First Lebanon War
Though Israel had been attacked repeatedly, since its inception, the northern border with Lebanon had remained relatively quiet. However, the large influx of Palestinian refugees after 1948 and the events of “Black September” in 1970—the violent suppression of militant Palestinian organizations by King Hussein of Jordan—led to the establishment of PLO headquarters in Lebanon, and caused a radicalization of many of the country’s inhabitants.
In fact, the PLO stronghold in the south of Lebanon, adjacent to Israel’s border, became known as “Fatahland.” The area was governed autonomously, independent of the Lebanese government, and the PLO continued to shell cities in northern Israel from its base in Lebanon. In March 1978, Fatah members from Lebanon traveled across the Israeli border and killed an American tourist on the beach, then hijacked a bus. By the end of the carnage, over thirty Israelis had been killed and over seventy wounded.
Israel invaded Lebanon three days later. “Operation Litani,” named after a river in Lebanon, sought to drive the PLO further north, away from its border with Israel. The IDF was aided in this mission by the South Lebanese Army. The Lebanese people were also suffering under the PLO regime—especially the Lebanese Christians and Jews, who were persecuted and attacked as well. (Shia Muslims initially suffered under PLO rule, but later became more radicalized.) Israel achieved its aim of pushing back the PLO, but the UN forced the IDF to withdraw from Lebanon, and stationed a peace-keeping force—the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFL)—in its place.
Israel, while fending off attacks from the north, tried to strengthen the SLA, its ally from earlier battles, and at the same time, held secret talks with the Christian leadership in Lebanon. However, the shelling and attacks did not stop. A series of Arab attacks and Israeli reprisals continued, despite a cease-fire brokered in 1981. The PLO broke the terms of the treaty over and over, killing or wounding hundreds of Israelis. South Lebanon continued to be a haven for radical Palestinian elements, and their arms cache grew larger and more dangerous. Despite air raids and strikes, the IDF was unable to halt the growth of the PLO. Northern Israeli citizens, especially those living in Kiryat Shmona, began to flee for safer settlements. Israel was almost at the breaking point when the final provocation occurred in June 1982—the Israeli ambassador to Britain, Shlomo Argov, was the victim of an attempted assassination by a Palestinian group. He was seriously wounded, though not killed.
Then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin called a special session of the cabinet which voted in favor of military action. The IDF launched “Operation Peace for Galilee” and, on June 6, moved into Lebanon, determined to drive out the terrorists. The operation, expected to last no more than forty-eight hours and only reach as far as necessary to drive out the terrorist elements, was initially successful. Buoyed by the success, the Israeli government decided to expand the operation, and hoped to drive out the PLO completely, while gaining peace with Lebanon through a substantive peace treaty. As the IDF pushed northward, Syria stepped in, launching attacks at the eastern border of Lebanon. The Israeli Air Force managed to destroy most of Syria’s fighter jets. Israeli troops reached and occupied Beirut, the only time Israel has occupied the capital of an Arab country. They were joined by the Christian Phalanges to help keep order. Christian residents of town near Beirut, who had been terrorized under PLO rule, were grateful the PLO had been driven out and they could rebuild their homes.
Lasting from July through mid-August, the goal of the Israeli occupation of Beirut was to drive out the radical Syrian and Palestinian elements from Lebanon, and in the process, create a more moderate northern neighbor. Despite significant loses, though, the PLO refused to retreat, and the IDF was reluctant to continue the campaign in heavily civilian areas. Israel considered entering into diplomatic negotiations with Lebanon.
The peace process seemed to be advancing, when, in August, Bachir Gemayel, the president of Lebanon, agreed to a peace treaty with Israel. However, on September 14, 1982, he was assassinated while giving a speech. His death, as his assassin later claimed, was in retaliation for agreeing to peace with Israel. Two days later, public opinion of the war began to turn with the massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The Christian Phalanges, working with the IDF, were instructed to root out the remaining terrorists living in the camps and hand them over to the IDF. Instead, seeking revenge, the Phalanges massacred the inhabitants of the camps, totaling over 800 civilian deaths. It was later reported that the IDF had prior intelligence that the Phalanges were planning a massacre, and did not take the warning seriously. Begin, responding to international pressure, launched an inquiry into the massacre a few months later, the outcome of which was that then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was found unfit and forced to resign.
Following the massacre, Israel agreed to an American-brokered cease-fire, and began the long process of withdrawal. A multinational force took the place of the IDF, and evacuated more than 14,000 PLO members as well. Many settled in Tunis, which later became the new PLO headquarters. However, the attacks did not cease. The PLO planned carefully controlled attacks on Israel, in violation of the cease-fire, in order to force Israel’s hand. The PLO knew that if Israel launched an all-out military response, Israel would be condemned worldwide for violating the terms of the agreement. The PLO’s infrastructure was hidden among civilian buildings, thereby making it difficult for Israel to attack without harming civilians. The multinational force in Beirut, established to keep peace after the IDF withdrawal, was attacked numerous times as well, and France and America both suffered troop losses. The multinational force disbanded, but the unstable Lebanese government was unable to reign in the militias that began to form in south Lebanon. Continued clashes between militant groups and the IDF led to more casualties.
As the war, which was supposed to be a quick incursion, dragged out, for the first time, there was not complete consensus in Israel as to the justification for the war. Protests were staged within Israel, demanding the troops pull out, and in September 1983, Begin resigned as prime minister, succeeded by Yitzhak Shamir. In 1985, under the new government, the IDF withdrew, leaving a small force in an area called the “security zone” to help the South Lebanese Army regain control and to protect northern Israeli communities, where they remained until May of 2000. The IDF stationed in the security zone faced constant attacks from Hezbollah terrorists, and Israel came under increasing pressure, both internally and internationally, for remaining in the country. Finally, the decision was made to withdraw completely from the security zone.
Israel was successful in driving out the PLO, but the terror campaign did not stop, and Israel suffered heavy casualty losses during the war—over 1,000 soldiers died. The terrorist group Hezbollah began to grow in numbers and power, launching rockets into northern Israel.