Israel's Prior Peacekeeping in Lebanon

As the Israeli government continues bombing throughout Lebanon in response to Hezbollah’s seizure of two Israeli soldiers and rocket attacks upon Israeli cities, it may be helpful to recall prior Israeli invasions and attacks on Lebanon. The Rules of Engagement that Israel appears to be using now look similar to the rules adapted for the 1982 invasion and subsequent occupation of Lebanon. The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that Israeli missiles "struck predominantly Christian neighborhoods." Lebanese Christians are, for the most part, avowed opponents of Hezbollah, a Muslim religious party. But Israel acts as if all Lebanese are guilty and thus worthy of bombing. (Likewise, Hezbollah appears to consider any Israeli worth killing.)

Few people recognize that the Israeli invasion of Lebanon was one of the biggest failures in the history of antiterrorism. There is no reason to expect the current round of attacks and counterattacks to beget an era of peace and good feeling along the Israeli-Lebanon border.

Neither Hezbollah nor the Israeli Defense Force has any right to murder innocent people. But, as in earlier times, there is a danger that U.S. military forces will be sent to Lebanon to try to assuage the chaos.

The following is excerpted from my 2003 book, Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Justice, Peace, and Freedom to Rid the World of Evil (Palgrave, 2003).

In June 1982, a terrorist organization headed by Abu Nidal (the Osama bin Laden of the 1980s) attempted to assassinate the Israeli ambassador in London. Nidal’s forces had previously killed many Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) officials in numerous bomb and shooting attacks, since they considered Yasser Arafat a traitor for his stated willingness to negotiate with Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin exploited the shooting in London to send the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) into Lebanon to crush the PLO. Yet, as Thomas Friedman noted in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, "the number of Israeli casualties the PLO guerillas in Lebanon actually inflicted were minuscule (one death in the 12 months before the invasion)." The Israeli invasion was originally scheduled for the previous summer but was postponed after U.S. envoy Philip Habib negotiated a ceasefire between Israel and the PLO. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon told the Israeli cabinet that his "Operation Peace for Galilee" would extend only 40 kilometers into Lebanon. However, Sharon sent his tanks to Beirut, determined to destroy the PLO once and for all. Foreign Ministry Director General David Kimche announced: "We have no aspirations for a single inch of Lebanese territory. Our sole aim is to free ourselves from the threat of terrorism." As David Martin and John Walcott noted in their 1988 book, Best Laid Plans: The Inside Story of America’s War Against Terrorism, the U.S. embassy in Beirut "sent cable after cable to Washington, warning that an Israeli invasion would provoke terrorism and undermine America’s standing in the Arab world, but not a word came back."

The Palestinian Red Crescent estimated that fourteen thousand people, mostly civilians, were killed and wounded in the first month of the operation. (The Israeli government stated that casualties were much lower.) When Palestinians fought back tenaciously, the IDF responded with indiscriminate bombing, killing hundreds of civilians. The IDF bombed the buildings housing the local bureaus of the Los Angeles Times, United Press International, and Newsweek. The Israelis cut off Beirut’s water and electricity supply and imposed a blockade. The UN brokered a peace deal by which the United States and other multinational troops entered Beirut to buffer a ceasefire to allow the PLO to exit to ships to transport them to Tunisia, which had agreed to provide a safe haven. The U.S. government signed an agreement with Arafat, pledging that U.S. forces would safeguard civilians who stayed behind: "Law-abiding Palestinian non-combatants remaining in Beirut, including the families of those who have departed, will be authorized to live in peace and security. The U.S. will provide its guarantees on the basis of assurances received from the Government of Israel and from the leaders of certain Lebanese groups with which it has been in contact." Once the PLO withdrew from Beirut, the U.S. troops were pulled out and put back on Navy ships.

Shortly after the U.S. troops withdrew, Lebanese president-elect Bashir Gemayel was assassinated. The IDF promptly invaded Muslim West Beirut, violating the fragile peace agreement worked out with Muslim forces and the government of Syria. Prime Minister Begin declared: "The terrorists cheated us. Not all of them got out. . . . They left behind a considerable number of terrorists together with their arms." The Israeli cabinet announced: "The Israeli Defense Forces have taken positions in West Beirut to prevent the danger of violence, bloodshed and anarchy." The Israeli army encircled Palestinian refugee camps in the area and prohibited anyone from entering or leaving without its permission. An IDF spokesman announced: "The IDF is in control of all key points in Beirut. Refugee camps harboring terrorist concentrations remain encircled and closed." As the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman noted, "Although the Israelis confiscated the arms of all of the Moslem groups in West Beirut, they made no attempt to disarm the Christian Phalangist militiamen in East Beirut."

Sharon invited Lebanese Phalangist militia units trained and equipped by Israel to enter the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Sharon and IDF chief of staff Gen. Rafael Eitan met with Phalangist commanders before they entered the camp, and, as Sharon later explained, "we spoke in principle of their dealing with the camps." Gen. Eitan told the Israeli cabinet that when the Phalangists went into the camps, there would be "an eruption of revenge. . . . I can imagine how it will begin, but not how it will end." The Phalangists were enraged about the killing of Gemayel, a Christian Lebanese.

The militia entered the camps and over the next 48 hours, more than seven hundred Palestinian women, children, and men were executed; many corpses were mutilated. Palestinian sources estimated that the death toll was much higher. Israeli troops launched flares over the camps to illuminate them throughout the night and provided the Phalangists with food and water during their respites from the killings. Palestinian women sought to escape the slaughter but "the Israelis encircling the area refused to let anyone cross their lines." After the first day’s carnage, a Phalange leader reported to the IDF that "until now 300 civilians and terrorists have been killed," according to the Jerusalem Post. After the Phalangists finished, they brought in bulldozers to create mass graves. More Palestinians may have been killed at the two camps than the total number of Israelis killed by the PLO in the previous decade. (Thomas Friedman did a superb job of reporting and analyzing the killings for the New York Times).

The slaughter provoked outrage around the world. The government of Menachem Begin initially blocked proposals in the Knesset for a formal inquiry into the massacre; Ariel Sharon declared that his critics were guilty of a "blood libel." One left-wing Israeli paper, Al Hamishmar, declared: "This slaughter has made the war in Lebanon the greatest disaster to befall the Jewish people since the Holocaust." Former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban denounced the invasion of Beirut as "the most deadly failure in Israel’s modern history."

The massacre at the refugee camps threatened to plunge Lebanon back into total chaos. Two days afterward, the Lebanese government requested that the United States send its troops back to Beirut; in a televised speech Reagan quickly agreed to do so. Reagan repeatedly called for Israeli withdrawal from Beirut and declared: "Israel must have learned that there is no way it can impose its own solutions on hatreds as deep and bitter as those that produced this tragedy." In late 1982 Congress rewarded Israel for invading Lebanon with a special appropriation of $550 million in additional military aid and other handouts, on top of the $2 billion Israel was already scheduled to receive that year from the U.S. government.

The massacres of the Palestinian refugees catapulted the U.S. much deeper into the Lebanese quagmire. As clashes continued between Israelis and Muslims, the situation became increasingly polarized in the following months. On April 18, 1983 a delivery van pulled up to the front door of the U.S. embassy in Beirut and detonated, collapsing the building and killing 46 people (including 16 Americans) and wounding over a hundred others. President Reagan denounced "the vicious terrorist bombing" as "a cowardly act." But the U.S. embassy was a sitting duck for the terrorist assault: unlike many other U.S embassies in hostile environments, it had no sturdy outer wall. Newsweek noted: "Delivery vehicles are supposed to go to the rear of the building. Why Lebanese police guarding the embassy driveway would have made an exception in the case of the black van remained a mystery."(From the late 1970s until 1982 the U.S. government contracted for embassy security with the PLO; the embassy went unharmed, despite the civil war raging throughout the country.)

On April 23, 1983, Reagan announced to the press: "The tragic and brutal attack on our embassy in Beirut has shocked us all and filled us with grief. Yet, because of this latest crime we are more resolved than ever to help achieve the urgent and total withdrawal of all American forces from Lebanon, or I should say, all foreign forces. I’m sorry. Mistake." But the actual mistake was a U.S. policy that would cost hundreds of Americans their lives.

As fighting between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon escalated, the original U.S. peacekeeping mission became a farce. The U.S. forces were training and equipping the Lebanese army, which was increasingly perceived in Lebanon as a pro-Christian, anti-Muslim force. By late summer, the Marines were being targeted by Muslim snipers and mortar fire. On September 13 Reagan authorized Marine commanders in Lebanon to call in air strikes and other attacks against the Muslims to help the Christian Lebanese army. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger vigorously opposed the new policy, fearing it would make American troops far more vulnerable. Navy ships repeatedly bombarded the Muslims over the next few weeks.

On Sunday morning, October 23, 1983, a lone Muslim male drove a Mercedes truck through a parking lot, past two Marine guard posts, through an open gate, and into the lobby of the Marine headquarters building in Beirut, where he detonated the equivalent of six tons of explosives. The explosion left a 30-foot-deep crater and killed 243 marines. A second truck bomb moments later killed 58 French soldiers.

The Reagan administration portrayed the attack as unexpected, despite the legions of prior suicide attacks in Lebanon. The Reagan team effectively covered up the security failures that preceded the attack and succeeded in wrapping the American flag around the debacle.

Shortly afterwards, Reagan withdrew most of the U.S. troops from Lebanon. His actions enraged neoconservatives who seemed to believe that America was obliged to pay any price to insure the success of Operation Peace for Galilee.

Israel’s would-be whirlwind invasion of Lebanon turned into an 18-year quagmire that cost the lives of more than 1,500 Israeli soldiers. Israel maintained control over a swath of land in South Lebanon to protect itself from terrorist attacks by Hezbollah and others.

Israel also trained, equipped, and paid the South Lebanon Army (SLA). From 1993 to 1999, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and its SLA proxies killed at least 355 Lebanese civilians while Muslim guerrillas in Lebanon killed 9 Israeli civilians, according to B’Tselem, Israel’s premier human rights organization. In 1993 and 1996 Israel launched massive shelling campaigns on Lebanese villages in order to stampede hundreds of thousands of people north toward Beirut. Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin stated the goal of the 1993 attack: "We want to cause a wave of flight and damage to everyone involved in Hezbollah activity."

On April 18, 1996 the IDF artillery shelled a United Nations compound near Qana that was overflowing with 800 Lebanese civilians "who had fled from their villages on IDF orders." The barrage killed 102 refugees and wounded hundreds of others. Hezbollah guerillas had fired Katyusha rockets a few hundred yards from the compound. A spokesman for United Nations forces in Lebanon quickly denounced the attack as a "massacre." Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, the commander of the Israeli offensive, insisted that the shelling of the camp could not possibly have been deliberate because "that thing cannot happen in a democratic country like Israel." Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres declared that "the sole guilty party, still on the ground, is Hezbollah. . . . We are dealing here with a horrible, cynical and irresponsible organization. Hezbollah’s grand strategy all along has been to hide behind the backs of civilians." A United Nations investigation concluded that "it is unlikely that the shelling of the United Nations compound was the result of gross technical and/or procedural errors."

The IDF insisted that it was unaware that the camp was chock full of refugees; the UN report retorted: "Contrary to repeated denials, two Israeli helicopters and a remotely piloted vehicle [drone] were present in the Qana area at the time of the shelling." An Amnesty International report concluded that the IDF "intentionally attacked the UN compound." A few weeks after the attack, two of the Israeli gunners involved in the shelling were interviewed by a Jerusalem newsweekly. One of the gunners commented: "In a war, these things happen. . . . It’s just a bunch of Arabs." A second gunner said that, after bombarding the refugee camp, a commander told the gunners that "we were shooting well and to continue this way and that Arabs, you know, there are millions of them." Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit, who had fought at Qana 18 years earlier while serving in the IDF, observed: "An Israeli massacre can be distinguished in most respects from an Arab massacre in that it is not malicious, not carried out on orders from High Above and does not serve any strategic purpose. . . . An Israeli massacre usually occurs after we sanction an unjustifiable degree of violence so that at some point we lose the ability to control that violence. Thus, in most cases, an Israeli massacre is a kind of work accident."

Israel sometimes acted as if its war on terrorism entitled it to absolute power over Lebanese living in Israeli-declared war zones. Several Israeli jets were shot down over Lebanon; Ron Arad, the pilot of one of the downed planes, came to symbolize for the Israeli public the plight of Israeli servicemen who were either missing in action or held as prisoners in Lebanon. The Israeli government and its proxies rounded up 21 Lebanese civilians and held them many years in Israeli prisons, seeking to use them as leverage to gain the release of or information on Arad. Hasan Hijazi was 16 years old when he was seized in his village of Mays al-Jabal in 1986 by Israel soldiers; he was taken to Israel and held in prison for 14 years. The Israeli High Court of Justice (the nation’s Supreme Court), in a 1997 case, ruled that the Israeli government could legitimately hold innocent people as bargaining chips to achieve the release of Israelis held captive outside of Israel. The court reversed its position two years later, declaring that 13 Lebanese must be released. Moshe Negbi, a prominent Israeli commentator, observed: "The Supreme Court is finally, after a long time, starting to mark out the red lines that Israel cannot cross, even when fighting terrorism. In this case, what they are saying is, no longer will they be able to kidnap people and keep them hostage." B’Tselem noted: "Taking hostages for any purpose, no matter how worthy, is the method used by terrorist organizations, not by modern democracies."

Though the Israeli army initially justified the incursion as seeking to "rout out terrorist nests" in southern Lebanon the subsequent occupation by the IDF would spur terrorist attacks on Israeli forces far beyond what Israel suffered before the invasion. The clearest legacy of Israel’s Operation Peace for Galilee, launched in 1982, is Hezbollah. Muslim guerrillas rallied to fight the IDF throughout the Lebanon occupation zone. Aided by Iran and later by Syria, Hezbollah developed into a fighting force that could hold its own against the IDF.