First Lebanon War, 1982: A turning point for Israel

At this moment of birth, fraught as are all such moments, many of the core elements that form the current Israeli landscape, politically, militarily and societally, came into being.

 IDF TANKS park near houses in Tyre, South Lebanon, July 1982.  (photo credit: YOSSI ZAMIR/FLASH90)
IDF TANKS park near houses in Tyre, South Lebanon, July 1982.
(photo credit: YOSSI ZAMIR/FLASH90)

This month marks 40 years since Israel’s launching of Operation Peace for Galilee.

The First Lebanon War, as the operation and the subsequent events are now collectively known, has an oddly minor presence in the Israeli collective memory. Odd, because the war marked a series of deeply significant inflection points both in terms of Israel’s military history and in a broader sense for Israeli society as a whole.

It was the transition point between the large-scale conventional wars that marked the first three decades of Israel’s existence, and the counterinsurgency and hybrid warfare with which the IDF has since been engaged.

The fighting in Lebanon in the summer of 1982 contained both conventional and irregular elements. The subsequent 18 years saw Israel facing a new kind of enemy – an Islamist insurgent movement directly supported, trained and controlled by a hostile state.

The war also marked a watershed in civil-military relations in Israel. Debate continues regarding the management by the political echelon of the security establishment before and during the war. In particular, the extent to which the defense minister and chief of staff pursued a strategy that had not been authorized by the prime minister and cabinet remains contested. 

 DECEIVED? PRIME minister Menachem Begin with future defense minister Ariel Sharon, 1977. (credit: Ya’akov Sa’ar/GPO) DECEIVED? PRIME minister Menachem Begin with future defense minister Ariel Sharon, 1977. (credit: Ya’akov Sa’ar/GPO)

The period of the war also coincided with, and was impacted by, deep changes in Israeli political and societal life. Indeed, in retrospect it was a key moment in the transition from the domination of the country by one political elite, to the emergence and entrenchment of another. Let’s take a closer look.

Military inflection point

The IDF, which crossed the border into Lebanon on June 6, 1982, was an army with an impressive record in conventional operations. Just 15 years earlier, it had defeated the armies of three Arab states. In 1973, facing a surprise attack on two fronts, it recovered to finish the war with the upper hand in both North and South. Its commanders were skilled and experienced in high speed, maneuver warfare.

The society that stood behind it was accustomed to conflict. The enemy the IDF was set to face in southern Lebanon, meanwhile, was a far less fearsome prospect than the regular forces of Egypt and Syria.

The Palestine Liberation Organization had arranged its forces in southern Lebanon along conventional lines. The organization had three nominal brigades, each consisting of around 2,500 fighters, and seven artillery battalions. It fielded a fleet of aging tanks, including T-34s and T-55s. A large proportion of these were no longer capable of movement, and had been dug into fixed positions, where their cannons were used as makeshift artillery pieces.

The extreme mismatch between the IDF and this semi-conventional Palestinian army arrayed in southern Lebanon resulted in the rapid defeat of the latter, following the entry of five IDF divisions, totaling 78,000 men and 1,240 tanks. Advancing along three axes, the IDF reached the outskirts of Beirut by June 13.

Fierce fighting took place between the IDF and the Syrian Arab Army. The latter had intervened in Lebanon in 1976, in the context of the country’s civil war. As part of its effort to trap the PLO in Beirut, Israel needed to close off the Beirut-Damascus highway, to prevent the Palestinians from escaping the city. The clashes with the Syrians were intense, but by June 25, the IDF had secured its objectives, and the PLO was surrounded in Beirut. A siege of the city then commenced.

The siege lasted two months, and concluded with the departure of the PLO for Tunisia. At this stage, the war had been a considerable success for Israel. An important strategic goal had been swiftly achieved.

The mission to reach Beirut and expel the PLO from Lebanon was a part, however, of a broader strategic project which rapidly unraveled in the remainder of 1982.

According to this project, Christian Lebanese Forces leader Bashir Gemayel would be elected president of Lebanon, and would conclude a peace treaty with Israel.

Gemayel was duly elected president in August, but was then assassinated on September 14, 1982. The killer, Habib Shartouni, was a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and it is likely that he was dispatched with the knowledge of, and probably at the instigation of, the Syrian regime. If it was so, it was a good investment from Hafez Assad’s point of view.

Israel’s Lebanon diplomacy for the subsequent three years before withdrawal to the narrow security zone adjoining the border was rudderless and subject to inertia. But as the IDF remained in Lebanon, for no coherent purpose once the PLO had departed and Gemayel’s death ended any real chance for diplomatic progress, a new military challenge began to emerge. This was a challenge of a type for which the IDF of 1982 was not prepared – namely, an Islamist insurgency emerging from a section of the Lebanese population that Israel had hardly considered – the Shi’ite.

Israel’s experience in dealing with insurgencies was at that time limited to actions against Fatah and other Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, and earlier in resisting fedayeen raids in the 1950s. Israeli intelligence had evidently failed to pick up on the ferment among the Shi’ite population, or on the efforts by representatives of the then new Islamist regime in Iran to direct this.

Shi’ite attacks on Israeli facilities and personnel began in November 1982. The first major incident took place on November 11, 1982, when a suicide bomber struck a building used by Israel as an administrative center in the city of Tyre. Seventy-five Israelis were killed, including soldiers and security services personnel. An almost identical bombing took place a year later, on November 4, 1983, with the loss of 28 Israelis.

Lebanese Hezbollah, established by and supported by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, would go on to prove a far more formidable and sophisticated opponent than Yasser Arafat’s ragtag semi-conventional force of 1982. And there would be a period of drift and confusion before Israel began to take the measure of the new challenge and to adapt and change accordingly.

But 1982 marks the transition point between the conventional and post-conventional periods for the IDF. The summer of 1982 saw the last time (until now) that Israel engaged the conventional ground forces of an Arab state (Syria). November 1982 was the date of the first major attack by what would become Lebanese Hezbollah.

 ISRAELI ARMORED vehicles disembark from a landing craft during an amphibious landing. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) ISRAELI ARMORED vehicles disembark from a landing craft during an amphibious landing. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Political and societal inflection point

The First Lebanon War came at a time of considerable political turmoil in Israel. It followed rapidly on from perhaps the most contentious and fraught election campaign in Israel’s history, that of 1981.

The election was marked by harsh rhetoric, a number of incidences of violence, and by the marked presence of the divide between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Israelis. This was exemplified in the insulting remarks at a Labor Party rally made by comedian Dudu Topaz regarding Mizrahim and the Likud, to which Prime Minister Menachem Begin memorably responded at a famous speech at Jerusalem’s Sacher Park.

Much was at stake. The Likud’s victory in the polls in 1981 made clear that the victory of 1977 was not a mere flash in the pan, and that a half-century of Labor domination of Israel and Zionism had been conclusively broken.

The cabinet that Begin assembled following the 1981 election was more solidly rightist than his first. Figures who had crossed over from the Labor establishment, such as Moshe Dayan (who died in 1981) and Yigael Yadin, were absent this time. It was this cabinet that went to war in 1982. In the latter part of 1982, as casualties mounted and in particular following the massacre by Israel’s Christian allies of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camp, popular protests against Begin’s government mounted.

In retrospect, much of the impassioned fury of the popular demonstrations against the war (without parallel either before or since), and the extreme disaffection from Israel and pessimism regarding its future evident among the opponents of the war at that time, seem to reflect more the fury of a deposed elite than anything more substantive.

An example of this may be taken from an essay written at that time by novelist Amos Oz, who became at the time one of the most trenchant critics of Begin’s government. Oz, in 1982, wrote of the ‘‘fissure that Begin is making in the fabric of our national consensus of many decades – a consensus by which we launched a full-scale war only when our very existence was in danger.’’ This notion that Begin had introduced preemptive war as an Israeli practice was commonly expressed at the time, by opponents of the government.

‘‘[The] fissure that Begin is making in the fabric of our national consensus of many decades – a consensus by which we launched a full-scale war only when our very existence was in danger.’’

Amos Oz

It could be maintained, of course, that the Six Day War of 1967 might be included as a point when Israel’s very existence was in danger. The Sinai Operation of 1956, however, launched by then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion, was plainly not directed against an immediate existential danger, and was certainly preemptive.

Examples of this kind support the view that something other than purely substantive policy debate was taking place in the impassioned Israeli public space in those fraught days. A defeated elite was reacting with fury to its loss of power. Forty years on, it is clear that though Begin’s own prime ministership was destroyed by the Lebanon War, the societal processes he had set in motion would continue.

 LEBANESE ARMY troops in Beirut, 1982.  (credit: Wikimedia Commons) LEBANESE ARMY troops in Beirut, 1982. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
War of deception?

The First Lebanon War took place as a result of the misleading of the cabinet by the defense minister and the chief of staff, according to Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari’s classic account, War of Deception. Recent historiography, in particular the work of Dr. Yigal Kipnis, has sought to challenge or nuance this view.

Certainly, the cabinet never voted in approval of a military plan to go as far as Beirut. But questions specifically remain regarding the extent to which Begin himself was deceived by, or, conversely, was on side with defense minister Ariel Sharon’s plans. A definitive answer to this question may never be possible. 

Statements made by the prime minister before June 1982 suggest that he did indeed envisage a large-scale operation against the PLO. Begin had been heard to express a desire to go “as far as Arafat’s bunker.” On the other hand, close aides to Begin insist that the prime minister was misled, and was not made aware of the full plans for the war in advance. 

As Begin’s cabinet secretary Dan Meridor described it to me in a 2020 interview: “The defense minister [Sharon] had a master plan. The cabinet did not agree to go all the way… we were spoon-fed – Well, we can stop here, but then our soldiers will be in danger, so maybe it’s better to take another hilltop, and so on. It developed, and as Begin said once to David Levy, ‘I knew everything – either beforehand or afterward.’”

A few general observations: Begin’s leadership style, particularly in security matters, was not hands-on. He would set a general direction and allow those directly tasked on military issues to handle the details.

Begin had developed this approach as commander of the Irgun in its revolt against the British Mandatory authorities. The Irgun was an extremely effective organization. This leadership style worked in that smaller context because Begin’s subordinates were deferential toward him and held him in reverence.

This was not the case with regard to Sharon and IDF chief of staff Rafael Eitan. Here, the power relation was rather different. These men, native-born Israelis whose success and prominence was achieved in the IDF and the defense organizations that preceded it, had no reason to regard Begin with deference, and did not do so. Unless Begin was in the habit of deceiving his own close and trusted aides, both before and after the events in question, it seems likely that he was at least to some extent kept uninformed regarding the precise plans of Sharon and Eitan, as they were eventually carried out.

Birth pangs

The overall verdict on the First Lebanon War? The expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon was an entirely coherent and comprehensible goal. From a military point of view, this objective was pursued uncompromisingly and rapidly achieved.

The larger strategic goals regarding remaking Lebanon were equally rapidly rendered unrealistic. The subsequent period of drift and policy inertia, against a background of political chaos and division at home, is not to be numbered among Israel’s finest hours. It led to the country effectively falling into a trap set by the Islamists in Tehran, which in turn produced a long, costly and unsuccessful Israeli counterinsurgency in the period 1983-2000.

The deep pessimism regarding the country’s future that characterized much internal commentary at the time, however, has proved misplaced. The transfer from one political elite to another was accompanied, by the 1990s, not by the predicted decline, but, rather, by a renewed flourishing.

The First Lebanon War, in the end, may be seen as a turning point: from one style of military engagement to another, from one political elite to another, perhaps from one culture of governance to another. At this moment of birth, fraught as are all such moments, many of the core elements that form the current Israeli landscape, politically, militarily and societally, came into being. ■