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Myths & Facts
Israel and Lebanon

By Mitchell Bard

The PLO posed no threat to Israel in 1982 when Israel attacked Lebanon.
Israel was responsible for the massacre of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila.
Israel instigated a second war in Lebanon without provocation.
Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians during the war instigated by Hezbollah.
The media fairly and accurately covered the second war in Lebanon.
Lebanon no longer threatens Israel.

MYTH

The PLO posed no threat to Israel in 1982 when Israel attacked Lebanon.

FACT

The PLO repeatedly violated a cease-fire agreement reached in July 1981. In the ensuing eleven months, the PLO staged 270 terrorist actions in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, and along the Lebanese and Jordanian borders. Twenty-nine Israelis died, and more than 300 were injured in the attacks.[1] The frequency of attacks in the Galilee forced thousands of residents to flee their homes or to spend large amounts of time in bomb shelters.

A force of some 15-18,000 PLO members was encamped in scores of locations in Lebanon. About 5-6,000 were foreign mercenaries, coming from countries such as Libya, Iraq, India, Sri Lanka, Chad, and Mozambique.[2] The PLO had an arsenal that included mortars, Katyusha rockets, and an extensive antiaircraft network.[3] In addition, Syria, brought surface-to-air missiles into Lebanon, creating yet another danger for Israel.

Israeli strikes and commando raids were unable to stem the growth of this PLO army. Israel was not prepared to wait for more deadly attacks to be launched against its civilian population before acting against the terrorists. The final straw occurred abroad on June 3, 1982, when Israel’s ambassador to London, Shlomo Argov, was shot and critically wounded by an assassin from the Abu Nidal faction of the PLO. Israel retaliated by launching an assault on PLO positions in Lebanon on June 4 and 5, and the PLO responded with a massive artillery and mortar barrage on the Israeli population of the Galilee. The threat to northern Israel became intolerable, and the IDF launched Operation Peace for Galilee on June 6 to drive out the terrorists.

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.”[4]

MYTH

Israel was responsible for the massacre of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila.

FACT

The Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia was responsible for the massacres that occurred at the two Beirut-area refugee camps on September 16–17, 1982. Israeli troops allowed the Phalangists to enter Sabra and Shatila to root out terrorist cells believed to be located there. It had been estimated that there might have been up to 200 armed Palestinians in the camps.[5]

When Israeli soldiers ordered the Phalangists out, they found hundreds dead (the Lebanese police estimated the number to be 460, while Israeli intelligence believed the figure was 700–800). The dead, according to the Lebanese account, included 35 women and children. The rest were men: Palestinians, Lebanese, Pakistanis, Iranians, Syrians, and Algerians.[6] The killings were perpetrated to avenge the murders of Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel and 25 of his followers, killed in a bomb attack earlier that week.[7]

Israel had allowed the Phalange to enter the camps as part of a plan to transfer authority to the Lebanese and accepted responsibility for that decision. The Kahan Commission of Inquiry, formed by the Israeli government in response to public anger and grief, found that Israel was indirectly responsible for not anticipating the possibility of Phalangist violence. Subsequently, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon resigned, and the term of army chief of staff Gen. Raful Eitan was not extended.

The Kahan Commission, declared former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, was “a great tribute to Israeli democracy . . . There are very few governments in the world that one can imagine making such a public investigation of such a difficult and shameful episode.”[8]

Ironically, while three hundred thousand Israelis protested the killings, little or no reaction occurred in the Arab world. Outside the Middle East, a major international outcry against Israel erupted over the massacres. The Phalangists, who perpetrated the crime, were spared the brunt of the outrage.

By contrast, few voices were raised in May 1985 when Muslim militiamen attacked the Shatila and Burj-el Barajneh Palestinian refugee camps. According to UN officials, 635 were killed and 2,500 wounded. During a two-year battle between the Syrian-backed Shiite Amal militia and the PLO, more than 2,000 people, including many civilians, were reportedly killed. No protest was directed at the PLO or the Syrians and their allies over the slaughter. International reaction was also muted in October 1990 when Syrian forces overran Christian-controlled areas of Lebanon. In the eight-hour clash, at least 750 Christians were killed—the worst single battle of Lebanon’s Civil War.[9] These killings came on top of an estimated 95,000 deaths that had occurred from 1975–1982.[10]

Our goal is to liberate the 1948 borders of Palestine . . . [Jews] can go back to Germany or wherever they came from.

Hezbollah spokesperson Hassan Ezzedin[11]

 

MYTH

Israel instigated a second war in Lebanon without provocation.

FACT

Though this particular conflict officially began on July 12, 2006, the roots could be traced to the preceding twenty-four years dating back to the start of the first war in Lebanon. Following Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982, during which the IDF sought to drive the PLO from Lebanon, Iran sent fighters to assist in the creation of a revolutionary Islamic movement, soon called Hezbollah, or “Party of God.” As the Israeli presence in Lebanon lingered, Hezbollah attracted support from those in the southern part of the country who wanted Israel to withdraw, and its organizational and military infrastructure developed with the help of funding from Iran and Syria.

Hezbollah’s attacks against the IDF eventually compelled Israel to evacuate its personnel from the buffer zone it had created in southern Lebanon. On May 24, 2000, Israel ended its eighteen-year military presence there in cooperation with the United Nations and in compliance with the obligations set down by Security Council Resolution 425.

 

 

Hezbollah used Israel’s withdrawal as a sign of victory and subsequently took over southern Lebanon, creating a veritable “state within a state” while amassing thousands of tons of weaponry and entrenching themselves in civilian areas with a network of bunkers and fortified bases.

Hezbollah subsequently initiated cross-border raids seeking to abduct or kill Israeli soldiers. In October 2000, mere months after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, Hezbollah terrorists kidnapped and killed three Israeli soldiers—Benny Avraham, Omar Sawad, and Adi Avitan—and held them hostage for nearly four years before returning their bodies to Israel in a prisoner exchange deal.[12] From 2000 to 2006, Hezbollah carried out multiple attacks against northern Israel that killed both civilians and military personnel.

On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah attacked an IDF patrol. Terrorists killed three soldiers, severely wounded another three, and abducted two—Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. An IDF Merkava tank sent over the border to pursue the guerrillas hit a land mine and exploded, killing the four soldiers inside. Later, another soldier was killed during an attempted rescue operation to recover the bodies of the tank crew.

Israel responded with air and artillery raids against Hezbollah and Lebanese army targets. Hezbollah then fired rocket barrages into northern Israel, some reaching as far south as Haifa. The situation would have been worse if the Israeli Air Force had not destroyed Hezbollah’s most sophisticated and long-range rockets in the first hours of the fighting.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided to launch a ground attack on July 22, codenamed Operation Change of Direction. By July 25, Hezbollah rockets had killed fifteen Israeli civilians, including several Israeli Arabs, and dozens more had been wounded.

The fighting ended on August 14 with the signing of a United Nations-brokered ceasefire, and the war was officially ended when Israel lifted its naval blockade of Lebanon on September 8, 2006.

After thirty-four days of fighting, Israel lost 121 soldiers, including the two kidnapped soldiers, with more than six hundred injured. In addition, 44 civilians were killed and nearly 1,500 injured. Though estimates vary, Israel claims to have killed more than 500 Hezbollah fighters. More than 1,100 Lebanese civilians were killed, many because they were being used as human shields by Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, the terrorists fired at least 45 rockets into Israel, forcing thousands of Israelis to live in bomb shelters for more than a month, and tens of thousands to move out of rocket range. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese civilians also fled the fighting, which left billions of dollars in damage on both sides of the border.[13]

 

MYTH

Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians during the war instigated by Hezbollah.

FACT

Throughout the war initiated by Hezbollah on July 12, 2006, the media reported casualty totals offered by Lebanese officials as facts with no apparent effort to verify them. When the number of Hezbollah terrorists killed was mentioned at all, it was invariably with a qualifier such as “Israel says” or “Israel claims.” The evidence suggests, however, that it is likely that half or more of the casualties were not innocent civilians, but Hezbollah fighters.

According to Lebanon’s Higher Relief Council, the total number of Lebanese who died in the war was 1,191.[14] No distinctions were made between civilians and terrorists. Press reports usually ignored the fact that it was in Hezbollah and the Lebanese government’s interest to exaggerate the number of civilian casualties to blacken the image of Israel and support their contention that Israeli attacks were disproportionate and indiscriminate. Simultaneously, Hezbollah sought to conceal its casualties to enhance its prestige and make propagandistic claims about the damage it was inflicting on Israel while suffering few losses of its own.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report that charged Israel with indiscriminate attacks against civilians in Lebanon.”[15] Nothing in the report was based on firsthand knowledge by HRW. “There was no dependable method by which HRW could assess the veracity of what it was told by the ‘witnesses,’ many of whom were in areas where the population was sympathetic to, or intimidated by Hezbollah,” analyst Joshua Muravchik observed.[16]

HRW also had no evidence for the scurrilous accusation that civilians were “deliberately” killed. On the contrary, a great deal of evidence was available showing the efforts Israel made to avoid harming noncombatants, such as dropping leaflets to warn civilians to evacuate locations before they were attacked, pinpoint attacks on buildings in neighborhoods that could more easily have been carpet-bombed, and reports of Israeli pilots and others who withheld fire because of the presence of civilians in target areas.

Anyone watching television saw the images of rockets being fired from civilian areas and the photos of weapons and armed men in what should have been peaceful neighborhoods. Numerous witnesses told reporters about weapons caches in mosques and fighters using UN troops as shields.[17]

HRW had no trouble accepting the word of the Lebanese people it interviewed, but gave no credence to evidence presented by Israel, such as weapons captured in fighting in civilian areas or videos showing the deployment and launching of rockets from areas that were attacked.

The spurious allegations made by HRW, as well as similar ones published by Amnesty International, were further undermined by a report issued in November 2006 by the Intelligence and Terrorism Center at the Israeli Center for Special Studies. This publication provided extensive documentation and photographic evidence of “Hezbollah’s consistent pattern of intentionally placing its fighters and weapons among civilians.” It also shows that Hezbollah was “well aware of the civilian casualties that would ensue” from this activity.[18]

The truth did dribble out, though it was largely ignored. For example, the Daily Telegraph reported:

Lebanese officials estimate that up to 500 fighters have been killed in the past three weeks of hostilities with Israel, and another 1,500 injured. Lebanese officials have also disclosed that many of Hezbollah’s wounded are being treated in hospitals in Syria to conceal the true extent of the casualties . . . “Hezbollah is desperate to conceal its casualties because it wants to give the impression that it is winning its war,” said a senior security official. “People might reach a very different conclusion if they knew the true extent of Hezbollah’s casualties.”[19]

The Kuwait Times quoted a report that said Hezbollah “buried more than 700 fighters so far, with many more to go.”[20] Military expert John Keegan said Hezbollah losses might have been as high as 1,000 out of a total strength of 5,000.[21]

Tragically, civilians were killed, often because they were used as human shields. Of course, there would have been zero casualties if Hezbollah had not attacked Israel and kidnapped and murdered its soldiers.

MYTH

The media fairly and accurately covered the second war in Lebanon.

FACT

Reporters covering the war from Lebanon were particularly egregious in revealing their own biases based, it seems, on living in the country and developing sympathies for their subjects. More serious, however, was the way some of these correspondents allowed themselves to be used by Hezbollah. In the first Lebanon War, the PLO threatened reporters and made favorable coverage the price of access. Hezbollah learned from their example and influenced much of what journalists could see and report.

CNN’s Nic Robertson, for example, was taken to an area of Beirut and told that the rubble of buildings was a result of Israeli air strikes on civilian targets. He repeated the allegation as fact. He had no way of knowing what was in the buildings, whether it was a rocket workshop, a hiding place for Katyushas, the home of a Hezbollah leader, or a command center. In fact, he didn’t even know if Israel was responsible for the destruction that he had been shown.

Robertson later admitted that his report had been influenced by his Hezbollah guide. He acknowledged that he had been told what to film and where. “They designated the places that we went to, and we certainly didn’t have time to go into the houses or lift up the rubble to see what was underneath.”

Robertson said Hezbollah controls south Beirut. “You don’t get in there without their permission. We didn’t have enough time to see if perhaps there was somebody there who was, you know, a taxi driver by day, and a Hezbollah fighter by night.” Unlike what he said on air during his guided reports, Robertson told CNN’s Reliable Sources, “there’s no doubt that the bombs there are hitting Hezbollah facilities.”[22]

Robertson’s CNN colleague Anderson Cooper said the group was “just making things up,” and gave the example of a tour he was given in which Hezbollah had lined up some ambulances. They were told to turn on their sirens, and then the ambulances drove off as if they were picking up wounded civilians when, in fact, they were simply driving back and forth. “It’s a well-coordinated and not-so-subtle piece of propaganda,” observed Cooper. [23]

Time Magazine contributor Christopher Albritton made clear that reporters understood the rules of the game. “To the south, along the curve of the coast, Hezbollah is launching Katyushas, but I’m loath to say too much about them. The Party of God has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one.”[24]

Under no duress whatsoever, the Washington Post’s Thomas Ricks made perhaps the most outrageous charge of the war when he claimed, with no evidence whatsoever, that Israel intentionally left Hezbollah launchers intact because having Israeli civilians killed helped Israel in the public-relations war.[25]

Israel’s image was tarred by suggestions that it had targeted Lebanese Christian areas, intimating that Israel was killing innocent Christians rather than restricting its attacks to the Shiite Muslims of Hezbollah. CNN reported, for example, an Israeli strike “on the edge of the city’s mostly Christian eastern district” that killed ten people. In the next paragraph, however, the report says Israel hit “a building near a mosque.[26]

Photographs can be especially powerful, but they can also be misleading or outright fakes. A photo of a baby pulled from the rubble of a building in Qana that appeared on front pages around the world, for example, was exposed as a fake.[27] One of the photographers involved, Adnan Hajj, was discovered to have doctored at least two photographs, one of which was changed to show more and darker smoke rising from buildings in Beirut bombed by Israel, and the other altered the image of an Israeli jet, so it showed three flares being discharged instead of one. Reuters admitted the photos had been falsified, suspended the photographer, and removed all his photographs from its database.[28]

Reporters in Lebanon exaggerated the destruction in Beirut and elsewhere by showing tight shots of buildings hit in Israeli air strikes and rebroadcasting the same images repeatedly. “You would think Beirut has begun to resemble Dresden and Hamburg in the aftermath of Second World War air raids,” observed former Sunday Telegraph correspondent Tom Gross. But, Gross notes, “a careful look at aerial satellite photos of the areas targeted by Israel in Beirut shows that certain specific buildings housing Hezbollah command centers in the city’s southern suburbs have been singled out. Most of the rest of Beirut, apart from strategic sites such as airport runways used to ferry Hezbollah weapons in and out of Lebanon, has been left pretty much untouched.”[29]

While an Israeli strike that killed UN observers drew headlines, little attention was given to reports that Hezbollah was using the UN posts as shields. A Canadian soldier with UNIFIL, for example, reported that his team could observe “most of the Hezbollah static positions in and around our patrol base,” and noted that Israeli ordnance that fell near the base was not a result of deliberate targeting, but “has rather been due to tactical necessity.”[30]

Over the years, Arab propagandists have learned that one surefire way to get media attention is to scream “massacre” when Israelis are in the neighborhood. On August 7, 2006, news outlets repeated Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora’s claim that Israel had committed a “massacre” by killing 40 people in an air raid on the village of Houla. In fact, one person died.[31]

Here are facts the media neglected during the war:

  • Two million Israelis lived under the threat of rockets, including approximately 700,000 Israeli Arabs.
  • More than 300,000 Israelis were displaced from their homes.
  • Fifteen percent of the entire Israeli population lived in bomb shelters.
  • Approximately 5,500 homes were damaged by Hezbollah rockets.
  • Israel’s tourist industry was devastated.
  • Towns that are home to important sites of the three major religions came under fire, including Tiberias, Nazareth, and Safed.
  • Fires sparked by rockets destroyed 16,500 acres of forests and grazing fields in Israel.

Wars are never easy to cover, and each side of a conflict wants to make its case through the media. Responsible journalists make every effort to ensure the accuracy of their reporting rather than simply repeating whatever they are told.

MYTH

Lebanon no longer threatens Israel.

FACT

On August 11, 2006, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1701 in response to the Israel-Hezbollah war. The resolution called upon the Lebanese government “to secure its borders and other entry points to prevent the entry in Lebanon without its consent of arms and related materials.”

In May 2007, United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon established the Lebanon Independent Border Assessment Team (LIBAT) to evaluate Lebanon’s compliance with Resolution 1701. The committee concluded that “the performance of the (Lebanese inspection) agencies in stopping ongoing arms smuggling, which is generally accepted as a fact, can only be described as not up to what can be expected.”[32]

The committee discovered widespread corruption among Lebanese border police and described the ease by which missiles and militants moved across the Syrian-Lebanese border. The report illustrated the United Nations’ skepticism of Lebanese attempts to end the flow of illegal arms into Lebanon when it said, “one would have expected that an occasional seizure of arms . . . would have taken place. If by nothing else, then by pure chance. This lack of performance is worrying.”[33]

Lebanon’s failure to implement Resolution 1701 poses a direct threat to Israel and to Lebanese stability. Since the war in 2006, large quantities of weapons (including rockets capable of striking as far south as Tel Aviv and southern Israel), have been smuggled into Lebanon from Syria and Iran. Hezbollah now has an estimated 150,000 rockets, and Israel has become increasingly concerned with Hezbollah’s efforts to build precision-guided missiles.

As in past conflicts, Israel’s ability to fight Hezbollah is complicated by the cynical deployment of its arsenal. “The enemy has chosen to place its weapons, missiles and rockets among urban areas exploiting the local population as human shields,” according to IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi.[34]

A new threat was also exposed was exposed in 2018 when the IDF destroyed tunnels that extended across the Lebanese border into Israel. Hezbollah planned to move hundreds of fighters through the tunnels with the objective of fighting the next war within Israeli territory.[35]

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has openly declared that “Israel is a cancer” and that the “ultimate goal should be to remove it.”[36] He has pledged that Hezbollah will not disarm so long as Israel remains a threat.

The UN’s failure to ensure the implementation of its resolution increases the risk of renewed violence between Israel and Hezbollah. This danger has been heightened by Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war and the possibility of the group gaining a strategic foothold near the Golan Heights.

 

[1] Jillian Becker, The PLO, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984), p. 205.

[2] Becker, p. 205.

[3] Jerusalem Post, (June 28, 1982).

[4] Henry Kissinger, “From Lebanon to the West Bank to the Gulf,” Washington Post, (June 16, 1982).

[5] Zeev Schiff and Ehud Yaari, Israel’s Lebanon War, (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 70.

[6] Becker, p. 212.

[7] Schiff and Yaari, p. 257.

[8] Yitschak Ben Gad, Politics, Lies, and Videotape: 3,000 Questions and Answers on the Mideast Crisis, (United States, Shapolsky Publishers, 1991), p. 204

[9] Ali Jaber, “750 Reported Killed in Lebanese General’s Defeat,” New York Times, (October 19, 1990).

[10] Becker, p. 212.

[11] Jeffrey Goldberg, “In the Party of God,” The New Yorker, (October 14, 2002).

[12] “The Mount Dov abductions,” Ynet, (March 12, 2009).

[13] “Operation Change of Direction,” Globalsecurity.org, (no date).

[14] Lebanese Higher Relief Council, (December 6, 2006).

[15] Human Rights Watch, “Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks against Civilians in Lebanon,” vol. 18, no. 3, (August 2006), p. 3.

[16] Joshua Muravchik, “Human Rights Watch vs. Human Rights: The Cynical Manipulation of a Worthy Cause Has a History,” The Weekly Standard, (September 11, 2006).

[17] Alan Dershowitz, “What Are They Watching?” New York Sun, (August 23, 2006).

[18] Reuven Erlich, “Hezbollah’s Use of Lebanese Civilians as Human Shields: The Extensive Military Infrastructure Positioned and Hidden in Populated Areas. From within the Lebanese Towns and Villages, Deliberate Rocket Attacks Were Directed against Civilian Targets in Israel,” Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Center for Special Studies (C.S.S), (November 2006).

[19] Con Coughlin, “Teheran Fund Pays War Compensation to Hezbollah Families,” Daily Telegraph, (August 4, 2006).

[20] Kuwait Times, (August 30, 2006).

[21] John Keegan, “Why Israel Will Go to War Again—Soon,” Daily Telegraph, (November 3, 2006).

[22] CNN, (July 23, 2006). Also, corrected transcripts from the broadcast.

[23] Anderson Cooper, “Our Very Strange Day with Hezbollah,” CNN, (July 23, 2006).

[24] Tom Gross, “The Media War against Israel: The Jewish State Is Fighting Not One Enemy but Two: Hezbollah, and Those Who Peddle Its Propaganda,” National Post, (August 2, 2006).

[25] CNN, (August 6, 2006).

[26] CNN, (August 7, 2006).

[27] Reuven Koret, “Hezbollywood Horror: ‘Civil Defense Worker’ Doubles as Traveling Mortician,” Israelinsider.com, (August 3, 2006); “Hezbollywood? Evidence Mounts that Qana Collapse and Deaths Were Staged,” Israelinsider.com, (July 31, 2006); EU Referendum, (July 31, August 1, August 5, 2006).

[28] Ricki Hollander, “A Reprise: Media Photo Manipulation,” CAMERA, (August 9, 2006).

[29] Tom Gross, “The Media War against Israel: The Jewish State Is Fighting Not One Enemy but Two: Hezbollah, and Those Who Peddle Its Propaganda,” National Post, (August 2, 2006).

[30] “A Canadian Soldier’s Report from South Lebanon,” CTV.ca, (July 26, 2006).

[31] Associated Press, (August 7, 2006); Amos Harel, “One Dead in IDF Strike in Beirut Southern Suburb,” Haaretz, (August 7, 2006).

[32] Lebanon wire, Independent Border Assessment Team Report, (June 2007).

[33] Ibid.

[34] Tal Beeri, “Hezbollah’s Missile and Rocket Arrays: A Tough and Complex Challenge for Israel,” Alma Research and Education Center, (May 6, 2021).

[35] Shimon Shapira, “Hizbullah’s Operational Plan to Invade the Galilee through Underground Tunnels,” JCPA, (December 4, 2018).

[36] Ariel Ben Solomon, “Nasrallah: Israel Is a Cancer and the Ultimate Goal Should Be to Remove It,” Jerusalem Post, (August 15, 2014).