New probe finds 1982 blast at IDF’s headquarters in Lebanon war was suicide bombing

Officials had long claimed explosion which killed 91 in Tyre was a gas leak, but investigation headed by former general finds intentional attack to be far more likely

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Rescue workers search for survivors after an explosion at Israeli military headquarters in the Lebanese city of Tyre in 1982. (Wikimedia Commons/IDF Archive)
Rescue workers search for survivors after an explosion at Israeli military headquarters in the Lebanese city of Tyre in 1982. (Wikimedia Commons/IDF Archive)

After more than 41 years, a new commission of inquiry into a deadly explosion at Israel’s military headquarters in Tyre during the First Lebanon War has determined that the blast was a suicide bombing, officials said Wednesday

Until now, Israel had said the explosion on November 11, 1982, was caused by a gas leak, although multiple reports, including those in the immediate aftermath, pointed to a Hezbollah suicide bombing attack.

The commission of inquiry, headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Abulafia — the former commander of the military’s Planning Directorate — found the explosion that killed at least 91 people, including 75 members of the Israeli security forces and several more Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners, was a suicide bombing and not a gas leak.

Israeli authorities announced in November 2022 that they would reinvestigate the explosion and by June last year the commission headed by Abulafia was formed, following a Shin Bet investigation that found the suicide bombing theory far more likely.

Dozens of members of the Shin Bet security agency, Israel Defense Forces and Israel Police were involved in the investigation. Officials said several academics and defense experts were also consulted.

“Approaching an investigation of a terror attack that took place four decades ago, is extremely difficult, complicated… it is almost impossible since most people [who were there] are no longer with us. And those who are [still alive] don’t remember many of the details,” said the head of a Shin Bet department involved in the early 2023 probe that led to the formation of Abulafia’s commission of inquiry, who was identified only as “Shin ” — her first initial in Hebrew.

Maj. Gen. Amir Abulafia (Screen capture: YouTube)

“Shin,” whose rank is equivalent to a major general in the military, told reporters that investigators worked with “secrecy and compartmentalization,” due to the sensitivities surrounding the findings and the discrepancy with the earlier probe established immediately after the 1982 blast, which had determined the explosion was a gas leak.

She said the teams looked at all the available information on the blast, including thousands of documents from before, during and after the incident. The investigators also looked into intelligence that could confirm the available information; consulted explosives experts to determine if the nature of the building’s collapse bore hallmarks of other attacks with vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and if explosive material was identified at the scene; and carried out forensic investigations to determine how the victims were killed and who each body belonged to.

Eventually, she said, the investigation was able to determine “with high certainty, maybe even completely certainly, that this was a terror attack and not a gas leak.”

According to “Shin,” explosive material was found at the scene, and signs of explosive impact were found on some of the remains, including body parts that did not belong to any of the Israeli forces or Lebanese prisoners.

Additionally, signs of explosive impact were also found on parts of a Peugeot car at the scene. The car’s engine was also located almost completely whole under the rubble, she said.

The white Peugeot 504 and unidentified body parts were later determined to have belonged to the suicide bomber, the latest investigation found, Abulafia told reporters.

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

Previous investigations did not determine who the unidentified remains belonged to. The French-made car was found at the time to not have been in use by Israeli forces, though earlier investigations did not link the vehicle to the explosion.

The first probe, launched a day after the blast, was headed by Maj. Gen. Meir Zorea. After a week it submitted its findings, determining that the blast was caused by a gas leak and not an attack.

A Military Police investigation was launched a week after that, and it found similarly that a gas leak was most likely, although it left open the possibility that the blast could have been an intentional attack. Months later, in April 1983, the Military Advocate General accepted the gas leak claim based on the reports and closed the case.

“The Shin Bet team contradicted the Zorea probe, which had determined with certainty that it was not a terror attack. We concluded that it was an explosive-laden car driven by a Shia suicide terrorist, that resulted in the building’s collapse,” the senior Shin Bet officer said.

She said that the car was rigged with a 50-kilogram bomb, along with several gas cylinders. The explosion of the bomb and gas cylinders, along with the car’s internal gas tank, resulted in the massive blast that brought the building down.

“Shin” also said that the Military Police investigation and Military Advocate General inquiry did not have all the information available to them at the time of the incident, which came amid a war, and were not yet familiar with car bombings and Iran-linked groups in the area, which led them to accept the gas leak theory.

The Tyre explosion came before the infamous 1983 Beirut barracks bombings — targeting American and French forces in Beirut — killing 307, as well as the bombing of the US embassy in the Lebanese capital that same year, killing another 63.

The Shin Bet’s findings were presented to the head of the agency, IDF chief of staff, and police commissioner last year, leading the security organizations to form the commission of inquiry headed by Abulafia, to come to final conclusions.

Abulafia said his team looked further into the blast, conducting additional analysis of the explosion itself, as well as investigating the unidentified human remains, and looking into other intelligence, including the car parts and eyewitness accounts of the incident.

Rescue workers search for survivors after an explosion at Israeli military headquarters in the Lebanese city of Tyre in 1982. (Wikimedia Commons/IDF Archive)

He told reporters that the new findings determined that the suicide bomber drove the car into the building through one of the entrances, before exploding near the elevator shaft, causing four pillars to collapse and bringing the rest of the building down.

Abulafia also said that experts were able to confirm that the additional body parts found at the bottom of the building did not belong to any of the Lebanese detainees who had been held on the top floor, or any of the Israeli security forces, meaning the remains more than likely belonged to the suicide bomber.

Regarding eyewitness accounts, Abulafia said the commission was able to learn that two Lebanese civilians who were driving by the IDF base amid the attack, and were wounded themselves, reported that they saw a white Peugeot 504 drive into the building shortly before the blast.

Two Israeli soldiers at the scene had also testified that they heard the sound of a car engine before the blast, Abulafia said, referring to old testimonies that were only recently found again.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group claimed responsibility for the explosion, identifying the suicide bomber as 17-year-old Ahmad Qasir. A small monument was erected in honor of Qasir near Baalbek, in northeastern Lebanon. Qasir is considered by Hezbollah to be its first-ever suicide bomber.

Ahmad Qasir (Social media: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“We know that the director of the attack was supported by Iran… there was also some partial involvement by Imad Mughniyeh, one of the founders of Hezbollah, but until today there is still some disagreement between [Hezbollah and other groups] who this attack belongs to,” Abulafia said.

“We can say responsibly that the attack was directed by Iran,” he added.

The IDF in a statement said that “the committee recommended that from now on, this tragic event will be treated as a terror attack.”

“The Tyre disaster is an unfortunate and painful event… and the completion of the investigation is of great importance, both at the national level and as part of the commitment to the families of the fallen as well as to the victims of the disaster and their families,” it added.

Almost a year after the blast on November 4, 1983, a similar bombing targeted the IDF base in Tyre, killing 28 Israelis and 32 Lebanese prisoners. Israel had confirmed the second blast was a suicide bombing by Hezbollah.

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