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Lebanon War, 1982

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Lebanon War, 1982
A Setback for the PLO and for Israel's 'Grand Design'

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The 1982 Lebanon War was a three-month conflict precipitated by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, designed to militarily and politically debilitate the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and turn the Lebanese Civil War in favor of Israel’s right-wing allies. It added another military force to a conflict in the heart of Beirut that included Syrian forces, various Lebanese militias, and, eventually, a multinational peacekeeping force. The war was immensely destructive in terms of both lives and property, worsened the Lebanon’s already civil war–torn political fabric, and led to an Israeli occupation of parts of Southern Lebanon that lasted until 2000. The war also proved a massive setback for the PLO and its leader, Yasir Arafat, who was forced to leave Lebanon and establish new headquarters in Tunis. Among the war’s most iconic moments was the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacres, in which the “Lebanese Forces” militia (affiliated to the Lebanese Phalanges Party), supported by Israel, murdered more than 2,000 Palestinian civilians in two refugee camps in Beirut.

The Israeli invasion and the continuing occupation of southern Lebanon proved immensely controversial both in Israel and abroad, and marked a turning point in terms of global perceptions of Israel and the Palestinians. Finally, the war’s results shifted the center of Palestinian resistance back to historic Palestine itself, while on an international level it helped stimulate the search for diplomatic ways to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Following their expulsion from Jordan in 1970–71, PLO forces regrouped in Lebanon and made Beirut their new headquarters. When the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975, the Palestinians fought alongside a coalition of left-wing forces, mostly Muslim and Druze, fighting a collection of right-wing militias, mostly Maronite Catholic and dominated by the Lebanese Phalanges Party. The Syrian occupation of parts of Lebanon in 1976 halted (but did not end) this first, bloody period of Lebanon’s civil war. By the late 1970s, PLO fighters were stationed throughout the country, particularly in Beirut and southern Lebanon, from which they sometimes carried out attacks into Israeli territory. Israeli forces invaded Lebanon in 1978 in an attempt to drive back PLO fighters from the border area and establish a buffer zone under the control of pro-Israel militias, but Palestinian fighters regrouped.

After the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979 removed the strategic threat of the Egyptian army from Israel’s southern front, and given the quiet Jordanian and Syrian fronts to the east, the Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, felt free to use the Israeli army to destroy the PLO’s estimated 15,000–18,000 fighters in Lebanon once and for all. Israel sought not only to rid the northern Israeli border of a hostile force, but to weaken PLO influence in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, where Begin’s government was busy establishing Jewish settlements to maintain Israel’s hold on the areas. Sharon in particular also held ambitious hopes to rout the 30,000 Syrian troops that had been stationed in parts of Lebanon since 1976, assist the Lebanese Forces' leader Bashir Gemayel become president of Lebanon, and sign a peace treaty with Lebanon.

An Israeli-PLO cease-fire agreement engineered indirectly by the American government in July 1981 led to a period of peace along the Israeli-Lebanese border. On 6 June 1982, however, the Israeli government used the pretext of the attempted assassination in London of the Israeli ambassador by an anti-PLO Palestinian group to launch an invasion of Lebanon. Originally claiming that Israeli only wanted to advance 40 kilometers into Lebanon to clear a “security zone,” Sharon quickly ordered the Israeli army to advance toward the capital, Beirut, and to engage Syrian forces in the country. Ultimately, approximately 76,000 Israeli troops and more than 1,000 tanks crossed into Lebanon. PLO fighters and Lebanese militias allied with the PLO engaged the Israelis in fierce fighting, while Israelis tank and air battles with Syrian forces led to the loss of over 80 Syrian aircraft. The Israelis quickly encircled West Beirut, site of the PLO’s headquarters, and laid siege to that part of the city throughout the summer. Aircraft, tanks, artillery pieces, and ships bombarded the city for ten weeks trying to force the PLO to surrender. Israel’s public image suffered as the world watched televised images of the siege and the heavy destruction it wrought on civilians trapped in West Beirut. Eventually PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat and the beleaguered PLO leadership agreed to evacuate under the terms of another American-brokered agreement that came into effect on 19 August 1982. Some 14,000 PLO fighters left the city under the protection of a multinational force of French, Italian, and American soldiers, who were also supposed to guarantee the safety of Palestinian refugees in the city. Under the agreement, Israeli troops were not allowed to enter West Beirut. Arafat himself left by ship, and eventually resettled in Tunis, where the PLO established its new headquarters.

That same month, Israel’s ally in Lebanon, Bashir Gemayel, was elected president of Lebanon. However, on 14 September, just days after the multinational force left, he was assassinated. The Israeli army occupied West Beirut the next day and allowed the Lebanese Forces militia—who held the Palestinians responsible for Gemayel’s assassination—to enter the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in southern Beirut on 16 September. The militiamen murdered more than 2,000 Palestinian refugees as Israeli soldiers surrounded the camps to prevent the refugees from fleeing and, as the massacre continued into the night, fired flares to illuminate the area. In Israel, the Kahan Commission was formed thereafter to investigate Israeli culpability in the slaughter. Israeli forces were found to be “indirectly responsible” for the massacre, and Sharon (who was found to bear personal responsibility) was forced to resign as defense minister. The Sabra and Shatila massacres remain, along with the events at Deir Yasin village in 1948, one of the darkest hours for the Palestinian people.

Estimates about the number of people killed in the 1982 war in Lebanon are difficult to determine precisely. However, probably between 17,000 and 19,000 Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrians—civilians and armed personnel—were killed in the war, in addition to the Palestinian refugees murdered in Sabra and Shatila. The Israeli army lost 376 soldiers from June to September 1982. The PLO never again constituted a major military force, and it increasingly looked to diplomatic solutions to settle the Palestine question. Ironically for Israel, the war and the ongoing Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon led to the formation of the Hizballah militia, which by the twenty-first century had replaced the PLO as a significant strategic threat to Israel’s north. Further, the PLO’s setback and displacement shifted the primary locus of Palestinian resistance to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, which would rise up a few years later (the first intifada). The war also prompted both the American government and the Arab League to develop peace plans in 1982—the Reagan Plan and the Fez Initiative, respectively—designed to end the conflict. Although they did not, they contributed to growing attempts to end the conflict diplomatically that, further heightened as a result of the first intifada, resulted in the 1993 Oslo accords.

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Selected Bibliography

Fisk, Robert. Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Genet, Jean. “Four Hours in Shatila.Journal of Palestine Studies 12, no.3 (Spring 1983): 3-22.

Khalidi, Rashid. Under Siege: PLO Decisionmaking During the 1982 War. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

Sayigh, Yezid. “Palestinian Military Performance in the 1982 War.Journal of Palestine Studies 12, no.4 (Summer 1983): 3-24.

Sayigh, Yezid.  “Israel’s Military Performance in Lebanon.Journal of Palestine Studies 13, no.1 (Autumn 1983): 24-65.

Schiff, Ze’ev, and Ehud Ya’ari. Israel’s Lebanon War. New York: Touchstone, 1985.