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First Lebanon War: Background & Overview

(1982 - 1985)

Burgeoning Violence

Israel has long sought a peaceful northern border. But Lebanon’s position as a haven for terrorist groups has made this impossible. In March 1978, PLO terrorists infiltrated Israel. After murdering an American tourist walking near an Israeli beach, they hijacked a civilian bus. The terrorists shot through the windows as the bus traveled down the highway. When Israeli troops intercepted the bus, the terrorists opened fire. A total of 34 hostages died in the attack. In response, Israeli forces crossed into Lebanon and overran terrorist bases in the southern part of that country, pushing the terrorists away from the border. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) withdrew after two months, allowing United Nations forces to enter. But UN troops were unable to prevent terrorists from reinfiltrating the region and introducing new, more dangerous arms.

Violence escalated with a series of PLO attacks and Israeli reprisals. Finally, the United States helped broker a cease­fire agreement in July 1981. The PLO repeatedly violated the cease-fire over the ensuing 11 months. Israel charged that the PLO staged 270 terrorist actions in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and along the Lebanese and Jordanian borders. Twenty­nine Israelis died and more than 300 were injured in the attacks.

Meanwhile, a force of some 15-18,000 PLO members was encamped in scores of locations in Lebanon. About 5,000-6,000 were foreign mercenaries, coming from such countries as Libya, Iraq, India, Sri Lanka, Chad and Mozambique. Israel later discovered enough light arms and other weapons in Lebanon to equip five brigades. The PLO arsenal included mortars, Katyusha rockets and an extensive anti­aircraft network. The PLO also brought hundreds of T­34 tanks into the area. Syria, which permitted Lebanon to become a haven for the PLO and other terrorist groups, brought surface-to-air missiles into that country, creating yet another danger for Israel.

Israeli strikes and commando raids were unable to stem the growth of this PLO army. The situation in the Galilee became intolerable as the frequency of attacks forced thousands of residents to flee their homes or to spend large amounts of time in bomb shelters. Israel was not prepared to wait for more deadly attacks to be launched against its civilian population before acting against the terrorists.

The Last Straw

The final provocation occurred in June 1982 when a Palestinian terrorist group led by Abu Nidal attempted to assassinate Israel’s Ambassador to Great Britain, Shlomo Argov. The IDF subsequently attacked Lebanon again on June 4-5, 1982. The PLO responded with a massive artillery and mortar attack on the Israeli population of the Galilee. On June 6, the IDF moved into Lebanon to drive out the terrorists in “Operation Peace for Galilee.”

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger defended the Israeli operation: “No sovereign state can tolerate indefinitely the buildup along its borders of a military force dedicated to its destruction and implementing its objectives by periodic shellings and raids.”

On June 21, 1982, two weeks after the outbreak of the war, Prime Minister Menachem Begin and U.S. President Ronald Reagan met in Washington. When Reagan referred to Israel’s action as an “invasion,” Begin insisted that was a “misnomer” and that Israel was engaged in its “inherent right of self-defense against aggression.”

Begin said Israel was responding to attacks launched by Palestinian terrorists based in Lebanon. Playing on Reagan’s Cold War concerns about the Soviet Union, the prime minister related that the Soviets were arming the Palestinians and that Israel had “found 10 times more weapons than our intelligence had predicted.”

Begin also emphasized the terror created by the type of rockets the Soviets provided. Thousands of Israelis were under fire from Katyushas, which caused Israelis in the area to live “with the permanent fear of sudden death.” He said, “They cried out to us – put an end to it.”

Reagan also raised his concern about the fate of the Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon. He thought that a solution would be for them to become Lebanese citizens and mistakenly believed the Palestinians were citizens in “every other Arab country” and would be welcomed by Lebanon as well.

Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, Yehuda Blum, explained to the president, “In Lebanon, there is also a problem of the religious balance that could be upset by granting the refugees permanent status,” since most Palestinians are Muslims. “I could see why Lebanon would be reluctant to admit them permanently,” he said.

Begin argued the Palestinians should be sent to other Arab countries such as Libya, Iraq, and Syria. “The Arab countries have vast territories, much water, oil, and billions of dollars.” But Defense Minister Moshe Arens noted those countries were unwilling to accept the refugees.

Much of the discussion echoed discussions about the broader Palestinian refugee problem, with Begin referring to other refugee problems that were solved by “resettlement.” This had been the original idea for settling the Palestinians after the 1948 War, but the Arab states were no more willing to accept refugees in 1982.

“On Lebanon, it is clear that we and Israel both seek an end to the violence there, and a sovereign, independent Lebanon,” President Reagan said after the meeting. “We agree that Israel must not be subjected to violence from the north.”

PLO Tyranny in Lebanon

The initial success of the Israeli operation led officials to broaden the objective to expel the PLO from Lebanon and induce the country’s leaders to sign a peace treaty. In 1983, Lebanon’s President, Amin Gemayel, signed a peace treaty with Israel. A year later, Syria forced Gemayel to renege on the agreement. The war then became drawn out as the IDF captured Beirut and surrounded Yasser Arafat and his guerrillas.

For Arab residents of south Lebanon, PLO rule was a nightmare. After the PLO was expelled from Jordan by King Hussein in 1970, many of its cadres went to Lebanon. The PLO seized whole areas of the country, where it brutalized the population and usurped Lebanese government authority.

On October 14, 1976, Lebanese Ambassador Edward Ghorra told the UN General Assembly the PLO was bringing ruin upon his country: “Palestinian elements belonging to various splinter organizations resorted to kidnaping Lebanese, and sometimes foreigners, holding them prisoners, questioning them, and even sometimes killing them.”

Columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, not known for being sympathetic toward Israel, declared after touring south Lebanon and Beirut that the facts “tend to support Israel’s claim that the PLO has become permeated by thugs and adventurers.” Countless Lebanese told harrowing tales of rape, mutilation and murders committed by PLO forces.

New York Times correspondent David Shipler visited Damour, a Christian village near Beirut, which had been occupied by the PLO since 1976, when Palestinians and Lebanese leftists sacked the city and massacred hundreds of its inhabitants. The PLO, Shipler wrote, had turned the town into a military base, “using its churches as strongholds and armories.”

When the IDF drove the PLO out of Damour in June 1982, Prime Minister Menachem Begin announced that the town’s Christian residents could come home and rebuild. Returning villagers found their former homes littered with spray-painted Palestinian nationalist slogans, Fatah literature and posters of Yasir Arafat. They told Shipler how happy they were that Israel had liberated them.

The PLO’s Reluctant Retreat

When the IDF captured Beirut, the civilian population was forced to suffer because of the PLO’s refusal to surrender. By mid-June, Israeli troops had surrounded 6,000-9,000 terrorists who had taken up positions amid the civilian population of West Beirut. To prevent civilian casualties, Israel agreed to a cease-fire to enable an American diplomat, Ambassador Philip Habib, to mediate a peaceful PLO withdrawal from Lebanon. As a gesture of flexibility, Israel agreed to permit PLO forces to leave Beirut with their personal weapons. But the PLO continued to make new demands.

The PLO also adopted a strategy of controlled violations of the cease­fire, with the purpose of inflicting casualties on Israel and provoking Israeli retaliation sufficient to get the IDF blamed for disrupting the negotiations and harming civilians. For more than a month, the PLO tried to extract a political victory from its military defeat. Arafat declared his willingness “in principle” to leave Beirut, then refused to go to any other country. Arafat also tried to push the U.S. to recognize the PLO. Throughout the siege, the PLO hid behind innocent civilians, accurately calculating that if Israel were to attack, it would be internationally condemned.

“The Israelis bombed buildings, innocent looking on the outside, where their intelligence told them that PLO offices were hidden,” wrote Middle East analyst Joshua Muravchik. “Their intelligence also told them of the huge network of underground PLO storage facilities for arms and munitions that was later uncovered by the Lebanese Army. No doubt the Israelis dropped some bombs hoping to penetrate those facilities and detonate the dumps. The PLO had both artillery and anti­aircraft [equipment] truck mounted. These would fire at the Israelis and then move.” The Israelis would fire back and sometimes miss, inadvertently hitting civilian targets.

In numerous instances, the media mistakenly reported that Israel was hitting civilian targets in areas where no military ones were nearby. On one night in July, Israeli shells hit seven embassies in Beirut. NBC aired a report that appeared to lend credence to PLO claims it had no military positions in the area. Israel, Muravchik noted, “soon released reconnaissance photos showing the embassy area honeycombed with tanks, mortars, heavy machine guns and anti­aircraft positions.”

Israel was determined to drive the PLO out of Beirut. In an effort to end the war, an international contingent of American, French, and Italian troops was created to supervise the evacuation of PLO forces from Beirut. Eight countries agreed to grant asylum to the Palestinians: Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Republic of South Yemen, North Yemen, Sudan, Tunisia and Algeria. The multinational force arrived on August 21 and by September 1, approximately 14,000 PLO fighters had left, with Arafat leaving for Tunisia on August 30.

The Lebanon war provoked intense debate within Israel. For the first time in Israel’s history, a consensus for war did not exist (though it did at the outset). Prime Minister Menachem Begin resigned as demands for an end to the fighting grew louder. The national coalition government that took office in 1984 decided to withdraw from Lebanon, leaving behind a token force to help the South Lebanese Army (which Israel had long supported) patrol a security zone near Israel’s border.

Though the IDF succeeded in driving the PLO out of Lebanon, it did not end the terrorist threats from that country. The war was also costly, 1,216 soldiers died between June 5, 1982, and May 31, 1985.

Ongoing Violence

Jerusalem repeatedly stressed that Israel did not covet a single inch of Lebanese territory. Israel’s 1985 withdrawal from Lebanon confirmed that. The small 1,000-man Israeli force, deployed in a strip of territory extending eight miles into south Lebanon, protects towns and villages in northern Israel from attack. Israel also repeatedly said it would completely withdraw from Lebanon in return for a stable security situation on its northern border.

Most of the terrorist groups that threaten Israel have not been disarmed. For example, several thousand terrorists currently in Lebanon are members of Hezbollah. The group receives financial support and arms from Iran, usually via Damascus. Hezbollah - which had initially confined itself to launching Katyusha rocket attacks on northern Israel and ambushing Israeli troops in the security zone-has in recent years stepped up its attacks on Israeli civilians.

In April 1996, the IDF mounted “Operation Grapes of Wrath“ to halt Hezbollah’s bombardment of Israel’s northern frontier. During the operation, Israeli artillery mistakenly hit a UN base in Kafr Kana, killing nearly 100 civilians. Afterward, a Joint Monitoring Machinery, including American, French, Syrian and Lebanese representatives, was created to prohibit unprovoked attacks on civilian populations and the use of civilians as shields for terrorist activities.

The Syrian-backed Lebanese Army has yet to take action against Hezbollah, or other terrorist organizations, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) or Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), which have bases in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. Syria, in fact, declared its unqualified support for stepped-up violence in the area. Consequently, attacks against Israeli troops in the Security Zone and civilians in northern Israel continued.

Israel Withdraws

Israel pulled all its troops out of southern Lebanon on May 24, 2000, ending a 22-year military presence there. All Israel Defense Force and South Lebanon Army outposts were evacuated. The Israeli withdrawal was conducted in coordination with the UN, and constituted an Israeli fulfillment of its obligations under Security Council Resolution 425 (1978).

On January 17, 2018, thirty-one years after the end of the First Lebanon War, the last fallen soldier from the war was laid to rest. Sgt. Abraham Ajami was just 19 years old in 1987 when he suffered a critical head injury due to a shell exploding near him, and was placed in a vegetative state. Ajami lived in a hospital with machines keeping him alive for three decades, and passed away in January 2018 at the age of 50, surrounded by friends and family.

SourcesWashington Post, (June 16, 1982).
New York Times, (June 21, 1982).
Washington Post, (June 25, 1982).
Joshua Muravchik, “Misreporting Lebanon,” Policy Review, (Winter 1983)
Ofer Aderet, “When Reagan and Begin Discussed Expelling Palestinians,” Haaretz, (June 6, 2022).