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The Tortuous Road to the Lebanon War

By Yossi Melman

Ha'aretz, January 30, 2001

Ariel Sharon has found himself embarrassed in the past few weeks over his involvement in the Lebanon War of 1982. One of his arguments was that he had only pursued the same line taken by previous governments, and it was clear from the context that he was referring to the first government of Yitzhak Rabin (1974-1977), in which Shimon Peres served as defense minister. He then corrected himself, telling the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, "I did not say I was putting the blame on Rabin and Peres. I said, first you have to understand the facts. Our presence in Lebanon went back 25 years [to 1975].".In terms of the facts, there is some degree of accuracy in what Sharon said.

Israel has been involved in Lebanon since the state came into being and even before that, during the period of the British Mandate. But there is no similarity between that involvement and the moves Sharon initiated and pushed as defense minister in the second government of Menachem Begin, which led to the invasion of Lebanon by the Israel Defense Forces in June 1982 and afterward to the siege of Beirut. Those actions and their consequences constituted a sharp divergence from the policy of previous governments.

Israel's involvement in Lebanon began during the pre-1948 period of the state in the making. The Information Service ('Shai' in the Hebrew acronym) of the Haganah (the underground force that was the precursor to the IDF), the Jewish Agency's Political Department and the Mossad L'Aliyah Bet (which smuggled Jews into Palestine) maintained contacts in Lebanon, which gained its independence from France in 1946. The contacts, which were conducted via paid agents as well as by means of meetings and ties with Lebanese politicians and officials, had a triple aim: to obtain intelligence about the capability of the Lebanese army, to understand the frame of mind in the Beirut government, and to assist the illegal immigration to Palestine of Jews from Lebanon and Syria. This pattern of activity continued to be pursued even after Israel's establishment in 1948 and the War of Independence that followed.

In the 1950s diplomats of the Foreign Ministry also continued to meet with diplomats and statesmen from Lebanon in Western European capitals and at United Nations headquarters in New York. That activity gave birth to the "peripheral" conception. The idea was based on the view that Israel, which confronts a hostile Muslim Arab world, should seek allies among non-Arab states on the fringes of the Middle East, such as Turkey and Persia, and among ethnic or religious minorities in Arab states. Among the minorities were the Druze in Syria, the Kurds in Iraq and the Christians in Lebanon. The formulators and spearheads of the peripheralist policy as an instrument of strategic policy were also the implementers of Israel's secret diplomacy in those years, such as Ziama Divon from the Foreign Ministry (and later, Uri Lubrani) and the country's intelligence community headed by Military Intelligence and the Mossad espionage agency.

These secret contacts reached a peak in July 1958. At the time, the Arab world was being swept by a wave of nationalism and pan-Arabism under the inspiration of the Free Officers' revolt in Egypt and their leader, Colonel Gamal Abd el-Nasser. Pro-Nasserist forces threatened to foment revolution and seize power in Lebanon as well. France, Britain and the United States acted in concert to ward off the danger that pro-Western regimes in the Middle East would be toppled. Taking a coordinated stand, they decided to rush troops to the assistance of the regime led by the president of Lebanon, Camille Chamoun, a Christian. At the order of U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower, Marines landed on the shores of Lebanon, and British paratroops were placed on a state of alert in Jordan.

Israel was made privy to the secret coordination. The British, through Israel's military attache in London (Colonel Yuval Ne'eman), asked the government of David Ben-Gurion for permission to use Israeli airspace in order to move their forces. Israel gave its consent. At the same time, Israel utilized its Lebanese agents to send truckloads of weapons from southern Lebanon to Beirut and to Chamoun's bastions. Chamoun's regime was saved and the ties between the Lebanese president and Israel grew stronger. Using messengers, Chamoun and his aides maintained contacts with Israel; the two sides exchanged messages and situation appraisals about trends and developments in the two countries and in the Arab world. Responsibility for maintaining the ties with the Christians in Lebanon devolved on Military Intelligence.

Israel's intelligence interest in its northern neighbor deepened after the events of September 1970 ("Black September") in Jordan, when King Hussein expelled the Palestinian organizations from his country. Yasser Arafat and his staff moved to Lebanon and set up their headquarters in refugee camps close to Beirut, Tyre and Sidon. The result was that Lebanon, particularly its southern border, became what Jordan was supposed to have been for the Palestinians: the base for the war of liberation against Israel.

The consolidation of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon upset the delicate balance of forces between the Christians and Muslims which had been created during the French occupation but no longer reflected the demographic and political changes that had occurred in the 30 years since then. The Christians began to feel threatened by the Muslim-Palestinian coalition, while the Muslims felt they were discriminated against in the division of power and in control over the country's power centers.

Civil war brings closer ties

In 1975 a civil war erupted in Lebanon. The Christian community, its stronghold in northern Lebanon, was led by three families - Chamoun, Jemayel and Franjiyeh - that took two parallel steps. They asked the Syrian army to intervene (Israel sent a message of consent to Syrian President Hafez Assadvia King Hussein) and at the same time made a secret approach to Israel. The Lebanese Christians wanted arms and military advice from the Israelis. The government, led by the prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and the defense minister, Shimon Peres, gave the go-ahead. Light weapons, mortars and ammunition began flowing to the Christian militias in northern Lebanon. One of the first military advisers sent by Israel was Brigadier General Binyamin ("Fuad") Ben-Eliezer, today a cabinet minister in the government of Ehud Barak and then the IDF's commander in the South Lebanon District. Ben Eliezer noted that his aim was "to examine first-hand the Christians' fighting ability." In January 1976, he was present at the battle in which Christian forces massacred Muslims at Tel al Za'atar, near Beirut.

The ties between Israel and the Lebanese Christians were further bolstered when prime minister Rabin, accompanied by officers from Military Intelligence, boarded a Navy vessel which made its way to the Lebanese coast. They were met by a yacht which set sail from Lebanon, carrying President Chamoun and senior aides. At this meeting and in later contacts, Rabin formulated his policy toward the Christians in Lebanon: Israel would help them to help themselves, would assist them with weapons and advisers, but would not send troops to fight alongside them or for them.

The Israeli involvement increased together with the intensification of the civil war and spread to the south of the country as well. According to testimony presented in an affidavit to the High Court of Justice by Major General (Res.) Meir Dagan (who was appointed commander of the South Lebanon District in 1978) and by Colonel (Res.) Yaakov Zohar (then the deputy commander of the Northern District in Unit 504), on March 10, 1976, three Christian master sergeants of the Lebanese army from the village of Klea in southern Lebanon, showed up at the border crossing point in Metulla, Israel's northernmost town. (Years later, this point would be dubbed "Fatma Gate," after the nickname IDF soldiers conferred on the daughter of the owner of a nearby house.)

The three sergeants reported on the dismantling of the 1st Infantry Battalion, stationed in the nearby village of Marjayoun, and added that they wanted the IDF's assistance in defending the residents of the Maronite Christian villages in the region. They were handled by the commander of the Northern District in Unit 504, Lt. Colonel Yair Ravid-Ravitz, but the decision concerning their request was made at the highest levels of the Northern Command, the General Staff, the defense minister and the prime minister. Rabin, Peres and the chief of staff, Mordechai Gur, decided to assist the master sergeants.

About three months later, the head of Northern Command, Major General Rafael ("Raful") Eitan, and Lt. Colonel Ravid-Ravitz initiated wider ties with the Christian villages in the central sector across the border (Ramish Devel, Ein Abel) and with the Christian village of Alma al Sha'ab (across from Kibbutz Hanita) in the western sector. At the end of the process, three enclaves of Maronite villages were established. They received weapons, medical assistance and food from Israel and were effectively cut off from the Lebanese army, becoming ever more dependent on Israel. Entry and exit gates were established along the border fence (at Metulla and two other points), and Shimon Peres named it the "Good Fence."

To beef up the Christian forces in the enclaves, reinforcements, particularly officers, were brought in from the north of Lebanon. One of them, who was brought personally by Lt. Colonel Ravid-Ravitz in an Israel Navy missile boat, was Major Sa'ad Haddad. An officer who was close to the Chamoun family, Major Haddad was given command of the units in the enclaves. Thanks to the reinforcements, the enclaves were able to expand at the expense of adjacent areas.

The Likud government tightens the bond

The policy formulated by the Rabin government continued to be maintained after the 1977 elections, which brought the Likud, under Menachem Begin, to power in Israel. In early 1978, in the wake of a terrorist attack in which a bus was hijacked on the coastal road between Haifa and Tel Aviv - 35 passengers were killed in the ensuing events - the cabinet ordered the IDF to launch a large-scale retaliatory operation in southern Lebanon. "Operation Litani," as it was known, was intended to strike at PLO bases and lasted three months. It was only following the adoption of Security Council Resolution 425 and the dispatch of a multinational force - UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) - to the region that the IDF withdrew to the international border.

Resolution 425, which served as the basis for the decision of the Barak government to withdraw from south Lebanon in May 2000 - did not put an end to the Israeli involvement in the south of Lebanon. On the contrary, the military involvement increased. The three Christian enclaves forged territorial continuity, and Sa'ad Haddad's forces were joined by Muslim Shi'ite villages such as Itaroun and Baldoun, and by Druze troops. The foundation was thus laid for what, in the 1980s, would become the Israeli-controlled security zone and the South Lebanon Army, headed by Antoin Lahad. All these changes and developments were brought about by the policy principles espoused by Menachem Begin and his defense minister, Ezer Weizman, with the support of chief of staff Gur.

Beginning in 1977, the Mossad assumed responsibility, in place of Military Intelligence, for maintaining the ties with the Christian forces in northern Lebanon. The Mossad established a branch in the town of Jouniyeh in northern Lebanon and cultivated not only political and Intelligence relations but also social and personal ties with the Christian forces in the north of the country. The Christians' main force was the "Phalanges," controlled by the Jemayel family, which grew increasingly more powerful at the expense of the units led by Camille Chamoun and Suleiman Franjiyeh.

The Mossad, contrary to the assessment of Military Intelligence, believed that the Christian forces were true allies and found support for this approach in the person of Ariel Sharon, who was appointed defense minister following the elections of June 1981. Sharon, with the backing of the chief of staff, Rafael Eitan, other General Staff officers and senior personnel in the Mossad, planned and initiated diplomatic, military and strategic moves which ultimately brought about the war in Lebanon. Those moves were substantively different from the actions taken by the Rabin government, in that they deviated from the principle that Israel would help the Christians to help themselves and limit its involvement as much as possible.

The new policy sought to forge a strategic alliance that was intended to expel the PLO from Lebanon, weaken the Palestinian community and enable the Christians, under the Jemayel family, to seize the power centers in Lebanon. "Menachem Begin was ready to grant the Christians direct Israeli aid. He did not make do with aid in the form of weapons and ammunition, but sent the IDF deep into Lebanese territory to assist the Christians in their struggle, at first in an air clash with the Syrians and then by going to war," emphasizes the historian Dr. David Tal, who wrote a comprehensive study of the subject for the IDF's History Department. The war itself achieved only one goal: Arafat and his followers were expelled from Beirut to Tunis. However, Israel paid a heavy price: more than 1,000 killed, a military entanglement that lasted until eight months ago, and instead of the PLO, a new enemy arose in Lebanon in the form of Hezbollah.


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