With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Lebanon: How We Got Here

The beginning of Israel’s involvement in Lebanon dates back to the 1930s, before Jewish statehood. The Arab rebels in Palestine looked for guidance to their leader, the Mufti of Jerusalem Hajj Amin al-Hussayni, who found refuge in a Lebanese village and from this secure shelter directed the rebellion in Palestine and provided the Palestinian gangs with munitions, provisions and funds while the French authorities in Beirut turned a blind eye to his actions. Jewish officials bribed Lebanese politicians and police officers to hinder his activities. They also dispatched Arab and Druze agents to Lebanon to assassinate the Mufti, but these attempts failed. Politically, the Jewish Agency cherished hopes in forming a “block of minorities” to balance the Muslim majority in the region. Lebanon’s Christians of all denominations were especially significant for implementing this ambitious goal. Hence, the Jews cultivated relations with various Christian factions, though not yet with the Phalanges of Pierre Jumayil who at that time adopted fascist orientation.

The rapprochement between the Jews of Palestine and the Christian Arabs of Lebanon culminated in the summer of 1947. Ben-Gurion and the old (93) Maronite Patriarch Anton Arida exchanged letters promising mutual cooperation and friendship. Having in mind a future Christian state in Lebanon, Bishop Mubarak of Beirut declared before UNSCOP the Maronites’ support for partition and the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Lebanon belonged to the political coalition of Arab states that invaded Israel in May 1948, but owing to the Christians’ influence and reluctance to take part in the adventure it did not join the military enterprise. The Lebanese army did not cross the border, and gave only token artillery and logistic assistance to the Arab League’s troops that penetrated from South Lebanon into Galilee.

In a manner reminiscent of years to come, in 1948 Lebanon allowed various foreign military forces to use its territory as a base for launching operations against Israel losing thereby its own authority in the southern part of the country. At the end of the war, the IDF, the Syrian army, remnants of the League’s army, North African volunteers and Palestinian gangs, as well as Lebanese regular units deployed in South Lebanon facing each other.

Earlier in the war, first mutual contacts were made between Israel and the Phalanges — directly and through Jewish and Maronites in the United States. Israeli officials cherished hopes of a Maronite putsch that would cause Lebanon to quit the war. The hopes proved abortive because the Christians of Lebanon were too weak, divided, and apprehensive of the Muslims and Syria. Nonetheless, contacts with the Phalanges persisted after the war and intensified in the 1960s. Israel also had traditional connections with the Shi’ite local leader of Jabal Amal in South Lebanon, Ahmad al-As’ad, a minister of the government in Beirut, and his descendants and successors. Israeli Druze endeavored to cultivate similar bond with the Lebanese Druze leader Kemal Junbalat, but the amalgamation of Lebanese Maronites, Shi'ites and Druze — traditional adversaries — into a block of minorities allied with Israel proved an impossible task.

After the armistice agreement in 1949, Israel was only indirectly and clandestinely involved in Lebanon’s politics. Aware of the risks and determined to maintain a low profile, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion vetoed suggestions to interfere in Lebanese affairs in times of crisis such as the civil war in 1958. The attitude to Lebanon of Ben-Gurion’s successor, Levy Eshkol, was even more prudent and suspicious. The arena of Lebanese politics was dominated by the Muslim-Christian tension, by the presence of Palestinian refugees who were not admitted into Lebanese society (they did not have citizenship, could not work and lived in UNRWA-supported camps along the Mediterranean coast and in the Bq’a), and by Syria’s indirect interference.

Until the Six Day war in 1967, The Israeli-Lebanese border was relatively quiet, though not as peaceful as one would like to believe. In the wake of that war, however, the Palestinians re-emerged on the scene of the Arab-Israeli conflict as an independent factor. The PLO, established in 1964, now came to the fore and already in the beginning of 1965 started a terror campaign against Israel. Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon were recruiting ground, training depot and logistic and operational bases of the PLO’s para-military organizations and their world-wide terrorist actions against international aviation and Israeli targets abroad.

After 1967, Israel repressed resistance in the West Bank and Gaza, and blocked the Jordan valley effectively against infiltration from Jordan to the West Bank. In September 1970, King Hussayn forcefully eliminated the PLO from the Hashemite Kingdom. The fugitives flocked to Lebanon, and with the Lebanese government turning a blind eye to the creation of “a Palestinian state within a state” on Lebanese land, in the early 1970s the country became the Palestinians’ principal stronghold and they enjoyed practical autonomy and immunity.

From their relatively secure shelters among the Palestinian civilian population in the refugee camps of Lebanon and the crowded neighborhoods of west Beirut, The Palestinians para-military organizations waged throughout the 1970s guerrilla and terror warfare against Israel — across the mountainous land border, along the Israeli coast and against Israelis all over the world — such as the Israeli expedition to the Olympic Games in München in the summer of 1972. The authority of Lebanon’s government in its own country became nominal and chaos prevailed in most regions, particularly in the south. Israeli reprisals — air bombings and commando raids — increasingly harmed both Palestinians and Lebanese.

The irritation of the Lebanese, particularly the Christians and the Shi’ites in the southern part of the country, grew as the price of this warfare became heavier. The Christians feared for what remained of their hegemony and, furthermore, for the very independence of Lebanon. The Shi’ites bore the main burden of the skirmishes along the border. In 1975/6, the irritation exploded and a civil war broke out between the Christians and the Palestinians and continued intermittently for 14 years, until the Ta’if agreement in 1989.

As bordering states, influenced by developments in Lebanon and interested in its fate, both Israel and Syria played their parts behind the curtains of this civil war and sometimes in front of them. At the beginning, the Christian leadership turned to Syria for help and invited the Syrian army into the country. Syrian intervention tipped the scales in favor of the Christians, but then Syria switched sides, backed the Palestinians and deployed its army permanently in west Beirut, along the Beirut–Damascus road, and in the southern approaches to the Bq’a. This array should have defended the Palestinians in Beirut and block an IDF attempt to outflank the Golan Heights and attack the main positions of the Syrian army around Damascus through Lebanon.

At the same time, under the guidance and with the approval of PM Itzhak Rabin, Israel strengthened its ties with the main Christian militia — the Phalanges. The IDF trained, supplied and assisted the Phalanges and the military bond developed into a political one as well. The Phalanges’ leaders visited Israel and Israeli leaders, including Rabin, met with the Christian leaders either on a vessel off the Lebanese coast or in the harbor of Junia, the Christian “capital.”

In the 1980s, this alliance proved to be a grave mistake. Lebanon's demographic and cultural composition has formed a highly sensitive equilibrium between the various ethnic and religious groups of the population. A foreign power invading the country in alliance with any particular group is likely to provoke the resistance of all others out of fear for their place in the new order. This happened to the French in 1919-1920, and to the Israelis in the 1980s. The Syrians, by contrast, had no favorite ethnic or religious group and survived in Lebanon much longer. However, when they became identified with the Shi'ite Hizbullah they soon provoked the other groups that with international backing have recently succeeded in ousting them, at least temporarily. The Israeli leaders of the 1970s and 1980s were unaware of this principle. They aligned themselves openly and carelessly with the Maronite Phalangists that nonetheless were incapable of delivering any goods. When this alliance became evident to the Lebanese, it incited first the Druze and then the Shi'ites against Israel.

In the late 1970s, Israel was dragged deeper and deeper into the Lebanese marsh. On 11 March 1978, Palestinian terrorists landed on Israel’s coast, hijacked a bus and massacred its commuters. Consequently, Israel launched a large-scale operation in South Lebanon, operation Litani, and occupied a strip along the border 10 kilometers wide. After withdrawing, the IDF created in the evacuated area a buffer zone that was held by a Christian and Shi’ite local militia commanded by a Lebanese regular officer — Major Hadad — and financed and equipped by Israel.

The civil war in Lebanon provided the background for several massacres, some of the biggest that ever took place in the modern Middle East, matched only by Hafiz Assad’s outrageous bombardment of the Muslim Brethren in Hama in 1982. The bloodiest and most famous of these atrocities were the massacres of the Palestinians in the Beirut quarter of Tel Za’atar in 1976 and the Christians in the small town of Damur by the Palestinians in 1978, each inflicting several thousands of non-combatant casualties. Mass killings on smaller scale were performed by the belligerents elsewhere, opening or continuing chains of revenge according to Middle Eastern tradition.

Skirmishing, shelling, terrorist acts and retaliation raids along the Israel-Lebanon border persisted after operation Litani. In May 1981, the continuing involvement of Syria and Israel in Lebanon led to clashes between Israeli and Syrian aircraft and to the deployment of Syrian AA missiles on Lebanon’s territory that might protect not only the Syrian troops in Lebanon but also the PLO bases from Israeli air attacks.

In July 1981, the IDF launched a major air operation against the Palestinian organizations that responded with massive shelling of Kiryat Shmona and other settlements in Galilee. An American-mediated cease-fire ended this skirmish after ten days. Subsequently, the Palestinians suspended actions against Israel from Lebanon and embarked on consolidating their power inside the country, either in preparation for resuming fighting when they had proper responses to Israeli reprisals (i.e. by shelling targets deeper inside Israel) or with aim of assuming power in Lebanon or both. Watching the build-up of Palestinian power on its northern border, Israel was determined to eliminate the threat and waited for an opportunity to destroy the developing Palestinian infrastructure.

An attempt on the life of Shlomo Argov — Israel’s ambassador to London — provided Israel’s government with the excuse it was looking for. On 5th June 1982 the IDF invaded Lebanon and moved northwards to the Beirut-Damascus road. The three goals of this invasion were: (1) destroying the Palestinian organizations’ bases and war materials and eliminating their threat to the Galilee's settlements; (2) joining hands with Israel’s allies, the Phalanges, and enthroning them in Beirut as a preparatory step for signing a peace between Israel and Christian Lebanon; (3) removing the Syrian army from Lebanon.

The military success of the June 1982 campaign was partial, much below expectations. Palestinian and Syrian resistance was stiffer than forecast and the scale of IDF casualties was bigger than anticipated. The advancing troops failed to reach the Beirut-Damascus road in time (namely, before the imposition of a cease-fire). Many Palestinian combatants managed to withdraw to Beirut and the IDF had to besiege the city for three months before they left by agreement to Tunisia. The Syrian army remained in the Bq’a and in Beirut, though communications between the two regions were disrupted after the cease fire when the IDF took over a small sector of the Beirut-Damascus road.

The indecisive outcomes and the vagueness of the war goals gradually changed the Israeli public’s attitude to the war. Initially, the government enjoyed the support of Labor, the main opposition party. However, the protracted siege of Beirut, the early resistance actions by Palestinians and, later, Shi’ites sponsored by Iran and directed by Iranian revolutionary guardsmen that were dispatched to the Bq’a, and the growing number of casualties — all fostered in Israel opposition to the war and to the continuation of the IDF presence deep in Lebanon. Consequently, the Labor Party jumped on the anti-war cart.

The growing disenchantment with the war notwithstanding, politically Israel succeeded in forcing the Lebanese Parliament to elect its ally — the Phalanges’ leader Bashir Jumayil — as Lebanon’s next president. His election was supposed to be a first step on the road to a peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon. At the beginning of September 1982, with Bashir as elected-president, another peace treaty with an Arab state looming and Arafat on his way to Tunis — Israel appeared victorious and successful.

This apparently promising picture changed abruptly on 14 September 1982. A car bomb exploded beneath the Phalanges headquarters in Beirut killing Bashir and many of his close associates. The Phalanges sustained this heavy blow precisely when they were so close to attaining their long cherished target of a Christian-dominated Lebanon. The IDF, which hitherto was satisfied with holding the upper ground of the mainly Christian East Beirut, and besieged the lower and crowded western quarters inhabited by Palestinians and Shi’ites, promptly moved into West Beirut. In the framework of this move, the local IDF commander in Beirut, General Amos Yaron, assigned the Phalanges the task of clearing the Palestinian neighborhoods (or refugee camps) of Sabra, Shatila and Burj al-Barajna.

The IDF abstained from dispatching any Israeli troops into the densely populated camps, but Israeli outposts observed the Phalanges' action from the outside. A few hours after the Phalanges entered the camps on 16 September, suspicions emerged that they were executing people indiscriminately. Indeed, the hard core of the Phalanges, Elie Hubeika’s special security troops, slaughtered Palestinians in revenge for previous massacres and the recent assassination of their leader Bashir. This was a typical Lebanese way of settling old accounts that had many precedents in the near and far past. By no means was it more cruel or bloody than Damur, Tel al-Za’atar, and several events that accompanied the civil war of 1958 in Lebanon or the persecution of Anton Sa’ada’s “Syrian National Party” (one of its comrades planted the bomb that killed Bashir Jumayil) in 1949. Israel's involvement, however, lend the massacre of Palestinians by Christians a novel and special significance.

This involvement of Israel with the Phalanges' action demanded clarification. Israelis demanded to know what happened and what the government and the army’s roles in the outrages were. The scenario was confused. Initially, the government avoided explanations or gave unconvincing ones that only increased the confusion and further reduced the government’s credibility, already shaken since the cease-fire that did not end the fighting. Rumors spread about dissents within the army ranks and some of them proved true. The opposition to the war, led by Peace Now movement, gained immense popularity and a wave of protests and demonstrations burst out, culminating in a mass protest assembly — probably one of the biggest Israel ever had — in Tel Aviv on Saturday, 25 September 1982. Losing confidence in its government’s integrity in this and other matters pertaining to the war, the public insisted on the appointment of a State Commission of Inquiry chaired by a supreme court judge to investigate what really had taken place in Sabra and Shatila.

At this point, I would like to introduce a personal vantage point on the events of September 1982. In the wake of the war in 1973, I served as a scientific assistant to the Agranat Commission that investigated the war. A few months before the Lebanon war, Justice Moshe Landau, a member of the Agranat Commission and later the President of the Supreme Court, appointed me member of a state commission of inquiry that should have investigated the assassination in 1933 of Chayim Arlosoroff, head of the Jewish Agency’s political department. PM Menachem Begin wished to acquit retroactively the Zionist-Revisionist movement from allegations about their involvement in the murder. I was the historian on that commission that was supposed to examine a historical case that interested only few Israelis.

I had no political affiliation at that time, but the government’s initial refusal to investigate the massacre at Sabra and Shatila exasperated me. The slippery answers given by Begin and some of his ministers to the media and the public made me feel cheated. In my eyes, it was inconceivable that the same government that initiated an investigation of a 50 year old murder did not grasp its moral obligation to conduct a proper inquiry into acts to which it was a party, even if indirectly. I submitted my resignation from the Arlosoroff commission to the new President of the Supreme Court, Justice Itzhak Cahan, and from his office went straight to the hill opposite Begin’s bureau to start a sit-in strike in protest. I sat there several days and nights, surrounded by many supporters that came to identify with my act, until the government changed its position.

Let’s go back to the main story. Within a week, the government succumbed to the public pressure and appointed a commission, chaired by Justice Cahan himself, to investigate the events in Sabra and Shatila and Israel’s role in them if there was any. After a few months of thorough investigation, the commission did not find any of the office holders whose conduct had been questioned after the massacre directly responsible. Nonetheless, the commissioners criticized several of them, beginning with Begin and ending with Amos Yaron, for not being sufficiently aware of the implications of the Phalanges’ advance into Sabra and Shatila. Beyond verbal criticism, Minister of Defence Ariel Sharon was required to resign from his post.

The massacre in Sabra and Shatila was the turning point of the Lebanon war. Under increasing international pressure, the IDF withdrew from West Beirut by the end of September 1982. A year later, the IDF withdrew to the Awali river's line south of the Shuf Mountains and early in 1985 it withdrew to a narrow security zone north of the Israeli-Lebanon border where it stayed until May 2000. The source of resistance to Israel’s occupation of Lebanese territory changed and the Shi’ite Hizbullah replaced the Palestinians in carrying the main burden of fighting against the IDF.

For all practical purposes, the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon receded from the picture. Arafat abandoned them when he made the Oslo agreement with Israel. Lebanon still refuses to absorb them. Their conditions have not changed, though the Israelis have long disappeared from their camps. The Phalanges came to terms with the Syrians and Elie Hubeika — the arch-murderer of Sabra and Shatila — received immunity and served them loyally to his last day. Beyond all — Hizbullah, backed by Syria and Iran, emerged as the central force in Lebanon and as a symbol of successful resistance to Israel for the entire Arab world.

To Israel, Lebanon and Hizbullah have become a trauma. Determined to extricate Israel from the Lebanese marsh, Ehud Barak insisted on a full withdrawal to the international border and betrayed the South Lebanese militia. Soon, the Hizbullah deployed in the gates of several Israeli settlements along the border, and for six years built its infrastructure in South Lebanon and prepared for the present campaign. Ariel Sharon, Barak's successor, remembered the personal price he had to pay for his adventure in Lebanon as well as the heavy price paid by the entire Israeli society. During his almost five years of premiership he refrained consistently from any major action against Hizbullah and ignored the accumulation of arms, the intensive training and the building of fortifications, and other preparations beyond the border — very similar to those for which he invaded Lebanon in 1982. The outcome is the present campaign with the hardships of both IDF soldiers in the front and Israeli civilians in the rear.