The History of Imperialist Aggression in Lebanon

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by Andrew Pollack / September 2006 issue of Socialist Action

Israel’s 2006 war fits a long pattern of intervention—a pattern of unprovoked, wholesale murder, covered up by deception.

From its start the Zionist movement had plans for southern Lebanon. Israeli historian Benny Morris in “Righteous Victims” reports that the Zionists presented a map for their desired state to the Versailles Peace Conference that “included southern Lebanon up to the Litani River, north of which they hoped would emerge a Maronite [Christian] state.”

The strategic importance of the Litani and other rivers in this arid region also shaped Zionist plans. This conception was echoed in writings by David Ben-Gurion, Labor Party founder and later Israel’s first prime minister.

Army chief Moshe Dayan said in 1955, “All that is needed is to find an officer … to win him over or bribe him so he agrees to declare himself the savior of the Maronites. Then the IDF will enter Lebanon, conquer the necessary territory and establish a Christian government. … The areas south of the Litani will be annexed completely to Israel.”

Both Ben-Gurion and Dayan pushed (unsuccessfully) in the 1950s for cabinet approval for such plans even though, says Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, Lebanon had “scrupulously abided” by its armistice agreement.

The 1967 war and after

After the 1967 war (during which Israel seized Lebanon’s Shebaa Farms), the U.S. increasingly relied on Israel to intervene on its behalf. As Gilbert Achcar writes, Israel “would become the watchdog of U.S. regional interests: congenitally a militarized state—and [it] could not be otherwise due to its colonial origin and its hostile relationship with its environment—it was predestined to play that role.”

After the war the PLO began frequent raids on Israel, leading to Zionist reprisals against any country from which they were launched. The Palestinian refugees driven into Lebanon in 1948 were joined in 1970 by those driven out of Jordan by the murderous repression of King Hussein.

Lebanon replaced Jordan as the PLO’s main base, with a refugee population of about 300,000. This meant Lebanon suffered more than any country from Zionist retaliatory or “preventive” attacks. Some examples, as documented in Noam Chomsky’s “Fateful Triangle”:

• In 1968 Israel destroyed 13 Lebanese civilian aircraft in Beirut after a PLO attack on an El Al jet.

• Accounts of the famous 1974 Mailot massacre of 20 Israeli paramilitaries rarely mention the Israeli air attack two days before, which killed four Lebanese civilians, nor the previous weeks of napalm bombing of camps, with over 200 killed.

• Many villages were attacked almost daily in 1975, including with phosphorus, incendiary bombs, and napalm. One such attack was admitted to be “preventive, not punitive,” and was used to sabotage a PLO overture for talks.

From 1968 to 1974 there were an estimated 1.4 Israeli violations of Lebanese territory per day. The town of Khiyam was bombed repeatedly from 1968 on, reducing it from tens of thousands to a few dozen—who were massacred by Israel’s Christian allies in 1978.

The civil war

In 1975 civil war broke out, ranging Christian militias against a Muslim-leftist alliance (the National Movement). But Walid Khalidi points out in “Conflict and Violence in Lebanon” that discrimination against Muslims was ignored by the Muslim establishment, who bemoaned the “Maronite ‘monopoly’ of power” but wouldn’t challenge the confessionalism from which they also benefited.

The National Movement united Marxists, Baathists, Nasserists, and radical Muslims, with leading Druze politician Kamal Jumblat’s misnamed Progessive Socialist Party at its core. The leftist parties had many Christian members, and one of its planks was the deconfessionalization of the country to end the rule of both Christian and Muslim capitalists.

Unfortunately, the Movement, while including two large Stalinist parties (with many Shia followers), was only anticapitalist in words.

The later entry of the PLO into the Movement did nothing to clarify its politics. A 1974 statement by Arab Trotskyists on “The Arab Revolution” had noted that the PLO’s policies made it easier for the Zionists and the Lebanese regime to isolate the resistance from the Lebanese population. Noting that Lebanon was “the Arab country most affected by the world capitalist crisis,” they pointed to the need for an independent class strategy.

In June, 1976, as the scales tipped in favor of the National Movement, Syria sent in troops against them—but later turned on the resurgent Christian forces to maintain the pro-capitalist confessional balance.

An estimated 100,000 died in the civil war from 1975 to 1990. From 1976 to 1982 Israel gave the Phalange $118.5 million in arms, and both Labor and Likud leaders met with them regularly.

In the midst of the civil war (1978) Israel launched “Operation Litani”: 22,000 shells killed 2000, destroyed hundreds of homes and forced 250,000 to flee their homes. After six days the IDF held the area south of the Litani except for Tyre, and created there the South Lebanese Army (SLA).

On the arrival of a UN force, the IDF withdrew to a border “Security Zone” but Israel’s resumed bombing in 1979 killed 1000 people.

In his “History of the Israeli Army,” Israeli military historian Ze’ev Schiff summarizes an Israeli general’s take on the 1978 invasion: “We struck the civilian population consciously, because they deserved it … the Army has always struck civilians, purposely and consciously—even when Israeli settlements had not been struck.”

Operation Peace for Galilee

Despite repeated provocations in 1981, the PLO at first avoided retaliation—and in its first response ordered gunners shelling settlements to miss their targets.

In July 1981, Israel destroyed roads and bridges and bombed camps; 300 were killed in air attacks on Beirut, prompting the U.S. to delay delivery of fighter jets. Still Israel couldn’t achieve its goals of ousting the PLO and destroying its social infrastructure, which provided services to hundreds of thousands. Nor could it destroy dispersed PLO military stockpiles or stop arrival of new supplies.

Even more galling was the implied recognition of the PLO in U.S.-sponsored ceasefire talks. All this led, said Morris, to a sense of frustration and humiliation—and “a burning desire to settle accounts.”

A January 1982 PLO raid led Defense Minister Ariel Sharon to propose an air attack, hoping to trigger a PLO response against settlements, but he was voted down. From August 1981 to May 1982 there were 2125 violations of Lebanese airspace and waters. Morris writes that Israel spent these months “seeking a pretext to invade,” despite PLO forbearance.

In January 1982, Sharon met secretly with Christian political leader Bashir Gemayel and talked of invading as far as Beirut Airport. In May Schiff wrote in Haaretz, “It is not true that—as we tell the Americans—we do not want to invade Lebanon. … The military wanted to create “a situation that will leave Israel no choice but to invade. … The aims would be to ‘root out’ the PLO, disperse the refugees once again, and make Israel ‘the policeman of Lebanon,’ able to decide how the Lebanese parliament votes.”

Destroying the PLO in Lebanon, Sharon hoped, would “bring out moderates in the occupied territories amenable to limited autonomy.”

On June 4 Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan proposed air attacks on Beirut, knowing, says Morris, “that the raid would most likely trigger a PLO bombardment of Galilee. The ministers understood this would precipitate the long-planned IDF ground assault.”

In the first months of 1982 there was a huge increase in arms supplies from the U.S. to Israel, including cluster bombs, the latter soon to be used so indiscriminately against civilians that the U.S. stopped their export to Israel (a ban rescinded in 1988).

In the months before the invasion, Begin and Sharon told U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig what was coming. Haig asked only that there be a plausible pretext and warned against a “disproportionate” response. When Haig asked how far he intended to go, Sharon said, “as far as we have to.”

The pretext eventually used was the attempted assassination of an Israeli diplomat by the Abu Nidal faction of the PLO, which was promptly denounced by the dominant Fatah faction. In response refugee camps were bombed and 200 killed—double the number of Israelis killed in 15 years of PLO actions.

Another pretext used was the alleged capture of “international terrorists” being groomed by the PLO. It was later admitted no such capture had occurred.

When the full-scale invasion began on June 6, 1982, no one in Washington complained that it relied on U.S.-supplied arms, despite laws requiring their use only for defensive purposes. The New York Times said, “American weapons were justly used to break the PLO.”

The Palestinians fought largely on their own. On June 8, Reagan’s special ambassador, Philip Habib, demanded that both Palestinian and Syrian forces retreat.

The PLO was hindered by an incompetent command and cowardly officers. But the rank and file fought bravely—fighting, says Schiff, “with uncommon valor” against “a war machine [with] enormous fire power.” This was most true of “the scantily trained militiamen in the camps,” defending their own homes and families.

Despite claims it was acting against “terrorists,” Schiff says, “Israeli fire was released indiscriminately.” Fisk tells of air attacks on hundreds of buildings known to have civilians. Hundreds of men were rounded up and taken away, never to be seen again. The Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, engaged in torture and assassination on Lebanese soil, and sent Arab agents with car bombs into Beirut, killing dozens.

The siege of Beirut

Upon reaching Beirut, the IDF began a nine-week siege, including saturation bombing and intermittent blockades of food, fuel, and water.

On June 26, the U.S. vetoed a UN Security Council resolution for an end to hostilities (saying it was “a transparent attempt to preserve the PLO as a viable political force.”) But sensing the siege’s impact on public opinion, Reagan had Habib begin talks for a cease-fire.

Habib demanded that the PLO leave Lebanon. Even after this was agreed to, the IDF continued bombing, killing 300 on Aug. 12, 1982. Reagan then told Begin to halt the “unfathomable and senseless” raids. Even the Zionist Cabinet was taken aback and stripped Sharon of the right to activate forces without higher approval.

All told, about 17,000, mostly civilians, were killed in Operation Peace for Galilee, and between 500,000 and 800,000 made homeless.

Still, Newsweek reported that the guerrillas forced out of Beirut “did what all Arab victories have never been able to do: they denied Israel its victory.” For the first time the ending didn’t come “with long lines of defeated, demoralized troops. … The world is seeing triumphant soldiers carrying their arms to new battles,” and “veterans who know what it is to face the Israeli army and stop them dead in their tracks.”

Massacre in the camps

Israel soon broke its pledge not to enter Beirut after the PLO left. The U.S. had agreed to serve as protector of Palestinian civilians. But there was time for one more atrocity.

The Phalange was picked by Israel to enter the camps of Sabra and Chatilla to hunt for “terrorists.” Israel knew the assassination of Christian President Bashir Gemayel—whose election it had just secured by force and bribery—would lead to retaliation. Sharon—who, Chomsky notes, used “terrorist” as a synonym for Palestinian—told the Phalange not to leave a single terrorist alive.

The Phalange marched house to house in the camps, brightly lit at night by IDF mortars. Says Schiff, “Entire families were indiscriminately slaughtered.” People were killed with grenades hung around their necks, others raped and disemboweled. Infants were trampled with spiked shoes. Throughout, high-ranking Israeli officers listened on radios to Phalangists discussing the massacre.

It went on for three days, with between 1700 and 3000 killed. Fisk later noted that although the number of victims was over half the total at the World Trade Center, “no-one proclaimed that the world had changed forever.” The massacre brought dissent over the war inside Israel to a head, leading to a rally of 400,000. Sharon’s only punishment, however, was to be shuffled to another cabinet post.

The aftermath of the 1982 war

After the war Israel stepped up settlement building in the West Bank and Gaza. But rather than the hoped-for postwar PLO capitulation, an upsurge of mass activity soon blossomed into the intifada.

Even Israel’s hopes for its Lebanese collaborators went awry. Rather than sign a proposed 1983 agreement with the Israelis, Bashir Gemayel’s successor, his brother Amin, felt compelled to make peace with Muslim elites in West Beirut.

The same year daily casualties led Israel to withdraw to southern Lebanon. But Israeli and SLA activities in the south led to increased resistance by the Shiite group Amal and the newly-formed Hezbullah. The Israeli reaction, said Fisk, “followed the timeworn pattern of curfews, searches, mass arrests, torture, vandalism, looting, and occasional on-the-spot executions.”

Meanwhile the U.S. “peacekeeping force” intervened in renewed Christian-Druze fighting on behalf of the former, including by shelling civilian areas—making U.S. soldiers into targets. In a suicide bombing on April 18, 1983, 63 were killed at the U.S. embassy. More suicide bombs killed 241 U.S. Marines on Oct. 23, and 59 at a French base the same day. The following February, U.S. troops were withdrawn.

Continued resistance forced Israel to withdraw in 1985 to a zone a few miles deep inside Lebanon. From then until 2000, Israel launched repeated attacks. A few New York Times reports give a flavor for these:

• Aug. 5, 1993: “Israel’s weeklong bombardment … displaced 250,000 people and left 130 dead. Israel dropped 1,000 bombs and 21,000 shells on 70 villages.”

• March 22, 1994: “Israeli artillery pounded Lebanon … in retaliation for bombings that killed two Israeli soldiers and three members of Israel’s client militia.”

• Aug. 21, 1997: “Warplanes struck power lines … cut[ting] power to thousands. The strikes were the heaviest since all sides agreed in April 1996 to call a halt to attacks on civilians.”

The halt referred to came after the bombing deaths of 100 civilians in Qana, site of a similar atrocity in the 2006 war. This was in the midst of Operation Grapes of Wrath, in which Israel created 400,000 refugees.

• Feb. 9, 2000: “Shiite guerrillas killed another Israeli soldier, and warplanes retaliated less than 24 hours after their first bombardment shut down civilian life. Israeli officials said they would ignore the agreement prohibit[ing] involving civilians in the violence. … They said Hezbollah increasingly [used] villages to launch rockets at Israeli soldiers.”

On the same day, Israeli destroyed just-repaired transformers in Beirut, Tripoli, and Baalbek.

• March 15, 2000: “Israeli jets attacked targets in Lebanon for the second day, giving a riposte to the 22-nation Arab League for its denunciation of Israel.” In other words, civilians die for diplomats’ words. These attacks in 2000 came even though Barak had won elections with the promise of a July withdrawal.

This is the legacy which Israel carries on today, paid for and supported by both parties in Washington at every barbaric turn.

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