Turn the Clock Back 32 Years: Lebanon Was the Battleground — Before Hezbollah’s Rise to Power

[Here is part of Chapter 14, “Northern Exposure,” in the history of Israeli espionage and security by Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman — Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.]

No one needed the best intelligence in the world to know that Israel
was poised to attack the PLO infrastructure in Lebanon in 1982.

Menachem Begin’s intentions became clear after his reelection
in 1981. With a measure of reluctance and a whirlwind of controversy, Begin
elevated Ariel Sharon to the post of defense minister. The feisty and ambitious
retired general had a reputation as a man of action who believed in using a
glove of iron—rather than velvet—in dealing with Arabs.

Another cabinet minister remarked—only half-jokingly—that if Sharon
got that job, one day tanks would surround the prime minister’s office in a
coup d’état. Yet Sharon, as a hero of the Yom Kippur War against Egypt, had
many admirers and lobbied vigorously for the defense ministry. Begin lavished
praise on Sharon as a modern-day Judah the Maccabee, but also feared Sharon
as a charismatic figure who could cause trouble.

What did occur, and quickly, was that Sharon began planning an invasion
of Lebanon. Military planners codenamed it “Big Pine.” The concept, in
truth, also fit Begin’s strategy. The prime minister was feeling remorse over his
offer of Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza—part of his peace
treaty with Egypt’s President Sadat in 1979. Begin now was concerned that
autonomy would lead to an independent Palestinian state, which he opposed.
The most effective way to derail that would be to smash the organization that
embodied the Palestinians’ aspirations, the PLO.

In public, Begin kept warning that Palestinian terrorists—after being
expelled from Jordan in 1971—had built a state within a state in Lebanon as
a launching pad for attacks southward into Israel. He even dehumanized the
enemy by referring to PLO chairman Yasser Arafat as “this man with hair on
his face,” and to the PLO as “two-legged beasts.”

Even for the large circle of Israelis who were privy to the secret war plans,
it was a surprise to see how trigger-happy Begin and his defense minister were
when news broke in April 1982 that two Israelis had been murdered in the Bois
de Boulogne park in Paris. Sharon called Begin, and suggested that this would
be the opportunity to execute the pre-cooked plan to invade Lebanon.
It turned out that the corpses in Paris were those of Israeli criminals, killed
in an organized crime clash. They were not victims of Palestinian terrorism.
Tranquility reigned for only two months. Late on a Thursday night, June 3rd, the Israeli ambassador in London—Shlomo Argov—was shot in the head while leaving the elegant Dorchester Hotel after a banquet.

The next morning in Jerusalem, Begin’s cabinet convened for an urgent
meeting. Researchers from Aman explained that the three Palestinian attackers,
arrested by efficient British police, belonged to a renegade wing of the
PLO named for its leader: the Abu Nidal organization. The army chief of staff,
General Rafael (Raful) Eitan, immediately jumped up and said: “Abu Nidal,
Abu Shmidal, they all are the same.”

The cabinet approved a limited penetration by Israeli forces into Lebanon,
to smash PLO positions. Begin told parliamentarians in the Knesset—in Biblical
terms—that the IDF operation would bring the Jewish state 40 years of
peace and quiet, in which “the children of Israel will happily go to school and
joyfully return home.”

On Sunday, June 6, the mighty Israeli military invaded Lebanon by land,
sea, and air. Things went well, at first. Palestinian guerrilla fighters were no
match for the fully trained and equipped IDF. Within six days, the Israelis
encircled the sprawling capital city, Beirut.

Along the way, as tanks advanced northward from the border, the Israelis
were welcomed by Druze villagers, Maronite Christians, and even Shi’ite Muslims
who showered the invaders with the traditional greeting of handfuls of
rice. They saw the Israelis as liberators from an oppressive PLO-Sunni Muslim
coalition backed by Syria.

But the honeymoon did not last long.

The promises made by Begin and Sharon, and supported by General Eitan,
for a quick victory turned out to be hollow. The invaders went far beyond the
40 kilometers (25 miles) declared by Begin as the war plan. Sharon had a
grander strategy, intent upon forcing the Palestinians to leave Lebanon and
make their way back to Jordan—the country he wanted to be the permanent
solution for the Palestinian problem.

That was not the way events played out. Very soon, the Israelis were perceived
by most of Lebanon’s factions as an occupying force. The IDF became the
target of attacks by Palestinians and by a new force: Hezbollah, or Party of God,
created by the new Islamic regime in Iran to empower their Shi’ite brethren.
The major breakdown of Sharon’s strategy occurred that September. Just
after being elected president of Lebanon, Bashir Gemayel—whose family had
a long history of secret cooperation with Israeli intelligence—was assassinated
by Syrian agents. Syria felt it had to crush the obvious alliance between Israel
and Maronite Christians, including the Gemayels.

Retaliation followed swiftly, and it was bloody and history-changing.
Either encouraged or malevolently ignored by the Israeli military, Christian
militiamen entered the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and massacred 800 Palestinian men, women, and children.

Israel sank even deeper into the mud of Lebanese politics: a complex and
fractured mosaic of rival and often violent ethnic groups.
American, French, and Italian forces intervened, intending to stabilize
the failed state of Lebanon, but they themselves became the targets of a new
form of terrorism: suicidal attacks by Hezbollah. The organization glorified the
Shi’ite Muslim tradition of martyrdom: giving your life for a holy cause, wiping
out Islam’s enemies, while guaranteeing yourself a place in Paradise where
72 virgins would await you.

The worst attack of all was the truck bombing that brought down the
United States Marines barracks, killing over 240 servicemen in October 1983.
A simultaneous suicide bombing in Beirut killed 58 French paratroopers.

Israel found small comfort in the mass departure of PLO fighters, led by
Arafat. Ships brought them from Beirut’s harbor to their new headquarters,
far to the west in Tunisia. Israeli snipers had Arafat in the crosshairs of their
gunsights, and a junior intelligence officer felt this could be an opportunity
to get rid of the man viewed by Israel as a terrorist chief. Restraint prevailed,
because of a ceasefire an American envoy had negotiated, so Begin and Sharon
did not approve taking the shot.

The PLO left, but Israel was stuck for another 17 years in its own Vietnam.

March 30, 2014

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