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Analysis'The faith that cracked in 1973 crashed in 1982'

40 years after the First Lebanon War, Israel’s wounds still aren’t healed

As country ponders complex legacy of 1982’s Operation Peace for Galilee, the fear of getting stuck in hostile territory and the distrust of leaders remain

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Israeli troops in Lebanon, 1982. (Michael Zarfati / IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Israeli troops in Lebanon, 1982. (Michael Zarfati / IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

“I don’t have another land,” Israeli lyricist Ehud Manor wrote 40 years ago during Operation Peace for Galilee, “even if my land is burning.”

Kiryat Shmona, a small Israeli city a short distance from the Lebanon border, had indeed been burning over the previous year. The Palestine Liberation Organization’s Katyusha fire from inside Lebanon in July 1981 had caused residents to flee, and rockets continued to rain down over the ensuing months.

The final straw came on June 3, 1982, when members of the Palestinian Abu Nidal Organization tried to assassinate Israel’s ambassador in London, Shlomo Argov, leaving him in a coma until his death in 2003.

Three days later, four massive armored Israeli columns moved north across the border, marking the start of the operation. It would take more than 18 years, and the lives of well over 1,000 IDF soldiers, before Israel’s presence in Lebanon ended.

The Hebrew name for the operation, Sheleg, was an acronym for Peace for Galilee, but it also means snow, evoking the white peaks of Israel’s northern neighbor, as well as a sense of purity.

Indeed, the operation, which would come to be known as the Lebanon War — and later the First Lebanon War, once there was a second — began on June 6, 1982, with broad consensus about its self-evident morality and necessity across the spectrum of Israel’s Jewish mainstream.

Composer Kobi Oshrat, left, with late Israeli poet and radio and TV anchor Ehud Manor in 1992.
(Photo by Moshe Shai/Flash90)

“It wasn’t out of a love of war that we embarked on this campaign,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Tuesday night at the national commemoration ceremony for the war’s fallen soldiers at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, “but out of Israel’s deep obligation to protect its citizens.”

The campaign was seen as an entirely justified operation against the Palestinian terrorists who were firing rockets on border towns, slaughtering passengers on buses, and shooting Israeli diplomats in Europe.

But the Israeli public’s belief in the righteousness of the operation and the trust in its leaders began to crumble over that summer. “The longer the war went on,” Bennett said to the families of the war’s fallen, “the more disputes around the war multiplied in Israeli society.”

The publicly stated aims of the war were achieved quickly, yet new goals — far grander ones — were then pursued. Israel’s local allies perpetrated a massacre that shocked the country. And the conflict that started on June 6, 1982, never seemed to end, morphing into a complex and often bloody occupation that stretched almost two decades.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at a ceremony in Jerusalem in memory of the Israeli soldiers who were killed in the First Lebanon War, June 14, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Forty years is a deeply resonant number in Judaism. It represents the span of a generation, and the Israelites were forced to spend 40 years wandering around the Sinai in order to wait for the entire generation that left Egypt — and rebelled endlessly in the desert — to die out.

In the IDF too, 40 years is long enough for a generation of eager young officers to rise to leadership positions, then disappear from the organization. Veterans of the operation led the IDF until January 2019, when then-chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, a platoon commander in 1982, and former deputy chief of staff Yair Golan, an officer cadet during the war, retired.

Even though today’s Israeli officers were molded by subsequent conflicts, the legacy of the war continues to shape the way the country’s military and its public think about war and security.

“We left Lebanon,” journalist Tali Lipkin-Shahak said at the start of a Truman Institute conference marking 40 years since the start of the operation, “but it is not entirely clear that Lebanon left us.”

The Maronite connection

The roots of Israel’s involvement in Lebanon stretch back to the pre-state contacts between the Jewish Yishuv in Mandatory Palestine and Maronite leaders across the border in southern Lebanon. After Israel gained independence in 1948, ties slowly deepened, with the Jewish state eventually providing the Maronites with arms, equipment, training, and medical aid as they fought their common enemy, the Palestine Liberation Organization, in the 1970s.

‘We will not fight for them,” said then-Northern Command head Rafael Eitan. “We will help them… so they’ll be able to fight themselves. We have a shared interest — to fight terrorists.”

The bitter civil war in 1975 and the introduction of Syrian troops into Lebanon in 1976 demanded a strategic reappraisal on Israel’s part. Under prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli forces stayed out of Lebanon while providing weapons and artillery support through the Enclave Initiative, but when Menahem Begin came to power in the 1977 political upheaval, IDF troops began making limited incursions to protect Christians against the PLO.

Former Israel Police commissioner Assaf Hefetz stands inside the remains of a bus from a 1978 terror attack known as the Coastal Road Massacre, in a museum in Holon, on May 2, 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

In 1978, after PLO terrorists hijacked an Egged bus along the coast and killed 38 Israelis, Jerusalem responded with Operation Litani, complete with airstrikes and a ground incursion into Lebanon.

The second Begin government, elected in 1981, began pursuing a new regional order, which included a Lebanon dominated by Maronite militia commander Bashir Gemayel.

With the PLO rocket attacks and the attempted murder of Argov, Israel could no longer wait.

From 1973 to 1982

Israel’s government, especially then-defense minister Ariel Sharon, had already accepted that at some point it would have to deal with the PLO threat through a ground invasion.

Sharon laid out updated war aims in May 1982. The explicit goals of the coming campaign were to destroy the PLO infrastructure in Lebanon, and to remove the Galilee from the range of Palestinian rocket fire, a distance determined to be 40 kilometers. IDF forces would refrain from attacking Syrian forces unless fired upon, though given the deployment of the Syrians near PLO bases, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that the two armies were going to end up clashing.

Illustrative: Prime minister Menachem Begin (right) and defense minister Ariel Sharon on June 7, 1982 at Beaufort Castle, a few hours after Israeli troops captured the Palestinian stronghold in Southern Lebanon. (AP Photo)

Though they were not reasons to go to war in and of themselves, according to Sharon, if Israel already was operating in Lebanon, then expelling the Syrians and implementing a new political order would certainly be welcome outcomes for Israel.

The IDF that rolled along the coast toward Beirut, landed at the mouth of the Zahrani River, and pushed into the Bekaa Valley, was twice as big as the ground force that pulled out a victory over Egypt and Syria in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The traumatic experience of that war shaped the force that would emerge in the coming years.

“The generation that made up the majors, lieutenant-colonels, and colonels in 1973 are the generals and brigadier generals in 1982,” noted Eado Hecht, defense analyst at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

One of the key lessons to come out of the war was that Israel needed more armored divisions — many more — than the seven it could barely muster in 1973. The IDF was determined to get big fast, and proved itself willing to rapidly promote officers without formal training in order to fill new units. It became a force with plenty of practical experience, but little theoretical understanding.

In addition, after witnessing armored units being thrown into the fight in the Sinai only to have them stopped in their tracks by Egyptian anti-tank crews, IDF commanders developed a certain cautiousness and lack of confidence in their higher-ups.

Israeli tanks take positions of cover in the Sinai Peninsula during the Yom Kippur War, on October 15, 1973. (Bamahane/Defense Ministry Archive)

“They had experience, but they had the experience of commanders who sent them to unnecessary battles,” said military historian Ohad Leslau.

Indeed, Manor’s song “I Don’t Have Another Land” was written about his brother, who fell during the 1967-1970 War of Attrition. Manor meant to critique the disregard IDF commanders had for the lives of their soldiers in that conflict, but the message was perhaps even more resonant for Israelis watching the war unfold in Lebanon.

There were other legacies from the Yom Kippur War. The 1982 IDF was very well trained, but for a war that it had already fought. It knew how to defeat enemy tank formations in the sands of the Sinai, but had not trained extensively for the mountain roads they would be asked to fight on in Lebanon.

“The IDF arrives at this war when it is at its peak, but its peak for 1973, not 1982,” said Leslau.

“In 1982, the army was, in relation to the world, one of the best in terms of its combat abilities,” Hecht explained. “But in certain things.”

A war that wouldn’t end

Regardless of those serious shortcomings, the seven IDF divisions in Lebanon fought well on the tactical level, advancing quickly against PLO fighters over the first two days.

The much-awaited fight against the Syrians began on June 8, the third day of the war. Key IDF commanders, including then-chief of staff Rafael Eitan and Northern Command chief Amir Drori, had faced the brunt of the Syrian assault on the Golan Heights in 1973, and may well have been looking to get their revenge.

Yair Golan as a colonel in southern Lebanon in 1990s (Yoav Gallai/IDF)

Yair Golan told The Times of Israel that his experience fighting the Syrians in the war is still at the front of his mind. “Even though it was 40 years ago, I still remember it well,” he said. “A first war is like a first love.”

Golan was in the officers’ training course on the Golan Heights when his battalion was activated. Fighting under the 14th Armored Brigade in the 252nd Division, Golan was part of a force that moved across a road along the western slopes of the Hermon range to surprise and roll back the Syrian forces in the east.

“It was real combat against the Syrian army,” Golan recalled. “With jets, with helicopters, with tanks, with artillery — we experienced war in its full meaning.”

Though 40 years have passed, Golan can still rattle off the names of the roads and villages through which his Gefen Battalion fought.

The orders for the Oranim plan in Lebanon, April 1982 (IDF Archives)

He recalled intense urban fighting in the village of Haouch el Qinaabe — “It was just like our training, but for real” — and the unbearable summer heat as the cadets climbed the Jebel Aarbe mountain.

“We were hungry, there wasn’t food,” said Golan. “One of the memories that stands out to me from the fighting was that we were extremely hungry. There simply wasn’t food.” The infantrymen got by on cherries they plucked from the orchards they passed through, which left them with intense stomach pains as they waited in the mountains to ambush Syrian anti-tank squads that never arrived.

The young cadets didn’t ask any questions about why they were in combat against the Syrians days into an operation that was supposed to target the PLO.

“We were ready to fight whoever there was,” explained Golan. “We were young, we didn’t care at all that it was Syrians or whoever.”

Israeli forces moved through Zibqin, Lebanon, 1982 (P.mielen at Dutch Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Unlike in 1973, the IAF was able to carry out its intricate plans to suppress the enemy’s anti-aircraft system. In the now-legendary Mole Cricket 19 operation on June 9, the IAF shocked the Syrians and their Soviet patrons by destroying the SAM anti-aircraft array in the Bekaa and downing around 25 Syrian planes while losing none of their own.

The Syrians were able to bloody the IDF the next day, however, knocking out 10 tanks and taking five prisoners during the Battle of Sultan Yacoub.

A ceasefire was reached with the Syrians on the 11th, which was extended to the PLO the next day.

Photograph purportedly showing three IDF soldiers on a captured Israeli tank paraded through the streets of Damascus, Syria in the days following the June 11, 1982 battle of Sultan Yacoub in the First Lebanon War. (The International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers)

Over the next two months, it became clear that simply pushing the PLO 40 kilometers from the Israeli border was not Sharon’s final goal. Israeli forces would continue to crawl forward to cut off the Beirut-Damascus Highway and surround Beirut. Under siege, PLO leader Yasser Arafat and thousands of Palestinian and Syrian fighters agreed to leave Beirut in August, with many sailing to Tunis.

Sharon could have stopped there, and sent the IDF home after what would have been seen as a highly successful and justified operation.

But he had bigger aims in mind.

Gemayel was elected president in August 1982, and Israel wanted to finalize a peace treaty with him. But things began to quickly fall apart. Gemayel was assassinated by Syrian proxies on September 14, and in the wake of the assassination, Israeli forces moved quickly to capture the former PLO strongholds in West Beirut.

Bashir Gemayel (CC-BY SA Georges Hayek/Wikimedia Commons)

The Gefen cadets were called up on the eve of Rosh Hashana to take part in the takeover of Beirut. “It was not easy fighting, we used all of our capabilities,” Golan recalled. “It was truly a school for urban warfare. A big part of what I know about fighting in urban areas is from that fighting, from capturing a 25-story building.”

“When I was a Nahal Brigade commander fighting in Palestinian cities, I used the lessons I learned from when I was a cadet in Beirut.”

But as Israeli troops took over the capital, their Maronite Phalangist allies, hungry for revenge after the Gemayel killing and atrocities perpetrated by the PLO,  moved into the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites.

The slaughter brought furious international condemnation on Israel, in addition to bitter criticism of Sharon in massive demonstrations back home. The IDF withdrew from West Beirut, and the operation officially came to an inglorious end on September 29, 1982.

The aftermath of the attack on IDF headquarters in Tyre, Lebanon, November 11, 1982 (IDF/public domain)

But the war didn’t end there. The IDF remained in Lebanon, withdrawing in stages as Israel tried to engineer a political agreement with the country’s leadership. Iranian-trained terrorists, the forerunners of Hezbollah, carried out a series of car bombings against US, French, and Israeli targets in 1982 and 1983, killing hundreds.

In 1985, Israel withdrew its forces from most of Lebanon, settling on a security zone designed to keep Palestinian terrorists away from the border. The buffer zone was meant to be managed and secured by the South Lebanon Army, a Christian militia backed by Israel, with minimal IDF presence. But when the SLA started to collapse in the face of Hezbollah attacks, Israel could not help being sucked back in. The next 15 years of conflict, this time against Hezbollah, would cost hundreds more Israeli lives.

One of the organizers of the ‘Four Mothers’ protest, Orna Shimoni, hugs then-IDF chief Shaul Mofaz after he announces the army will be withdrawing from southern Lebanon in May 2000. (Defense Ministry)

Golan said: “We must differentiate between the very impressive achievements of Peace for Galilee — although the IDF wasn’t remarkable in combat in 1982, there were impressive achievements — and the fact that we simply didn’t know when to get out, and we got tangled up in something that was entirely superfluous.”

“The fatal mistake was the fact that we stayed there.”

The Lebanese Mud

The trauma of the Lebanon war reshaped Israeli society and its military. “The faith in politicians that cracked in 1973, crashed in 1982,” argued Leslau.

Israelis already blamed their leaders for failing to properly anticipate the Egyptian and Syrian attacks in 1973, but when they perceived Sharon and others lying to them in 1982, a skepticism set in that persists to this day.

The bitter infighting that emerged around the occupation of Lebanon has caused Israeli leaders to place a premium on broad domestic support before embarking on major military operations. During the Second Intifada, it took the Park Hotel suicide bombing, which killed 30 Israelis at a Passover seder, before Sharon felt Israelis were ready for Operation Defensive Shield.

An IDF soldier stands guard in Nablus during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit/Flickr)

Israel has also become extremely skittish about capturing ground, once seen as the key to victory. Now, the fear of getting stuck occupying hostile territory leads military planners to design campaigns around air and artillery fire, resorting to ground maneuvers only as a last resort, and only when they know how and when forces are going to leave. The tentative and ineffectual ground maneuver in Lebanon in 2006 and the limited incursions in the rounds of fighting in Gaza are symptoms of this Lebanon syndrome.

The failed effort in 1982 to install a friendly government in Beirut also restricts Israel’s foreign policy four decades later. Before the war, Israel built ties with a range of proxies across the Middle East and beyond, including in Iraqi Kurdistan, Yemen, and of course, Lebanon. But since sinking into the Lebanese mud, Israel has been careful to keep its boots clean. Iran, meanwhile, has turned its proxy forces into valuable assets in the region.

The IDF itself felt the reverberations of the war in the ensuing years. The left-wing Ashkenazim from Israel’s agricultural kibbutzim and moshavim who had made up the backbone of the IDF officer corps saw Begin, the first right-wing premier, embark on a controversial war. Part of the bitter political arguments that rent Israeli society apart came from the view that Lebanon was not the war of the traditional elites.

Col. Emanuel Wald in 1983 (Kodkod Tzahov Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

As a result of that feeling, and the economic crisis that hit Israel in the mid-1980s, large numbers of IDF officers resigned, leading to a hollowed-out force with badly undermanned units.

The IDF also learned important lessons from the war. The lack of formal professional knowledge among officers led to the creation of the Barak Staff and Command course for leadership in high-intensity combat.

But there was a resistance to an honest reckoning with the war in the ensuing years. A damning internal report by Col. Emanuel Wald argued that the IDF failed to achieve its goals in 1982 on all fronts, and blasted the senior leadership for failing to conduct proper reviews of the war even five years later. As the contents of the report became clear to senior IDF commanders, they tried to block his access to files, and then-chief of staff Moshe Levi, who had originally tasked Wald with writing the report, ignored it and refused to discuss its findings.

Traumatic thinking

Reflecting on the war 40 years later, experts see relevant lessons for Israel and the IDF today.

Hecht pointed out the importance of artillery against anti-tank forces. In 1973, the IDF understood that it needed more artillery, and by 1982 had three times as many cannons available, which were used to great effect with statistical fire. Today, however, the IDF is increasingly focused on precision fire and has been making deep cuts into the Artillery Corps.

Golan sees the war as a lost opportunity for the IDF to learn: “We could have come out of 1982 with a much better army, and many of the things we didn’t deal with deeply enough, professionally enough, broadly enough, and the influence of 1982 as a war laboratory wasn’t dramatic enough.”

He argues that the trauma of the extended war and the occupation that followed stymied the ability to learn from it.

“One of the greatest obstacles to free thinking is trauma, that’s true on the personal level and on the national level,” he stressed.

“The IDF today mustn’t be obsessed about not getting stuck in Lebanon again, and must instead focus on defeating Hezbollah,” he said.

Deputy IDF Chief of Staff Yair Golan speaks at a ceremony to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, May 5, 2016. (Gefen Reznik/IDF Spokesperson)

“The IDF must preserve the capacity to crush an enemy on land, it must invest in the ground forces more than it invests today. The IDF needs trained reserve forces, the reserves today are not well enough trained,” Golan said.

“We need an army steeped in the feeling that it knows how to win, knows how to fight in villages, knows how to fight in the cities, knows how to achieve its goals, it’s something that Israel can’t give up on.”

In the ceremonies, conferences, and personal reflections about Operation Peace for Galilee taking place across Israel this month, there is a sense that the war was both a symptom of a society no longer able to hide the fissures running through it, and also the reason those cracks widened.

It’s a message of pain, regret and, yes, trauma, one that continues to color Israel’s politics and security policies today. Or as per Ehud Manor:

“I won’t be silent because my land
changed its face,
I will not spare her,
to remind her,
and to sing here in her ears,
until she opens her eyes.
I don’t have another land.”

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