Today in Middle Eastern history: the Lebanon War begins (1982)

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The 1982-85 Lebanon War can also be treated as the third phase of the 1975-90 Lebanese Civil War, following its first (the Lebanese National Movement and the PLO against the Christian Phalanges) and second (the Phalanges against the intervening Syrian army and the PLO against Israel) phases. But as it does involve a discrete event—the invasion of Lebanon by the Israeli army—it’s also perfectly reasonable to treat it this conflict as a discrete-albeit-related affair, and anyway this is my newsletter so I can do what I want.

Of course, the truth is that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had already been heavily involved in what was happening inside Lebanon prior to 1982. From the beginning of the civil war in 1975 through its July 1981 ceasefire, the IDF supplied weapons and training to Christian forces like the South Lebanese Army and, above all, the Phalanges. The IDF began to undertake raids into south Lebanon (and, on occasion, as far north as Beirut), usually to lay mines, and it conducted airstrikes against PLO targets. The PLO, in turn, would fire rockets and artillery into northern Israel. The PLO also continued its campaign of attacks inside Israel and in the Occupied Territories, as well as against Israeli targets in Europe, and while those things should be considered distinct from the Lebanese Civil War they are still part of the story behind Israel’s invasion.

The Israeli government of Menachem Begin accepted Lebanon’s PLO-Christian ceasefire of July 1981, but only on the surface. Under the surface, his national security team, under Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, was already planning an invasion that was supposed to drive the PLO out of Lebanon entirely, with Syrian forces close behind, and magically turn the entire country Christian, or something like that. But their plan needed some kind of provocation to justify invading.

A couple of events coincided to give them that justification. First, in late April 1982, an Israeli army officer was killed by a landmine while visiting a South Lebanese Army position. Why he was visiting a South Lebanese Army position, and who actually had laid the mine (it may very well have been the IDF) didn’t matter, and Israel resumed airstrikes against targets inside Lebanon. Then, on June 3, the Israeli ambassador to Britain was shot in an attack by the Abu Nidal Organization in London (the ambassador, Shlomo Argov, survived but was profoundly disabled and spent the rest of his life in a hospital rehab ward). Abu Nidal had split from the PLO in 1974, and if he’d somehow been captured and handed over to the PLO in 1982 they probably would have executed him, but for this Israelis such internal distinctions didn’t matter. They had already stipulated that any attacks against Israeli interests in Europe would be blamed on the PLO and treated as violations of the ceasefire. So now they had their justification to invade.

An airliner at Beirut Airport, destroyed in fighting between the IDF and PLO in June 1982 (Wikimedia Commons)

Israeli airstrikes began immediately, and the invasion followed on June 6. The IDF, using a combined air-land-sea plan, quickly pushed as far north as the southern suburbs of Beirut. In the process, it steamrolled over whatever resistance it faced from Palestinian, Lebanese, and Syrian forces. Although the war continued for at least another three years and arguably much longer than that (see below), the heaviest action was over by September 1982.

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A basic look at the Israeli push north to Beirut (via)

It was at that point, following the Israeli occupation of West Beirut and the Phalangist/Israeli massacre of thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, that the PLO decided to evacuate Lebanon under the supervision of a US/European peacekeeping force. Tunisia became the group’s new headquarters. And its role as Israel’s main adversary in Lebanon was assumed by the war’s most important creation, Hezbollah.

Though Hezbollah didn’t formally come into being until 1985, it took shape during the 1982-85 occupation as a collection of religiously conservative Shiʿa militias, trained by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, dedicated to driving the Israelis back out of the country. Its rise to prominence was actually aided by the fact that the IDF invasion had crippled the regular Lebanese armed forces. During the fourth phase of the civil war, in the mid to late 1980s, Hezbollah fought alongside the PLO against the Amal Movement, which was backed by the Syrian army, and ultimately it supplanted Amal as the preeminent Shiʿa entity in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah, or at least proto-Hezbollah, was implicated in the 1983 bombing of the US Marines barracks in Beirut, an attack that caused the Reagan administration to prematurely withdraw from the multi-national peacekeeping force and, allegedly, got a young Saudi radical named Osama bin Laden thinking about how easy it was to hurt the Americans enough to get them to do what you wanted.

The Israelis lifted their semi-siege of Beirut and withdrew to southern Lebanon not because they were defeated in anything like a pitched battle, but because they were bled by repeated guerrilla attacks across the 1982-1985 period. The Israelis later blamed all of these incidents on Hezbollah, even though that’s somewhat anachronistic as Hezbollah really emerged from that guerrilla campaign, not vice versa. As the IDF pulled back, it handed “control” of the areas it had occupied off to the same Lebanese army it had just thoroughly dismantled in its march north. Inevitably, the Syrians moved back in and actually consolidated their occupation of most of the country, compared with what it had been prior to the Israeli invasion.

Overall the IDF lost 657 soldiers, compared with Lebanese casualties upwards of 20,000 dead (well over 20,000 if the Sabra and Shatila casualties are included). Far from driving Syria out of Lebanon and strengthening the political position of Lebanese Christians, the Israeli invasion strengthened the Syrian occupation and thereby left Lebanese Christians in a weaker position than they’d been originally. The IDF fell back to its safe zone in southern Lebanon in June 1985 and stopped there, marking the end of the Lebanon War and the start of the “South Lebanon Conflict,” which lasted until the IDF withdrew fully from Lebanon in 2000.