Small Wars Journal

Shift: How A Small War in 1982 Changed the Nature of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

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Shift: How A Small War in 1982 Changed the Nature of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Oliver Kendall

While Israel’s sworn enemy Hezbollah has been distracted the past few years fighting to defend the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and combat the perhaps-even-more brutal Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), some in Israel foresee another conflict with the terrorist group in the near future.  This speculation may increase in the context of the agreement signed by Iran and the P5+1, in which Iran agreed to substantial restrictions on their nuclear program in exchange for a loosening of the international sanctions regime that has crippled their economy.  As sanctions are lifted, some fear, Iran may channel some of their new wealth into supporting their proxy, Hezbollah.  While Hezbollah presents a clear and present threat to Israel, especially if Iran steps up their support to the group, Israel’s relations with the neighboring Arab states are relatively stable. It was certainly not always this way, and as violence continues in the Middle East, it is worth examining the way in which one small war in particular changed Israel, contributed to the stabilization of interstate relations between Israel and the Arab states and the rise of non-state actors that continue to cause trouble in the region.

In the years following Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948, its relationships with the surrounding Arab states were far from harmonious.  Hostilities began the very day Israel was born as a country when its Arab neighbors attacked in a failed attempt to strangle the Jewish state in its cradle. Less than twenty years later, Israel was again at war with its neighbors, this time winning a stunning victory with a preemptive strike in the Six-Day War in 1967.  The Yom Kippur War six years later allowed the Arab states (especially Egypt) to regain some of the pride they had lost in the Six-Day War, and caused relations between Israel and its neighbor states to begin to calm.  While relations between Israel and the surrounding states had stabilized somewhat by the end of the 1970’s, other problems, like what was to come of the Palestinian people, remained unsolved.  This issue in particular remained pressing, as Israel faced frequent attacks by Palestinian fighters, including but not limited to those of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).  Under the pretext of responding to these sorts of attacks, Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982.  This conflict, and its aftermath, brought a significant shift in the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Operation Peace for Galilee, as the invasion was called, contributed substantially to the evolution of Israel’s image, both at home and abroad.  The war also played a significant and culminating roll in the process of stabilization that had been occurring between Israel and regional state actors during the 1970’s, and profoundly degraded the military threat posed to Israel by the PLO.  As the military role played by the PLO and Arab states in the conflict diminished, though, more extreme non-state actors like Hezbollah rose to fight the Israelis.

Background: Palestinians, the Lebanese Civil War and Operation Litani

Before 1967 many Palestinians, left in limbo as Israel developed, believed that the Arab states would provide a solution to their problem.  The loss by these states in the Six-Day War of even more of what the Palestinians considered their territory, however, caused a shift in Palestinian attitudes.  During the 1970’s, organizations like the PLO began taking on the characteristics of a government in exile,[i] attempting to institute administrative networks within refugee camps located in Arab states.  Such efforts ran counter to the desire of these states to maintain domestic authority and avoid reprisal from the Israelis should the Palestinians attack Israel directly from the territory of their hosts.  “The governments of these countries,” says William Cleveland in A History of the Modern Middle East, “could hardly be expected to welcome bands of armed guerillas determined to operate independently and to conduct military action against Israel.”[ii]  As the Jordanian government was increasingly threatened by the Palestinian guerillas, particularly those more militant than the PLO, King Hussein ordered his military to quell the threat, forcing the PLO to relocate to Lebanon in the early 1970’s. 

With large numbers of Palestinians entering in Lebanon, the PLO set up headquarters in Beirut, aligning themselves with a coalition of progressive and nationalist parties against a group of more conservative Maronite Christian parties.[iii]  The organization arrived in Lebanon at a time when the country was already unstable as the Muslim majority became increasingly dissatisfied with a political system that favored the Christian minority.  As Maronite Christian militias armed themselves (with the help of the Israelis) to defend the status quo, the PLO and other organizations did as well, and a series of small attacks soon precipitated a full-scale civil war.  When Lebanon’s Maronite President invited the Syrian military to help stop the fighting, says Ahron Bregman in Israel’s Wars, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad was happy to oblige.[iv]  After lengthy fighting ended in the declaration of a ceasefire, the PLO continued to thrive in southern Lebanon. 

Palestinian commando raids into Israel continued, and after a particularly damaging terrorist attack in March of 1978, Israel launched Operation Litani, sending 7,000 troops into southern Lebanon in what has, according to Bregman, “often been regarded as a rehearsal for Israel’s invasion of 1982.”[v]  This effort succeeded in significantly damaging PLO infrastructure but avoided contact with Syrian forces.  Israeli troops eventually withdrew and were replaced by a UN force, which utterly failed to prevent restoration of PLO infrastructure and resumption of cross-border fighting between Israeli and Palestinian forces (contributing to Israel’s now substantial distrust of the UN).

Sharon’s War

When Ariel Sharon became the Israeli Minister of Defense in 1981, he immediately took a more aggressive stance toward what he called the “Lebanese Problem.”  Sharon saw the presence of Syrian forces in Lebanon – particularly their surface-to-air missiles – as a threat to Israel’s security.  He also believed that the PLO was attempting to turn Lebanon (as it had Jordan) into a base from which to strike Israel.[vi]  Sharon set plans in motion to launch a second invasion into Lebanon, one that would go much further than Operation Litani.  The Minister of Defense misled the Israeli cabinet as to the scale of the proposed invasion and gained tacit permission from the United States to attack in case of an “internationally recognized provocation.”[vii]  An attack by Palestinian gunmen (unaffiliated with the PLO) on the Israeli ambassador in London provided the requisite pretext.  The Israeli Air Force was sent to strike PLO targets in southern Lebanon, and the PLO, predictably, responded by shelling Israeli settlements in Galilee.  In the context of this increased violence, Operation Peace for Galilee was launched.  The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) invaded Lebanon, pushing, at Sharon’s prerogative, much further north than originally planned.  They eventually managed to defeat the main Syrian forces and lay siege to Beirut (at the expense of many civilian lives), which forced the Lebanese government to request the departure of the PLO.  This was completed by September 1st under the supervision of American and French forces, and soon afterward an Israeli-backed Maronite was elected President.  Within two weeks, the new President was assassinated.  The IDF moved into West Beirut in violation of the evacuation agreement, and turned a blind eye when Maronite Phalange militias massacred more than a thousand Palestinian men, women and children in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.[viii]  Israel continued to occupy Lebanon until early 1985 when they withdrew, leaving a smaller force stationed in a “security zone” in the south of Lebanon.

A Shift In Image

When Israel came into being in 1948, it was perceived as an underdog, surrounded by existential threats posed by larger Arab states that denied Israel’s right to exist.  This image faded as Israel won a stunning victory in the Six-Day War, and successfully turned the tide in the Yom Kippur War six years later.  As Israel became a dominant military power, its underdog status and the sympathy traditionally evoked by that appearance disappeared.

The invasion of Lebanon in 1982 represented the next step in the evolution of Israel’s image both at home and in the international community.  In the wake of Peace for Galilee, Israel began to appear to many not as an underdog or even a well-defended yet peaceful country, but as an aggressor.  While the Yom Kippur War began with an Israeli first strike, it still was fought between Israel and powers of roughly equal strength posing an existential threat to the Jewish State.  Operation Peace for Galilee, however, could in no way be framed as a war in which Israel was fighting for its continued existence.  This, and especially the massacre by Maronite militias of Palestinians in the refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila, led to what Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari called as early as 1984 “the tarnishing of [Israel’s] image in world public opinion.”[ix] The UN General Assembly declared the massacres at the hands of the Phalange militias to be acts of genocide.  The international backlash to the war included “unprecedented friction between many Jewish communities in the West and the Israel they perceived during the months of fighting.”[x]  In the years since, Israel’s reputation has continued to suffer along similar lines in the eyes of many in the international community who accuse Israel of aggression or of mistreating the Palestinians, a problem not helped by comments made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his recent bid for reelection.  The image of Israel as an aggressor is unlikely to fade anytime soon as Israel continues (justifiably) to take the bait from Hamas and is forced to target weapons systems militants deliberately place in crowded civilian areas.

The purely offensive nature of Operation Peace for Galilee, and the fact that the Israeli Cabinet and citizenry had, to a degree, been misled into the war, was met with widespread criticism from the Israeli public.  The war, according to Richard Gabriel in Operation Peace for Galilee, violated “the deeply held notion that the IDF exists to defend the State of Israel rather than to prosecute offensive wars.”[xi]  The response within Israel to this conflict was different from the ones that preceded it.  Hundreds of thousands of Israelis actively protested the invasion, the first time widespread resistance ever occurred in Israel during a war.  Many also refused to serve militarily in Lebanon if called upon to do so under Israel’s system of near-universal conscription for military service.[xii]  Much of this ill feeling was targeted at Sharon, who, rightly seen as having orchestrated the war, was forced to step aside as Defense Minister. 

Interstate Relations Stabilized

Interstate relations in the Middle East had already begun to stabilize before the war in 1982.  The Camp David Accords of 1978 represented a remarkable step forward in relations between Israel and Egypt, which had improved steadily during the 1970’s.  In The two countries agreed on a framework that included, among other provisions, Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai and free passage through the Suez Canal.  Aside from a formal Separation of Forces agreement signed in 1974, though, relations between Israel and Syria did little to improve in the wake of the Yom Kippur War; their relationship constituted a classic security dilemma.  Both countries threatened one another, as demonstrated by their actions in Lebanon.  President al-Assad’s motive for maintaining a presence there, according to Ahron Bregman, was partly a desire to prevent Israel from attacking Damascus by circling through Lebanon should a war break out between the two.[xiii]  Part of Sharon’s motivation for waging war in the first place was to push back the Syrian military and eliminate the threat posed by their surface-to-air missiles. 

Operation Peace for Galilee hardly improved feelings between Israel and Syria, but it nonetheless stabilized the situation between the two adversaries.  Syria continued to play a significant role in Lebanon following the Israeli withdrawal—indeed, according to William Cleveland, “in 1985, Syria’s position in the country was more firmly entrenched than it had been at any time since the outbreak of the civil war a decade earlier.”[xiv]  That said, the Syrian military suffered mightily at the hands of the IDF in 1982.  According to Bregman, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) eliminated all but two (which were severely damaged) of the surface-to-air missiles Sharon considered such a great threat.  During the same operation, the IAF downed 87 Syrian aircraft without losing a single one in return, a stunning victory comparable to June 5, 1967, when Israel destroyed almost the entire Egyptian Air Force on the ground.[xv]  Yet another drubbing at the hands of the Israeli military likely convinced Syria of the folly of future direct attacks against Israel, thus further stabilizing relations between Israel and its most hostile Arab neighbor. 

New Non-State Actors Rise

While the outcome of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was complicated and costly from an Israeli perspective, it was, if possible, even worse for the PLO. Effectively expelled from their semi-autonomous position in Lebanon, the PLO relocated to Tunis, 2,000 miles from the land it sought to control.[xvi]  The war also weakened Yasser Arafat’s standing and led to a split in the ranks of his Fatah party, which had consistently controlled the PLO.[xvii]  It would be some time before the organization would recover, and it would not play a significant role in Palestine itself until the Oslo accords of 1993.  There, the PLO officially recognized Israel’s right to exist, and in return, Israel recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, leading to the creation of the Palestinian Authority.  

The decline in the significance of state actors in the Arab-Israeli conflict and the effective removal of the mostly Sunni Palestinian forces left a vacuum in southern Lebanon that would soon be filled by one of the most feared terrorist organizations in the world.  According to Oren Barak in Israeli Studies, “the main beneficiaries of the 1982 war” were Shiite militias “which exploited the expulsion of the bulk of the Palestinian fighters from South Lebanon and West Beirut.”[xviii]   In 1979, the Iranian Revolution established a clerical Shiite regime in that country.  Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, according to Jonathan Masters in an article for the Counsel on Foreign Relations, “helped galvanize a faction of disenfranchised Shiites to take up arms and support the creation of an Iranian-style clerical regime” of their own in Lebanon.[xix]  Party of God, or Hezbollah, as the group would come to be called, received financial support and training from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and would soon establish itself as a player in the region with actions like the suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. When Israel finally withdrew from Lebanon in 1985, the establishment of their “security zone” above Lebanon’s southern border and their insistence upon backing a local militia provided non-state actors like Hezbollah ample opportunities to practice “resistance” against Israel.2[xx]

After emerging from Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Hezbollah has grown continually stronger with a combination of local support and backing from their allies in Iran.  Like Hamas, their younger Sunni cousin now effectively in control of the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah wins significant local support from their extensive “social and charitable activities,”[xxi] and continues to pose a clear, present and significant threat to the State of Israel. This typifies the shift of the Arab-Israeli conflict away from direct confrontation between Israel and Arab states toward conflict between Israel and non-state and in the case of Hezbollah, arguably, proxy actors. 

Operation Peace for Galilee was the first war Israel fought to combat a non-existential threat, and Israel’s image, both at home and abroad, suffered as a result.  The Arab-Israeli conflict would change from 1982 onward, as the outcome of the Lebanon invasion further stabilized interstate relations.  As Arab states stopped fighting Israel directly, non-state actors rose to fill the void.  Some of those non-state actors, like the PLO, would eventually come to some form of reconciliation with the State of Israel, although the question of a Palestinian state remains unanswered.  Other non-state actors, like Hezbollah and Hamas, are in many ways at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict today.

End Notes

[i] William Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press Inc., 1994. Pg. 330.

[ii] Cleveland (1994): Pg. 331. 

[iii] Ahron Bregman, Israel’s Wars: A History Since 1947, New York: Routledge, 2000. Pg. 146.

[iv] Bregman (2000): Pg. 148. 

[v] Bregman (2000): Pg. 150.

[vi] Bregman (2000): Pg. 154.

[vii] Bregman (2000): Pg. 157.

[viii] Cleveland (1994): Pg. 349.

[ix] Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari Israel’s Lebanon War, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

Pg. 308.

[x] Schiff and Ya’ari (1984): Pg. 308.

[xi] Richard Gabriel, Operation Peace for Galilee, Toronto: Collins Publishers, 1984. Pg. 223.

[xii] Bregman (2000): Pg. 177.

[xiii] Bregman (2000): Pg. 148.

[xiv] Cleveland (1994): Pg. 351.

[xv] Bregman (2000): Pg. 148.

[xvi] Cleveland (1994): Pg. 350.

[xvii] Schiff and Ya’ari (1984): Pg. 306.

[xviii] Oren Barak, “Ambiguity and Conflict in Israeli-Lebanese Relations”, in Israeli Studies, Vol. 15 No. 3, Fall 2010. Pg. 173

[xix] Jonathan Masters, “Hezbollah (a.k.a. Hizbollah, Hizbu’llah)”, Counsel on Foreign Relations, 22 July 2013.  Available: http://www.cfr.org/lebanon/hezbollah-k-hizbollah-hizbullah/p9155

[xx] Barak (2010): Pg. 174.

[xxi] Casey Addis and Christopher Blanchard, “Hezbollah: Background and Issues for Congress”, Congressional Research Service, 3 January 2011. Pg. 7, Available: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/R41446.pdf

 

About the Author(s)

Oliver Kendall is an intern at the Truman National Security Project.  He studied Political Science at Macalester College, where he served as a Preceptor in Middle East Security Issues for two years. Follow him on Twitter @owskendall.