Following their aborted coup attempt and expulsion from Jordan in “Black September”1970, the PLO established a quasi-state in southern Lebanon, using it as a base for raids on civilian targets in northern Israel, as well as worldwide terror attacks on Israelis.
On March 11, 1978, three days before the start of Operation Litani (Hebrew: מבצע ליטני, “Mivtsa Litani”), eleven PLO terrorists led by Dalal al-Mughrabi infiltrated Israel from Lebanon by sea, and took control of an Israeli bus traveling along a coastal road near Tel Aviv. The attack, known as the “Coastal Road Massacre” (Hebrew: טבח כביש החוף, “Tevah Kvish HaHof”), resulted in the deaths of 35 civilians, including 13 children; 71 people were wounded.
Besides killing innocent Israelis, the intent was to sabotage the peace process with Egypt. In response to this attack, the Israeli government decided to take military action against the PLO’s terrorist infrastructure in southern Lebanon with the goal of pushing the group’s base of operations further from the border of Israel to beyond the Litani River and restoring a sense of security in northern Israel.
Initiation of the Operation
On the night of March 14, 1978, infantry brigades from the 36th Division and the Headquarters of the Chief of Infantry and Paratroopers Corps crossed the border into Lebanon. Later, these troops were joined by Armored Corps and smaller operational units. Altogether, about 25,000 soldiers entered south Lebanon As troops moved north, they were supported by air and sea forces.
The plan for the operation, devised by Chief of Staff Motta Gur, and Commander of the Northern Region Command Avigdor “Yenosh” Ben Gal, was to occupy a territory extending for about six miles. It was estimated that about 4,000 terrorists were based in the area. In addition to the elimination of many terrorists, and the destruction of much of their infrastructure, the operation aimed at coordinating with the Army of South Lebanon led by Major Saad Haddad to ensure territorial continuity in South Lebanon. The army were Christian allies of Israel who had been targets themselves of the PLO and shared the goal of ultimately driving them out of Lebanon.
Israeli soldiers crossing the Lebanese border
On March 17, at the end of the first phase of the operation, it was decided to extend the area of the operation and advance to the banks of the Litani River. The name of the operation was subsequently changed to Operation Litani.
Many villages and towns that were used as headquarters by the terrorists were occupied during the operation, and the objectives on the ground were fully achieved. However, the terrorist infrastructure was not completely eradicated, and the city of Tyre was not occupied, as the Chief of the General Staff feared that fighting in urban areas would cause too many casualties.
The UN Security Council passed Resolutions 425 and 426 on March 19 calling for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon. The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was created to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces, restore international peace and security and assist the Lebanese government in assuming authority in southern Lebanon.
On June 13, Israeli troops completed their withdrawal from southern Lebanon handing over many of their positions to the Army of South Lebanon. The IDF lost 18 soldiers and killed 300 terrorists during the fighting.
In June 2000, the Security Council verified that Israel had withdrawn its forces from Lebanon in accordance with Resolution 425.
Exchange of Prisoners
On April 5, 1978, six soldiers and a civilian aboard a pickup truck accidentally crossed the IDF’s security line near Tyre and encountered a group of terrorists. Four soldiers were killed during the clashes, one soldier and the civilian managed to make their way back into Israeli territory and the sixth soldier was captured. The four soldiers’ bodies were returned to their families in the first Gibril trade.
The operation did not end the threat from the PLO. Consequently, after four more years of threats and attacks, Israel launched Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982.