Thursday, May 31, 2012

Begin and the Beaufort on the Litani

From Shay Fogelman's Three decades later, new reports shed light on IDF's iconic battle in Lebanon:- The IDF conquest of the Beaufort in 1982 lasted just hours but the battle over the legitimacy of the attack, which left 6 soldiers dead, still rages.

“You can feel fresh mountain air here. Divine,” then Prime Minister Menachem Begin poeticized to his defense minister, Ariel Sharon, just after he stepped out of the helicopter that took him to the foot of the Beaufort fortress in southern Lebanon.

It was the morning of June 7, 1982, the second day of the first Lebanon war and a few hours after the end of one of the bitterest and most controversial battles of that war. The bodies of the six soldiers who were killed in the assault on Beaufort had already been removed, and all of the wounded had been evacuated. Only a few blood-soaked dressings skittered around in the wind, until they were caught on the barbed-wire fences that encircled the area. Some of those present at the time remember that the smell of gunpowder still lingered in the air.
“Begin was euphoric, he was radiant with joy,” television reporter Amos Carmeli, who covered the premier’s visit, recently told Haaretz. “Begin saw the event as a historic moment and was very emotional.”
Carmeli remembers that during the entire visit, he did not hear Begin or anyone in his entourage say a word about the casualties of the battle. “Begin was very inquisitive and had a lot of questions, but that subject did not come up, not during the flight and not while we were on Beaufort. Toward the end of the visit he asked to observe the Galilee Panhandle. He admired the view and especially the topographic dominance of the place.”
In the wake of Carmeli’s report, which was broadcast that evening ‏(Israel only had state television at the time‏), the first questions about the necessity of the war and its conduct were raised. The report was imprinted in the public memory mainly because of Begin’s question to commando officer Tamir Massad: “Did they have machine guns?” The young second lieutenant replied, “They had pretty big machine guns here.” Sharon is seen standing between the two, scarcely able to conceal a smile at the bizarre dialogue, which went on for a few more minutes.
The next day’s newspapers speculated that there seemed to be a disconnect between the prime minister, the army and the defense minister. Two days later, when the human cost of taking Beaufort became known, the suspicions became accusations. The struggle by the parents to find out the truth about those killed in the battle was one of the principal begetters of the protest movement which later formed against both the war and the 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon.
“The conquest of Beaufort was assigned to the Golani Brigade’s reconnaissance unit long before the war,” former deputy chief of staff Moshe Kaplinsky recently told Haaretz. He was appointed commander of the unit a few weeks earlier, in 1982, replacing Goni Harnik, who had completed his army service. “The unit operated permanently in Northern Command and knew the terrain and the target well.”
In the months leading up to the war, the unit’s soldiers practiced a large number of scenarios for capturing the fortress...
Kaplinsky was seriously wounded by a bullet even before the various forces reached Beaufort, and Harnik, who was summoned to replace him, was lightly wounded when an APC overturned while trying to join the unit. Afterward, the tank platoon, which was manned by young soldiers from a training course, got bogged down and did not reach their target, along with some of the APCs. The fortress itself turned out to be more difficult to take than had been anticipated, and the trenches surrounding it deeper and narrower than the soldiers expected. In the end, the site was conquered by a small force on foot and in the dark.
Harnik, the former commander of the reconnaissance unit, returned from his discharge leave and took command in the midst of battle, after Kaplinsky was wounded. Harnik was killed while mopping up the trenches on the north side of the fort...According to most of the testimonies over the years, there were a number of cases of friendly fire during the battle. An officer was wounded in at least one such exchange. The soldiers who were there remained silent for 30 years about the circumstances of the death of one of their buddies, for fear of the effect on his parents if they knew the details.
Beaufort, in which there were three main positions spread across 500 meters, was conquered in a little more than two hours. The Kastel Force of the Palestine Liberation Organization was well dug in and heavily armed there. Contrary to expectations, its men fought fiercely, some of them to the last bullet. Apparently only a few fled after the battle started. According to some testimonies, 15 bodies were found afterward, though others say there were 24.
“I heard about it in an incidental conversation with my driver a few weeks after the war,” Kahalani says now − referring to the first time he heard there was a controversy about whether the conquest of Beaufort had been necessary. “He told me that someone had said to him that there was no need to take Beaufort at all, or something like that. I shrugged it off. I told him, ‘Forget that nonsense, it’s just idle talk.’ It was only after the war that I realized how deeply that libel had penetrated.” Kahalani also hints that because of the allegations raised against him in connection with the battle for Beaufort, he was denied a promotion to the rank of major general...The GOC Northern Command, Amir Drori, “tried to postpone the Golani attack. The chief of staff [Rafael Eitan] happened to be in the command’s war room when the subject came up, and he personally confirmed the postponement. Drori issued an order not to go through with the Beaufort operation that night, but for some reason it never reached the Golani commando [unit]. The order was simply swallowed up, misplaced or forgotten somewhere down the line.”...
...The first rationale presented by the IDF for conquering the Beaufort can be gleaned from the short exchange between Prime Minister Begin and Defense Minister Sharon at the foot of the fortress, as captured by journalist Carmeli. “This is one of the greatest achievements,” Sharon told Begin. “This place constituted ...,” Sharon continued but was cut off by Begin. “... An open wound. We had an open wound,” the prime minister said. Sharon nodded and added, “A nuisance, a danger for years upon years.”
The Beaufort fortress was indeed a nuisance − and a danger. But the main threat it posed was to the Christian enclave in southern Lebanon and less to the Israeli north. The assessment of most of the intelligence officers who were interviewed for this article is that no missiles were ever fired from the Beaufort at Israel, in contrast to the view generally held by the public.
...There are hardly any references to the Beaufort in the Israeli press during the period between Operation Litani ‏(1978‏) and the Lebanon War in 1982. However, it is mentioned dozens of times in the Lebanese and international press, mostly in connection with the threat posed to the Christian villages below the site...From its heights, he noted, the Palestinians dominated not only the border with Israel but mainly the area of Lebanon controlled by Haddad and his Israeli-backed militia.
The second justification given by the army for capturing the Beaufort can be derived from the war plan of Northern Command. The Beaufort is situated in the center of a ridge that overlooks the Litani River from about 800 meters, which is why the Crusaders built the fortress and why it has seen so many battles throughout the years...Someone seems to have exaggerated the importance of the fortress. A perusal of the intelligence files about the site which were prepared in Northern Command before the war indicates that the Palestinian fighters in that area were incapable of doing damage to the tank division that was moving toward them, even if the former had the topographical advantage.
...The weakness of the military justifications for capturing the Beaufort raises the possibility that there were other rationales for the campaign, which the army is not inclined to talk about. First, there were considerations of a political nature. In the act of launching the war, Begin and Sharon wanted to bring the government at least one winning card, and the Beaufort was perfectly suited for that role. Its historic importance, its massive presence and the lofty status accorded the fortress by the Palestinian forces made it a very desirable target for Begin and Sharon...

...even before the world learned about the capture of the Beaufort, The Washington Post published an article which tried to examine the war’s goals. The writers claimed that Begin’s stated ambition − to push the Palestinian forces dozens of kilometers to the north, taking Israel out of their range − would not be so simple to achieve...Sneh rejects vehemently the theory that one reason Israel captured the Beaufort was to improve relations with Haddad and his militia. However, other officers who were interviewed for this article do not rule this out so vigorously. The relationship between Haddad and the IDF was critical for the future of the security zone in that period.
...The New York Times noted in the wake of the ceremony that Israel was trying to create a buffer zone under the control of Haddad’s militia. Prime Minister Begin had marked the start of that process by giving Haddad a prize in the form of the Beaufort, the paper said. Haddad’s men soon abandoned the site, which was manned again in 1985, by Israel, when the IDF withdrew into the security zone.
“On the flight back to Safed, Begin talked enthusiastically about the Beaufort nonstop,” journalist Carmeli recalls. “He asked us to hurry, because he wanted to get to the cabinet meeting which had been planned for him in Jerusalem and tell the ministers what he had seen personally. We landed in Safed. I asked Begin’s staff to get the films to the television studios in Jerusalem and sat down to record a voice-over for the report. In the meantime, the security guards and the members of the entourage went to pick up their bags, and Begin remained alone at the helipad. I looked at him. It was a very sad moment. He sat on a wobbly, shaky, maybe even rusty chair, holding his cane loosely and nodding off, his head tilted back. He was very tired. Suddenly he also looked very old. Inappropriate for the image of prime minister leading a whole nation and army into war.”
In later years, Rafael Eitan, chief of staff during the war, related that Begin was so eager to capture the Beaufort that at times this seemed to bother him more than the fear that the IDF was close to engaging with Syrian forces.
According to the testimony of officers in Northern Command, before Begin left the war room on the night before his visit to the Beaufort, he ordered his aides to wake him at any hour of the Beaufort were captured. The next day, the Newsweek reporter who covered the war from Israel wrote that at 2 A.M. one of the premier’s aides woke Begin up to say the Beaufort was in Israeli hands. Begin apparently said, “Go to Sharon, give him a hug for me and tell him that from now on I will finally be able to sleep peacefully.”
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