MAXWELL:  Four Mothers made a difference in Israel

5/28/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Israel’s redeployment from southern Lebanon was a military and a political decision. At the core of the exodus, however, lies the simple story of moral courage, persistence and maternal love.

Is the redeployment a defeat for Israel? Is it a victory for militant Shiite Muslims?

Ask the women of Four Mothers.

One of the highlights of my trip to Israel last year was attending a press conference _ three days after Ehud Barak had defeated Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister _ with Rachel Ben-Dor and other members of Four Mothers. Composed of women whose sons died or were wounded in south Lebanon, Four Mothers is the grassroots movement responsible for shaping Israeli public opinion on pulling the military out of the so-called security zone that the Jewish nation had occupied since 1978.

During that news conference, Ben-Dor, chairwoman of the group, spoke in plain words, boldly questioning the wisdom of how her country was protecting its northern borders. Four Mothers women fanned out across the tiny nation, spoke with any civilians who would listen to them, urged political leaders, raised money, placed spots in the media, anguished _ and prayed.

Barak immediately talked with Four Mothers, along with members of his ruling coalition, and promised that all troops would be home by the end of July 2000.

Hundreds of young Israeli men died in the southern Lebanon theater, a tar pit often called the Holy Land’s Vietnam, where Ben-Dor’s eldest son saw action in a commando unit. Fortunately, he was recently demobilized.

The movement was formed in February 1997, soon after two helicopters flying to Lebanon collided over the Galilee panhandle. All 73 servicemen on board were killed. Ben-Dor and a handful of other mothers had seen enough death, had heard too many cries of hurting women and had attended too many funerals.

Amazingly, the organization had an immediate effect. Hard questions were being raised nationwide: Why were the Israel Defense Forces occupying another nation? Was there a better way to protect the residents of Israel’s northern cities? Would Syria, which controls the Lebanese government and military, be willing to talk serious peace if Israel made different concessions?

Is the trade-off between the loss of young men’s lives and military pride worth continuing? Four Mothers said “no.” Netanyahu ignored their question. Barak embraced them and their query. Even then, he began to plan a way out of Lebanon.

While speaking of her son and employing her usual motherly candor, Ben-Dor told the Jerusalem Post: “He did not not feel that Israel should be in Lebanon, but he did his duty and received several commendations. Today he is abroad, and when I told him the news of the completion of the pullout, he was overjoyed.

“My own feeling is that one era has ended, and we are entering a period that could be difficult, but we all hope that with good sense and steadfastness, we will overcome that as well and look forward to better and brighter days. Thanks to Barak, we, finally, have gotten out of the quagmire.”

Since the pullout, some Four Mothers members, including Ben-Dor, have suggested the dismantling of the movement because it has accomplished its mission. Others, though, want the movement to remain intact and perhaps establish efforts to support northern towns that remain targets of Hezbollah’s deadly Katyusha rockets.

Ben-Dor, who lives in Rosh Pina and lectures at Tel Hai College, between Kiryat Shemona and Metulla, told the Post that hundreds of people have congratulated Four Mothers for the completion of the IDF pullout.

“At the same time,” she said, “there is a great sense of sadness for the families whose sons did not make it out of Lebanon alive. Many of the bereaved parents were among those who had been in touch with me. For those reasons I cannot say that this is a day of victory, because it has come nearly 20 years too late, and now we are facing a period of uncertainty.

“That’s why I call on world leaders to use their influence to calm things down and put pressure on these radical elements who might try to re-ignite the flames of war in Lebanon. . . . My husband fought in the Lebanon War, and then my eldest son served there. I hope that our younger boys (ages 9 and 12) will not have to go through the same thing.”

Equally poignant comments, in Haaretz, a daily newspaper, came from other Four Mothers members and reflect the selflessness that made the movement so powerful. Below are the comments of two women speaking to the IDF chief of staff after the withdrawal.

Manuella Dviri, whose son Yoni was killed at the Karkum outpost two years ago: “I would like to thank you on behalf of the mothers of these soldiers and myself, even though my son is not coming back.”

Orna Shimoni, whose son Eyal was killed at Reihan three years ago: “I hold dear to my heart the commanders who knew how to pull the troops out, as well as those families whose sons cannot shout today: “Mom, I am home.’ ”

Hezbollah may wallow in machismo and declare victory by witnessing Israel’s redeployment from southern Lebanon. As the Party of God guerrillas brag, however, their stalwarts should remember that a band of good women _ tired of seeing Israel’s boys die _ played a major role in ending this 22-year-old war of shared attrition and perhaps changed forever the course of history in the Middle East.