Israel in Lebanon

Israel in Lebanon

The precarious sectarian balance prevailing in Lebanon has presented Israeli policy makers with opportunities and risks. Lebanon's Christian Maronites, who under French tutelage occupied the most important political and economic posts in the country, were, like Israeli Jews, a minority among the region's Muslim majority. As early as 1954, Ben-Gurion had proposed that Israel support the establishment in part of Lebanon of a Maronite- dominated Christian ministate that would ally itself with Israel. During the Lebanese Civil War (1975-76), then Prime Minister Rabin reportedly invested US$150 million in equipping and training the Maronite Phalange Party's militia.

The instability of Lebanon's sectarian balance, however, enabled hostile states or groups to use Lebanon as a staging ground for attacks against Israel. The PLO, following its expulsion from Jordan in September 1970, set up its major base of operations in southern Lebanon from which it attacked northern Israel. The number and size of PLO operations in the south accelerated throughout the late 1970s as central authority deteriorated and Lebanon became a battleground of warring militias. In March 1978, following a fedayeen attack, originating in Lebanon, on the Tel Aviv-Haifa road that killed thirty-seven people, Israel launched Operation Litani, a massive military offensive that resulted in Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon up to the Litani River. By June Prime Minister Begin, under intense American pressure, withdrew Israeli forces, which were replaced by a UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). The withdrawal of Israeli troops without having removed the PLO from its bases in southern Lebanon became a major embarrassment to the Begin government.

By the spring of 1981, Bashir Jumayyil (also cited as Gemayel) emerged as the Maronite strong man and major Israeli ally in Lebanon. Having ruthlessly eliminated his Maronite rivals, he was attempting to extend his authority to other Lebanese Christian sects. In late 1980 and early 1981, he extended the protection of his Maronite militia to the Greek Orthodox inhabitants of Zahlah, in eastern Lebanon. Syrian president Hafiz al Assad considered Zahlah, which was located near the Beirut-Damascus road, a stronghold that was strategically important to Syria. In April 1981, Syrian forces bombed and besieged Zahlah, ousting the Phalangists, the Maronite group loyal to Jumayyil, from the city. In response to the defeat of its major Lebanese ally, Israeli aircraft destroyed two Syrian helicopters over Lebanon, prompting Assad to move Soviet-made SAMs into Lebanon. Israel threatened to destroy the missiles but was dissuaded from doing so by the administration of President Ronald Reagan. In the end, the Zahlah crisis, like the Litani Operation, badly tarnished the image of the Begin government, which had come to power in 1977 espousing a hard- line security policy.

In June 1981, Israel held Knesset elections that focused on the Likud's failure to stop the PLO buildup in southern Lebanon or to remove Syrian missile batteries from the Biqa (Bekaa) Valley in eastern Lebanon. To remove a potential nuclear threat and also to bolster its public image, the IDF launched a successful attack on the French-built Iraqi Osiraq (acronym for Osiris-Iraq) nuclear reactor three weeks before the elections. Begin interpreted widespread public approval of the attack as a mandate for a more aggressive policy in Lebanon. The Likud also rallied a large number of undecided voters by reducing import duties on luxury goods, enabling Israeli consumers to go on an unprecedented buying spree that would later result in spiraling inflation. Although Labor regained an additional fifteen seats over its poor showing in 1977 when it won only thirty-two seats, it was unable to prevail over Likud.

Begin's perception that the Israeli public supported a more active defense posture influenced the composition of his 1981 postelection cabinet. His new minister of defense, Ariel Sharon, was unquestionably an Israeli war hero of longstanding; he had played an important role in the 1956, 1967, and 1973 wars and was widely respected as a brilliant military tactician. Sharon, however, was also feared as a military man with political ambitions, one who was ignorant of political protocol and who was known to make precipitous moves. Aligned with Sharon was chief of staff General Rafael Eytan who also advocated an aggressive Israeli defense posture. Because Begin was not a military man, Israel's defense policy was increasingly decided by the minister of defense and the chief of staff. The combination of wide discretionary powers granted Sharon and Eytan over Israeli military strategy, the PLO's menacing growth in southern Lebanon, and the existence of Syrian SAMs in the Biqa Valley pointed to imminent Syrian-PLO- Israeli hostilities.

In July 1981, Israel responded to PLO rocket attacks on northern Israeli settlements by bombing PLO encampments in southern Lebanon. United States envoy Philip Habib eventually negotiated a shaky cease-fire that was monitored by UNIFIL.

Another factor that influenced Israel's decision to take action in Lebanon was the disarray of the Arab world throughout the early 1980s. The unanimity shown by the Arab states in Baghdad in condemning Sadat's separate peace with Israel soon dissipated. The 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution, the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in September 1980, and the December 1980 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan badly divided the Arab world. The hard-line countries, Syria and Libya, supported Iran, and the moderate countries, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states, supported Iraq. Moreover, Syrian president Assad's regime, dominated by the minority Alawi Muslim sect, was confronted with growing domestic opposition from the Muslim Brotherhood, which Assad violently quelled in February 1982 by besieging the city of Hamah. Finally, early United States opposition to an invasion of Lebanon appeared to have weakened, following Israel's final withdrawal from Sinai in May 1982.

Israel's incursion into Lebanon, called Operation Peace for Galilee, was launched in early June 1982. After an attack on Israel's ambassador in London carried out by the Abu Nidal group but blamed on the PLO, Israeli troops marched into southern Lebanon. On the afternoon of June 4 the Israeli air force bombed a sports stadium in Beirut, said to be used for ammunition storage by the PLO. The PLO responded by shelling Israeli towns in Galilee. On June 5, the government of Israel formally accused the PLO of breaking the cease-fire. At 11 A.M. on June 6, Israeli ground forces crossed the border into Lebanon. The stated goals of the operation were to free northern Israel from PLO rocket attacks by creating a forty-kilometer-wide security zone in southern Lebanon and by signing a peace treaty with Lebanon.

The June 1982 invasion of Lebanon was the first war fought by the IDF without a domestic consensus. Unlike the 1948, 1967, and 1973 wars, the Israeli public did not view Operation Peace for Galilee as essential to the survival of the Jewish state. By the early 1980s--less than forty years after its establishment--Israel had attained a military prowess unmatched in the region. The architects of the 1982 invasion, Ariel Sharon and Rafael Eitan, sought to use Israel's military strength to create a more favorable regional political setting. This strategy included weakening the PLO and supporting the rise to power in Lebanon of Israel's Christian allies. The attempt to impose a military solution to the intractable Palestinian problem and to force political change in Lebanon failed. The PLO, although defeated militarily, remained an important political force, and Bashir Jumayyil, Israel's major ally in Lebanon, was killed shortly after becoming president. Inside Israel, a mounting death toll caused sharp criticism by a war-weary public of the war of and of the Likud government.


Country Studies main page | Israel Country Studies main page | Celebrity