A Brief History of Israeli Interventionism in Lebanon
0 comments | by Yanis Iqbal
Israel has a long-standing interest in Lebanon. These interests have periodically manifested themselves in bloody attacks against the small Arab state. Two important sources on the Zionist plans for Lebanon are the diary of Moshe Sharett, who was the Prime Minster of Israel in 1954-1955 and who was considered a “soft Zionist”, and Livia Rokach’s “Israel’s Sacred Terrorism: A study based on Moshe Sharett’s Personal Diary, and other documents”. In the latter we find some very important information, and it is worth quoting at length:
“Then he [Ben Gurion] passed on to another issue. This is the time, he said, to push Lebanon, that is, the Maronites in that country, to proclaim a Christian State. I said that this was nonsense. The Maronites are divided. The partisans of Christian separatism are weak and will dare do nothing. A Christian Lebanon would mean their giving up Tyre, Tripoli, and the Beka’a. There is no force that could bring Lebanon back to its pre-World War I dimensions, and all the more so because in that case it would lose its economic raison-d’etre. Ben Gurion reacted furiously. He began to enumerate the historical justification for a restricted Christian Lebanon. If such a development were to take place, the Christian Powers would not dare oppose it. I claimed that there was no factor ready to create such a situation, and that if we were to push and encourage it on our own we would get ourselves into an adventure that will place shame on us. Here came a wave of insults regarding my lack of daring and my narrow-mindedness. We ought to send envoys and spend money. I said there was no money. The answer was that there is no such thing. The money must be found, if not in the Treasury then at the Jewish Agency! For such a project it is worthwhile throwing away one hundred thousand, half a million, a million dollars. When this happens a decisive change will take place in the Middle East, a new era will start. I got tired of struggling against a whirlwind.”
The next day Gurion sent Sharett a letter which contained the following argument:
“It is clear that Lebanon is the weakest link in the Arab League. The other minorities in the Arab States are all Muslim, except for the Copts. But Egypt is the most compact and solid of the Arab States and the majority there consists of one solid block, of one race, religion and language, and the Christian minority does not seriously affect their political and national unity. Not so the Christians in Lebanon. They are a majority in the historical Lebanon and this majority has a tradition and a culture different from those of the other components of the League. Also within the wider borders (this was the worst mistake made by France when it extended the borders of Lebanon), the Muslims are not free to do as they wish, even if they are a majority there (and I don’t know if they are, indeed, a majority) for fear of the Christians. The creation of a Christian State is therefore a natural act; it has historical roots and it will find support in wide circles in the Christian world, both Catholic and Protestant”.
Sharett responded a few weeks later:
“As far as I know, in Lebanon today exists no movement aiming at transforming the country into a Christian State governed by the Maronite community…This is not surprising. The transformation of Lebanon into a Christian State as a result of an outside initiative is unfeasible today… I don’t exclude the possibility of accomplishing this goal in the wake of a wave of shocks that will sweep the Middle East… will destroy the present constellations and will form others. But in the present Lebanon, with its present territorial and demographic dimensions and its international relations, no serious initiative of the kind is imaginable.
[I should add that] I would not have objected, and on the contrary I would have certainly been favorable to the idea, of actively aiding any manifestation of agitation in the Maronite community tending to strengthen its isolationist tendencies, even if there were no real chances of achieving the goals; I would have considered positive the very existence of such an agitation and the destabilization it could bring about, the trouble it would have caused the League, the diversion of attention from the Arab-Israeli complications that it would have caused, and the very kindling of a fire made up of impulses toward Christian independence. But what can I do when such an agitation is nonexistent?…In the present condition, I am afraid that any attempt on our part would be considered as lightheartedness and superficiality or worse-as an adventurous speculation upon the well being and existence of others and a readiness to sacrifice their basic good for the benefit of a temporary tactical advantage for Israel…Moreover, if this plan is not kept a secret but becomes known a danger which cannot be underestimated in the Middle Eastern circumstances-the damage which we shall suffer… would not be compensated even by an eventual success of the operation itself”.
The opportune moment for Israeli machinations arrived when a civil war broke out in Lebanon, involving a sectarian battle between Christians, who had monopolized politico-economic power, and Muslims, who lived in poverty and deprivation. These internal imbalances were exacerbated by the large presence of Palestinian refugees who – fearing a repeat of the September 1970 massacre in Jordan at the hands of Christians – were compelled to ally with the Muslims and their allies, namely Baathists, Communists, Nasserites and others. On April 9, 1976, the Syrian military intervened to fight against the National Movement (NM) and Palestinians. Kamal Jumblatt – the leader of the NM – was too radical for the liking of Damascus. With his anti-Zionist leanings, he could easily provoke Israel into invading Lebanon – increasing the strategic vulnerability of Syria. Thus, Hafez al-Assad proceeded to thwart any possibility of a leftist regime coming to power in Beirut.
Israel interposed itself in this cauldron of conflicts in early 1976 to begin a policy of open borders with some of the small Maronite villages in the far south that wished to have contact with the few Maronites still living along the border in northern Israel. Israel also armed and trained Christian militias who were driving their Muslim (mostly Palestinian) opponents from the towns along a strip between Tyre and Marjayoun. The Syrians, while issuing a statement refusing to bow to Israeli pressure, withdrew their troops from the posts they held furthest south, including those they held near the Greek Orthodox center of Marjayoun. These Israeli initiatives were just one step in a strategy of supporting those dissidents in south Lebanon who would eventually cooperate with the Israelis in the creation of a buffer jurisdiction. Major Sa’ad Haddad (followed by Colonel Antoine Lahoud) established the South Lebanese Army (SLA), allying himself with Israel.
Even before Menachem Begin became Prime Minister in May 1977, the Israelis had begun transporting Maronite militiamen from Junieh harbor to Haifa for training so that they could fight with Haddad’s forces in the southern enclave. After Begin-headed Likud government came to power in 1977, Israel’s troops provided sustained and overt assistance to the SLA, often crossing over into Lebanese territory to conduct their own operations. A massacre of 37 Israelis by a Fatah armed group that crossed into Israel for the purpose set the stage for the first large-scale Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) entry into Lebanon. The Litani Operation of 1978 was launched on March 14 and saw IDF forces advancing across southern Lebanon to the Litani River, occupying this area for a week-long period.
The operation involved 25,000 troops. It was intended to dislodge the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from the border area, destroy the PLO bases in southern Lebanon from where the attacks on northern Israel were emanating, and to extend the area of territory under the control of Haddad’s militia. In the course of the operation, the PLO was pushed back north of the Litani River, and a number of refugees headed for the north. 22,000 shells killed 2000, destroyed hundreds of homes and forced 250,000 to flee their homes. Israeli forces withdrew after the passing of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSC) 425. The resolution called for immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon and established a UN military presence in southern Lebanon. IDF forces departed southern Lebanon in the following weeks, handing over positions to the SLA of Major Haddad. The entry of United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) did not usher in a period of quiet.
Operation Peace for Galilee
Barely ten months later, on June 6, 1982, Israel launched a massive land, sea and air invasion of Lebanon code-named “Operation Peace for Galilee”. It was given covert consent by the US. In a speech given before the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations on May 28, 1982, then Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. said: “Lebanon today is a focal point of danger…and the stability of the region hangs in the balance…The Arab deterrent force [instituted in 1976 to end Syrian killings of Palestinians and Muslim forces], now consisting entirely of Syrian troops, with its mission to protect the integrity of Lebanon, has not stabilized the situation…The time has come to take concerted action in support of both Lebanon’s territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders and a strong central government capable of promoting a free, open, democratic and traditionally pluralistic society.” With the ostensible goal of destroying Palestinian infrastructure, Israel invaded Lebanon with 60,000 troops, 800 tanks, attack helicopters, bombers and fighter planes, supported by missile boats, and spread pure terror in Muslim-inhabited areas. Over 15,000 Lebanese perished in the invasion, mostly civilians. Israel claimed portions of Lebanese territory and placed militias within Lebanon.
Upon reaching Beirut, the IDF began a nine-week siege, including saturation bombing and intermittent blockades of food, fuel, and water. On June 26, the US vetoed a UNSC resolution for an end to hostilities (saying it was “a transparent attempt to preserve the PLO as a viable political force.”) But sensing the siege’s impact on public opinion, former US President Ronald Reagan had Philip Habib begin talks for a cease-fire. Habib demanded that the PLO leave Lebanon. Even after this was agreed to, the IDF continued bombing, killing 300 on August 12, 1982. Reagan then told Begin to halt the “unfathomable and senseless” raids. Even the Israeli Cabinet was taken aback and stripped Sharon of the right to activate forces without higher approval.
Importantly, Israel used the invasion to place its own stooge Bashir Jumayil – a major leader of pro-Zionist Christian forces – at the presidential palace. Jumayil’s elevation was accomplished in the Fiyadiya barracks, just outside Beirut, where Phalangist militiamen formed an inner cordon, with Israeli soldiers just behind them. It had not been an entirely foregone conclusion; Ariel Sharon and his company had been obliged to exert themselves on his behalf with pressure, threats, cash – and even the helicoptering of one elderly parliamentarian from an isolated village in the Beqa’a before the Syrians could get at him. With its foremost ally elected to the highest office in Lebanon, Israel was basking in the glory of its military muscles. However, this period of grandeur proved to be fleeting. On September 14, 1982, he and 26 others died when a remote-controlled bomb went off in the Phalange party headquarters. This event precipitated an extremely murderous bloodbath of innocent Lebanese civilians.
On September 16, 1982, the day after Israeli forces had taken up positions overlooking the Palestinian camps, Phalangists entered the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and carried out a revenge massacre. This pogrom was carried out by members of Bashir’s own militia, reportedly led by Elie Hobeika and joined by members of Haddad’s SLA militia. Although the IDF officials seemed to have taken responsibility for security in the area, they did nothing to stop the slaughter. Entire families were indiscriminately slaughtered. People were killed with grenades hung around their necks, others raped and disemboweled. Infants were trampled with spiked shoes. Throughout, high-ranking Israeli officers listened on radios to Phalangists discussing the carnage. After 3 days of butchery, the news began to leak out. Nearly 2,000-3,000 people were killed, mostly women, children, and the elderly. The massacre created fractures in the intra-Israeli consensus over the war, leading to a rally of 400,000. Sharon’s only punishment, however, was to be shuffled to another cabinet post.
With its main Maronite ally dead, Israel attempted to work with Bashar’s brother Amin Jumayil and to move forward toward a peace agreement under US mediation. Amin proved not strong enough to play the role envisioned for him according to this idea. Instead, Israel became increasingly concerned with protecting the lives of its own soldiers amid angry calls for the withdrawal of IDF forces. In August 1983, the slow process of withdrawal began, with Israel removing its forces unilaterally from the area of the Shuf mountains where it had been seeking to mediate between the Phalange and Druze forces loyal to Walid Jumblatt. Jumblatt at the time was allied to Syria and his forces were the clearest threat to Amin’s attempt to consolidate control over the country. When Souk al-Grarb – a town commanding the road from the mountains to the Presidential Palace, Defense Ministry and East Beirut – was nearly captured by Jumblatt’s militia, Amin appealed to the US for help, which had to withdraw in late 1983 due to growing resistance from Lebanese Muslims.
Meanwhile, an anti-Jumayil, anti-Israel and anti-American alignment was now emerging as the key political force in Lebanon. Among the various elements involved in this alignment, little noticed at first, were pro-Iranian Shia militants who had organized under the auspices of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG) in the Biqa. Israel’s withdrawal to the Awali river line removed the IDF from Beirut. But it left Israel entrenched as an occupying force in the Shia-dominated south of Lebanon. The result was that in the next period, Israel found itself the unexpected target of Shia attacks. A number of incidents deriving from Israel’s mistreatment of Shia Muslims contributed to the deterioration of the situation. The Shia violence against the Israeli forces was carried out by two organizations – the Amal militia, which had constituted the main political force among the Lebanese Shia since its establishment in the 1970s, and the smaller, pro-Iranian Hezbollah that would eventually eclipse Amal.
The IDF remained deployed along these lines for the next two years, in the course of which Hezbollah grew in popularity as a force combining opposition to Israeli occupation with a wider Shia Islamist ideology totally opposed to Israel’s existence and to the West. Israel’s peace treaty with Lebanon – signed in May 1983 – was abrogated in 1984. Israeli forces remained deployed along the Awali river line, under increasing attack from Hezbollah and Amal. In June 1985, the IDF again redeployed further south – leaving all of Lebanon save a 12-milewide “security zone” close to the Israeli border, which was maintained in cooperation with the SLA. In 1993, and again in 1996, the IDF undertook major operations beyond the security zone and deeper into southern Lebanon. Both operations – Accountability in 1993 and Grapes of Wrath in 1996 – were undertaken in order to weaken Hezbollah.
The maintenance of the security zone exacted a cost from IDF personnel. Israeli public discontent with the seemingly endless conflict in southern Lebanon began to increase after a helicopter accident claimed the lives of 73 soldiers in the security zone in 1997. An incident on September 5, 1997, in which 12 members of the IDF’s naval commando unit were killed, further helped to erode the Israeli public’s willingness to see the IDF stay in southern Lebanon. Ehud Barak was elected prime minister in 1999 with a clear promise to withdraw Israeli forces to the international border. Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the security zone began on May 22, 2000. In its final phase, it turned into a humiliating rush for the border as the SLA collapsed. A considerable amount of military equipment, including armored vehicles, was left behind and fell into Hezbollah hands. Some of this equipment may still be seen in southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah has converted it into monuments for its victory. At the entrance to Bint Jbayl, for example, an ancient SLA tank may be seen, with a cardboard statue of Ayatollah Khomeini standing on it. By 2000, Hezbollah had claimed its first victory as Israel withdrew from Lebanon, although it insisted on occupying two areas, the Seven Villages and the Shebaa Farms.
Hezbollah’s victory solidified its legitimacy among a sizeable section of the Lebanese populace who had suffered greatly under the Israeli occupation. Prior to the Israeli withdrawal, Lebanese prisoners continued to be detained outside any legal framework in the Khiam detention centre where conditions were cruel, inhuman and degrading, and torture was systematic. After the Israeli withdrawal, the residents of Khiam village stormed the detention centre and released all the remaining 144 detainees. The horrendous treatment of these detainees is evident, for example in the case of Suleiman Ramadan who was arrested in September 1985. One of his legs was amputated as a result of lack of medical care after his arrest. During his interrogation he was beaten and given electric shocks. He was detained without charge or trial until his release in May 2000.
In 2006, Israel launched another attack on Lebanon; the central goal of the onslaught was to destroy Hezbollah. The campaign aimed at cutting Hezbollah’s road of supplies, destroying much of its military infrastructure (stocks of rockets, rocket launchers, etc.), eliminating a large number of its fighters, and decapitating it by assassinating Hassan Nasrallah and other key party leaders. The Israeli generals opted for an offensive that was intended to be both rapid and powerful. Their idea was to sweep away all that they found in their path, clean up any remaining pockets of resistance and then pull back. To facilitate the ground offensive they subjected Lebanon to an air and sea blockade, while aircraft bombarded bridges and roads to isolate the enemy, sowing death and destruction in the towns and villages of South Lebanon, and devastating the southern suburbs of the Capital.
The aerial campaign massacred hundreds of Lebanese civilians. But it did not seriously reduce the operational capacity of the Hezbollah fighters. Not only did they continue to fire rockets into Israel, but the rocket campaign increased in intensity up to the final day. At the same time, the land incursions of Israeli units met with a resistance of ferocity and efficiency not expected by the Israeli commanders, incurring unusually heavy losses among the Israeli troops. Israel was not able to secure a significant part of Lebanese territory, even within the narrow strip of territory separating the Litani River from the Israeli-Lebanese border. Shaken by their lack of success, the military chiefs and the Israeli government hesitated between prolonging the phase of the aerial campaign and limited incursions, with the risk of further losses for little gain, and the option of staging a large scale ground offensive. A large scale offensive would mean moving into the Beka’a Valley – where the resistance of Hezbollah would be even more stronger than in the frontier zone – and then on to Beirut. The “grand” offensive was finally ordered. It turned out to be a face-saving operation. Its scope and duration were very limited. The attack did not reach any further than various points along the Litani River and its launch coincided with the declaration of a cease-fire within 48 hours. In the final analysis, while the Israeli attack caused heavy destruction – the death of more than 1,100 people, the displacement of over a quarter of the population, and an estimated $2.8 billion in direct costs with more than 60% of the damage affecting the housing sector – it failed to make a political impact upon Lebanon. Hezbollah shattered the invincibility of Israel and put an end to its interventionism in Lebanon.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.