In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon in an attempt to eliminate the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) once and for all. In 1970, following Black September, when Palestinian forces were defeated in Jordan, the PLO moved its base of operations to Lebanon. The presence of large numbers of Palestinians further disrupted the fragile Lebanese political system, which was based on a confessional system reflecting the many different religious communities in the country. When the PLO launched attacks from southern Lebanon, Israel often retaliated by attacking Lebanon and demanding that Lebanon control the PLO. Some Lebanese, particularly the Maronite Christians who held the preponderance of political power, blamed the PLO for the problems with Israel and for Lebanon’s domestic instability. They also wanted the PLO out of the country.
After civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1975 the central government ceased to be effective, and the PLO was able to establish a state within a state. Although the PLO was not the major cause for the civil war— internal political contradictions in Lebanon were—it was a contributing factor. Initially the PLO attempted to remain neutral in the war, but as violence throughout the country escalated, it was drawn into the fighting on the side of the Sunni Muslims, who, unlike other groups in Lebanon, largely lacked their own military militias. The PLO also provided social services and militarily trained some Shi’i in the south, who traditionally had been the poorest and least powerful group in the country. However, PLO fighters were often arrogant, and gradually Shi’i communities came to resent their presence.
Following increased attacks by the PLO, including terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians in the north, Israel occupied southern Lebanon for 120 straight days in 1978. During this time Israel trained and financed a surrogate force, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), commanded by a former officer of the Lebanese army. It continued to operate as a pro-Israeli force in South Lebanon into the 1990s. The Israeli attacks depopulated much of South Lebanon, as over 200,000 people, mostly Shi’i villagers, fled to South Beirut, where they settled in slum areas and refugee camps. During the Lebanese civil war Israel also established direct ties with Maronite Christian forces, the Phalange or Kataeb, led by Bashir Gemayel, who was intent on removing the Palestinians from Lebanon and establishing Maronite control over the government.
By 1982 the PLO feared a major Israeli attack in Lebanon and moderated its incursions across the border. But the hard-line Likud government, under Prime Minister Menachem Begin, was determined to crush the PLO. In June 1982 the Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal organization, whose leader had been condemned to death by Arafat and the PLO, attempted to assassinate the Israeli ambassador, Shlomo Argov, in London. The Israelis retaliated with a full-scale invasion of Lebanon. Although the Israeli cabinet had approved an invasion 25 miles into Lebanon, the hawkish Israeli defense minister and war hero General Ariel Sharon ordered troops that had little difficulty securing the south to advance directly on to Beirut. As the Israelis advanced, the PLO forces also moved north toward Beirut. Within a week Israeli forces had linked up with Bashir Gemayel’s militia in East Beirut and besieged West Beirut, home to about 1 million civilians and also the PLO headquarters. The Israeli air force and navy bombarded the city, and as the siege dragged on, the Israeli military attempted but failed to take the city.
The war resulted in a heavy loss of civilian life, and the international community, appalled by the carnage, demanded a cease-fire. Negotiations led to the withdrawal of PLO leaders, including Yasir Arafat and many fighters, to Tunis on August 16. International forces, including French, U.S., and Italian, moved in to protect the civilian population in West Beirut, but within two weeks president Ronald Reagan declared the war over and removed U.S. troops.
On August 23 Bashir Gemayel was elected president of Lebanon, but to the dismay of Sharon, he refused to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Several days later Gemayel was killed in his headquarters, and his brother ultimately became the new Lebanese president. In retaliation for the killing—which they blamed on the Palestinians—Lebanese militias, under the observation of Israeli troops, entered the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, and from September 16 to 18 massacred several thousand people, mostly Palestinian women and children. In Israel major demonstrations against the government erupted for having allowed such attacks. Although Sharon was held accountable for the massacre and forced to resign, he returned to politics and in 2001 became the Israeli prime minister. In the aftermath of the massacre international forces, including U.S. Marines, returned to Lebanon. They, too, were drawn into the Lebanese civil war and became targets for suicide bombers. Thus, even without the presence of the PLO, the war continued.
In 1983 suicide bombers killed 17 Americans and 40 others at the U.S. embassy, 58 French soldiers in a car bomb, and 241 U.S. Marines in a truck bombing at the supposedly safe Beirut airport. When more attacks and kidnappings followed, the international forces withdrew. Israeli forces also gradually withdrew from Beirut but remained in South Lebanon. Lebanon descended into greater anarchy until the civil war ended under the 1989 Taif Agreement, brokered by Saudi Arabia and supported by other Arab states. The 1982 war was a military defeat for the PLO and damaged much of its social and welfare infrastructure in Lebanon, but it did not destroy the organization. Tunisia remained the PLO headquarters until the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, when it moved to Gaza and Jericho in the West Bank.
Initially the Shi’i in South Lebanon welcomed the Israelis but gradually they turned against them when the troops remained. Hizbollah (Party of God), which formed as a result of the 1982 war, became the major Shi’i group to fight against the Israeli occupation. Israel was to sustain more deaths and casualties from the struggle with Hizbollah in Lebanon than from the PLO. In May 2000 Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon except for Shaba Farms claimed by Syria and as Lebanese territory by Hizbollah. However, confrontations between Israeli and Hizbollah forces continued over the disputed area and in 2006 Israel again bombarded and invaded Lebanon, this time in an attempt to destroy Hizbollah.
- Fisk, Robert. Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon. New York: Atheneum, 1990;
- Jansen, Michael. The Battle of Beirut: Why Israel Invaded Lebanon. Boston: South End Press, 1983;
- Schiff, Ze’ev, and Ehud Ya’ari. Israel’s Lebanon War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.
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