkenazi to complete “their preparations to withdraw all IDF forces and prepare them to redeploy starting tonight.”
“Mofaz almost fell off his chair — he was so shocked,” Gilboa writes.
As a strategic decision, the withdrawal could be considered the crowning glory of Barak’s achievements as prime minister and defense minister. The IDF withdrew without casualties. But the price of the withdrawal was indeed heavy.
In the security, political and social arenas, history will judge Barak unfavorably.
True, it was impressive that Hezbollah did not succeed in sabotaging the withdrawal. However, the pullout exposed Israel’s betrayal of the 2,500 SLA soldiers who had worked with the Jewish state for years in cooperation and coordination. All of a sudden, in the dead of night, the SLA men and their famlies found themselves running for their lives to Israel.
In the wake of these events, the unanswered question remains: Did Barak err by not ordering the assassination of Mughniyeh and the other senior Hezbollah officials? In 2000 it would have changed the reality between Israel and the Shi’ite organization that fought a frightening and bloody war in 2006 and now has armed fighters helping Syria’s regime in that country’s civil war.