First Lebanon War still resonates in Israel 40 years later

While the war was not a military failure, it was a trauma: “This was the first time that a big part of the nation did not see the war as justified.”

 ISRAEL AIR Force helicopter ferries supplies to an IDF encampment during Israel’s Peace for Galilee military campaign, June 1982, south of Lebanon’s Beirut-Damascus highway.  (photo credit: Yoel Kantor/GPO via Getty Images)
ISRAEL AIR Force helicopter ferries supplies to an IDF encampment during Israel’s Peace for Galilee military campaign, June 1982, south of Lebanon’s Beirut-Damascus highway.
(photo credit: Yoel Kantor/GPO via Getty Images)

Think of the wars, military campaigns and events that transformed Israel, and certain ones automatically pop into mind.

The 1948-1949 War of Independence, obviously. Without the David over Goliath victory in that war, there would be no Jewish state.

The 1967 Six Day War, because on the seventh day Israel found itself in control of three times as much territory as before, including all of Jerusalem, the biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula.

Then there was the 1973 Yom Kippur War: first, the trauma of the intelligence failure that almost led to the fall of the Third Jewish Commonwealth, but which was followed by a brilliant military victory that brought the IDF within 40 km. of Damascus, and 100 km. of Cairo.

The settlement movement and the country’s peace movements, which have shaped so much of the country’s political discourse since then, were products of the ’67 and ’73 wars.

And, of course, the Second Intifada, from 2000-2004. It was an anguished period of mind-numbing terrorism, jolting jolted Israel out of its Oslo-induced reverie, which posited erroneously that peace with the Palestinians would flow like a river if Israel just evacuated territory.

 PROF. UDI LEBEL, researcher of civil-military relations at Bar-Ilan University’s School of Communication. (credit: BAR-ILAN UNIVERSITY) PROF. UDI LEBEL, researcher of civil-military relations at Bar-Ilan University’s School of Communication. (credit: BAR-ILAN UNIVERSITY)

All those events were watershed moments. The country after those events was not the same as it was before them.

But, says Prof. Udi Lebel, a researcher of civil-military relations at Bar-Ilan University’s School of Communication, the war with the most far-reaching impact on the country is arguably none of the above, but, rather, the First Lebanon War, known formally as Operation Peace for Galilee, 1982-1985, whose 40th anniversary is being commemorated this month.

That war – which in the public’s mind is associated with defense minister Ariel Sharon not being forthright about its objectives; with the massacre at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut; and with reservists and officers such as Eli Geva refusing to go to Lebanon or to carry out the orders once there – changed forever the military-civil relationship in this country.

Lebel said that Lebanon led to the “democratization of war” in Israel, with much greater input from civil society in the conduct of military campaigns since then. He said certain political communities were created during that war that significantly altered the way the country has since waged war.

“This is not a war that left a military legacy, but, rather, a legacy of political communities that were established and that influenced the way wars in Israel are now conducted,” he said.

“This is not a war that left a military legacy, but, rather, a legacy of political communities that were established and that influenced the way wars in Israel are now conducted.”

Prof. Udi Lebel

No military legacy

One reason the First Lebanon War did not leave a “military legacy,” or at least one the public is familiar with, is the negative way that war has been framed for the last 40 years in the media, literature, academia and cinema, he argued.

But, according to Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a former deputy national security adviser, the war did leave a military legacy, one he believes played a role in the unraveling of the Soviet Union some seven years later.

“People tend to forget that this war achieved some very important military objectives,” he said, noting that this was the last time an Arab army fought Israel. Up until the 1982 war, Israel had fought four wars and a War of Attrition [1967-70] against the regular forces of Arab states. Since then, all its military engagements have been against various non-state terrorist actors. In other words, five wars against standing Arab armies in the first 34 years of the state, and zero wars against standing Arab armies in the ensuing 40.

“The achievements of the air force in the [First] Lebanon War were so dramatic as to perhaps have had an influence on the strategic survivability of the Soviet Union.”

Eran Lerman

“The achievements of the air force in the [First] Lebanon War were so dramatic as to perhaps have had an influence on the strategic survivability of the Soviet Union,” Lerman said about Operation Mole Cricket 19, a two-hour battle over the skies of the Bekaa Valley in which Israel proved not only the superiority of its air force but also that of Western technology.

Within a span of two hours, the IAF destroyed Syria’s Soviet-built surface-to-air (SAM) missile system that so bedeviled the air force during the Yom Kippur War. In the biggest air battle the world had witnessed since the Korean War, Israel took out 29 of 30 SAM batteries, and knocked out some 85 enemy airplanes.

This showed the superiority of Western technology over the best that the Soviets had to offer at the time,” Lerman said, adding that it was even more impressive considering that it happened on the third day of the war, “not in a surprise attack, but in a full confrontation. I think that had abiding consequences, and that tends to be forgotten looking at the [First] Lebanon War.”

Lebel, who has taught in military academies around the world, said this battle is widely taught in these academies. But because of the wider delegitimization of the war in Israeli society, “nobody knows about it here.”

Veteran war correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai, who covered the war at the time for Israel Television and was the first reporter to enter the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in September 1982 after the massacres there, said Operation Mole Cricket 19 was not the only military achievement of the war.

From a military perspective, he said, the war was a resounding success, as “within a couple of days we got to Beirut, captured Beirut, and achieved every military objective set, including kicking the Syrians out of Lebanon.” In addition, the IDF dislodged the PLO from Lebanon, and sent it – along with its head, Yasser Arafat – fleeing to Tunis.

“From a military perspective, we did very well and took all the parts of Lebanon we wanted. It was not a failure.”

Ron Ben-Yishai

“From a military perspective, we did very well and took all the parts of Lebanon we wanted,” Ben-Yishai said. “It was not a failure.”

While the war was not a military failure, he said, it was a trauma because “this was the first time that a big part of the nation did not see the war as justified.”

That was not the case at the beginning of the war, as Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said last week at a memorial service for the war’s fallen soldiers. Some 667 soldiers fell during the war, from 1982-1985, and another 636 fell during Israel’s prolonged stay in the security zone it carved out to prevent Katyusha fire on the Galilee.

Forty years since the outbreak of the war, Bennett said, “it is important to remember that not out of an eagerness for battle did we embark on this war, but, rather, out of Israel’s deep commitment to protect its citizens, out of a desire to bring an end to the years of Katyusha barrages on Kiryat Shmona, on the communities in the North, something that turned the lives of northern residents into a nightmare.”

WHEN THE IDF tanks first rolled into Lebanon on June 6, 1982, soon after the attempted assassination of Israel’s ambassador to London Shlomo Argov, the country stood – as it had in all previous wars – firmly behind the IDF and its leaders. For years the North had been pounded by Katyusha rockets launched by PLO terrorists in Lebanon. It was only when the IDF pushed beyond the 40-km. zone – which the government had originally stated was the war’s objective – and moved toward Beirut that deep divisions within Israeli society emerged over the war, divisions that remain to this day.

The problems at home began when the objectives of the war went from protecting the civilian population to Sharon’s trying to engineer a new Middle East order through an agreement with Lebanon’s president-elect Bashir Gemayel, Ben-Yishai said.

“The trauma was that as the soldiers fought at the front, the society was split,” he said. “Soldiers returned from the war and did not know if they would be greeted at home with flowers or with curses.

“The security conception of the Israeli public is that they will do everything needed, including sacrificing their lives, if we are talking about defending their homes, but they will not permit themselves the luxury of a war of choice designed to change the strategic situation in the Middle East,” he said.

And when the IDF did not stop at moving 40 km. north of the border in Lebanon to distance the Katyushas from the border, it was widely viewed as a war of choice – the kind of war the country had never fought before.

Lebel contrasted this with the situation that followed the Yom Kippur War, when there was burning anger at how the military and political echelons conducted the war, but not at the need to fight. During the First Lebanon War the anger – and the division in the country – revolved around, and took place during, the fighting itself.

Three new political communities emerged in the war, Lebel said, that have influence that still resonates to this day.

The first, he said, was that this was the war in which bereaved parents acted in a manner not merely intended to memorialize their fallen sons and daughters, but as a political community intent on influencing the government.

Lebel recalled that the parents of soldiers who fell in the battle over the Beaufort Castle organized immediately and showed up at Peace Now protests with the types of signs that had never been seen in Israel before – blaming the deaths of their sons not on the enemy, but on prime minister Menachem Begin and Sharon.

“For the first time in Israel, the victimizer was not the concrete victimizer,” Lebel said. “It was not the PLO or the Syrians, but the prime minister who sent their boys to fight them. That was revolutionary; the country had never seen something like that before.”

Moreover, Lebel said, all this took place not after the war – like the protests against the government after the Yom Kippur war – but in the heat of the battle. The bereaved parents turned into political actors and changed the role bereaved parents had until then played in the society as a “sacred cow” above the political debate.

Lebel drew a straight line from this activism to the Four Mothers protest movement that eventually had a massive role in leading to Israel’s complete withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.

“Bereavement became a parameter for the delegitimization of the war,” he said. “That is to say, there was no connection to whether the goals of the war were met – did we or did we not evict the PLO or stop the Katyusha rockets on Kiryat Shmona? The ultimate gauge was bereavement.”

Lebel called this the most central influence of the war. “Since then, leaders are afraid to go to war because of ‘casualty sensitivity,’ concerns that soldiers will be killed,” and that concern in the eyes of the public is divorced from the goals of the military campaign.

The second community that emerged from the war emboldened was the soldiers themselves.

For the first time, there was legitimacy in refusing to serve, and refusing to carry out orders,” Lebel said. “This was something never seen in the past. Sure, there were individual cases before Lebanon, but in the [First] Lebanon War there were collective cases designed to influence the government.”

In addition to the high-profile case of Geva, the much-respected armored brigade commander who gave up his command rather than carry out the order to lead his troops into West Beirut, there were entire reserve units that refused to take part in the war.

Lebel noted that this was the first time that the IDF, whose backbone at the time was the left-leaning kibbutzim and moshavim, was fighting a war directed by a right-wing government. The message these actions sent the government was that it could not take the IDF’s carrying out the government’s policies as a given.

Lebel said that the lesson from that experience has been internalized, and the army realized that it must not become overly reliant on just one sector of the country, as the army at that time was on the kibbutzim and moshavim.

IT IS NO coincidence, Lebel said, that three years after the end of the Second Lebanon War, in the midst of the First Intifada, religious premilitary academies began to flourish, as the army recognized that it was engaged in activities opposed by the left wing, and as a result needed to get other sectors of Israeli society into pivotal roles in the army.

Since the First Lebanon War, the army realized that it must have its hand on the nation’s pulse and bring into its ranks as wide a range of the public as possible so it does not have to rely on only one sector to carry out its missions.

“It’s like a basketball team,” he said. “You always want to have several different five-man combinations that you can put on the floor at any time to run a play. When you are in one situation, you put in one squad; when you are in another, you put in another. But you need all the different squads.

“One of the main lessons of the war,” he said, “was that the army always needs to match the right sector to the right mission.”

For instance, he said, it was no coincidence that, in 2005, units with a minimal number of religious soldiers were the ones that carried out the eviction of the settlers from Gush Katif. Nor was it coincidental that units with a large number of religious soldiers were assigned to carry out much of the heavy lifting in Judea and Samaria.

The third community that came into its own during the war was the media, he said. “The media operated this time differently; it was very antagonistic toward the war and brought the voices of the bereaved parents and the soldiers refusing duty to the public.”

Ben-Yishai said that according to the Israeli media, every war Israel fights is a failure, and that part of the public, mostly those on the Left, follow the media’s lead on this.

“The [First] Lebanon War gave legitimacy to a public debate, a political debate, during the war,” he said, “not only about the objectives of the war, but the way it was being run. Since then, every time we go to an operation, pundits sit in television studios and dissect the war and give advice to the government and say where it did things right, or wrong. That was not the case before the First Lebanon War.”

Lebel said that the war engendered in Israel’s leaders a hesitancy to take actions needed to defeat terrorist organizations, because they are so concerned about the reaction to military campaigns among Israeli civil society.

The First Lebanon War was unprecedented in that a democratic country was able to evict a terrorist organization from another country, he said. But now, he added, Israel has gone from Menachem Begin embarking on a war to move Israeli civilians out of Katyusha range, to a situation where missiles cover every millimeter of the country, and where “no leader would dream of taking decisive action to defeat a terrorist organization, but, rather, just hopes to contain them.”

According to Lebel, as a result of the First Lebanon War, “we have gone from one extreme of proactive actions against terror organizations to the opposite extreme of containment.

“Some will say that in Lebanon we were too proactive; now, we are super pro-containment,” he said. “And there is no middle ground. Because of the fear of the street – fear of casualties, of protests, of committees of inquiry, of getting fired from the government – the leaders just prefer the status quo. That is the main legacy of this war.” 