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Israeli Strategy in the First Lebanon War, 1982-1985

Israeli Strategy in the First Lebanon War, 1982-1985 Israeli Strategy in the First Lebanon War, 1982-1985
To cite this article: Hecht, Eado, “Israeli Strategy and the First Lebanon War, 1982-1985", Infinity Journal, IJ Special Edition, “Strategic Misfortunes”, October 2012, pages 16-20.

We are grateful for the use of this image of the IDF’s 211th Armored Brigade moving towards Beirut, taken by Israel Defense Force Brigadier General Yossi Ben Hanan. It was also featured in Israel Defense’s Special titled, “The First Lebanon War as Never Seen Before”.

The last shots of Israel’s War for Independence were fired in early 1949. From January to July 1949 Israel negotiated separately with each of its Arab neighbours – Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria – to work out a political arrangement and an official cessation of hostilities.[i] The first agreement was signed with Egypt in February 1949 and the last was signed with Syria in July of the same year. However, Israel’s hope that these agreements would be peace treaties or would, at least, become the first step leading to such treaties was disappointed. Concluding that a rematch was inevitable, Israel’s political and military leadership began to develop a grand-strategic doctrine and a strategic doctrine. These doctrines were not formulated in a single official document and did not develop in a single smooth trajectory. They developed in many debates, flashes of inspiration, and adapting in response to enemy activities. Different people had different ideas. Sometimes, it was who was sitting in which chair that was more important than the debates being conducted around the table. Changes in the manning of senior positions and lessons learned from specific events brought about changes in the concepts. However, it is not the purpose of the present article to describe all the twists and turns along the path, only to discuss a single event to which these doctrines were applied, achieved some success, but then failed – Israel’s war with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon, which culminated in the all-out Israeli offensive into Lebanon in 1982. The seeds of the decision to undertake this offensive were sown over thirty years earlier in the formulation of the aforementioned doctrines, and so the relevant aspects will be described in brief.

Israel’s first order of business after winning its War of Independence was not to prepare for future conflict, but rather to prepare for peace – building a society, an economy and a legal system, while simultaneously absorbing an enormous influx of immigrants from around the world[ii], speaking different languages and living according to different cultural norms. However, very quickly it became clear that the War of Independence might be over officially but not in fact. Palestinian Arabs who had fled into neighbouring countries began to conduct forays into Israel. Some were innocent – people trying to collect possessions left behind, and some were criminal – theft of Israeli property in order to facilitate life in the refugee camps. Gradually they began to be more and more political, aiming simply to kill Israelis and cause damage to property. The Arab armies also conducted cross-border intelligence raids or tried to nibble bits of land away from Israel.[iii] Israel’s political and military leaders concluded that they were in fact facing two distinct threats, each of which required a different strategic approach:

  • The Fundamental Threat – an all-out offensive by an Arab army or combination of Arab armies. This required Israel to build an army capable of defeating any combination of Arab armies, despite being numerically inferior, without bankrupting Israel’s still fragile economy.
  • The Routine Threat – the conduct of intermittent cross-border raids by small groups of guerrilla-style fighters or regular troops. These raids were not considered an existential threat in the sense of being able to physically destroy Israel, but Prime-Minister Ben-Gurion feared that they could destroy the self-confidence of the new immigrants, settling along the borders, and cause them to flee the country – thus achieving gradually what the Arab armies had failed to achieve in one fell swoop. Again, the solution had to be one that would not require massive expenditure of Israel’s limited manpower and treasure.

The doctrine of Routine Security, developed through the 1950s, was the core of the decision to invade Lebanon in 1982. Israel’s initial strategy was defensive – army units were deployed in ambushes and patrols along the borders. This failed – there were not enough troops to cover more than a fraction of the border at any one moment. The next strategy was aptly named ‘An Eye For An Eye’. Following each Arab raid into Israel, the Israeli army conducted a raid aimed at causing similar casualties and damage across the border. This aroused an ethical argument in Israel, international condemnations, and failed to elicit the desired response – a reduction in Arab raids. So Israel’s leadership upped the ante – it decided to change the targets and retaliate more massively. The new target was Arab property, not people, but en masse. If an Israeli village was attacked then an Arab village was captured, evacuated and the houses destroyed. However, Arab raids continued unabated and the ethical problem was not solved, as became clear after the botched Kibya operation in autumn 1953, in which the Israeli force ordered the population to evacuate but, contrary to orders, did not search the houses to ensure that all had actually done so. 63 civilians died. The result was uproar in Israel and around the world. It was clear that this strategy was neither effective nor sustainable.

To this point Israel had tried to achieve Routine Security by confronting the perpetrators (commonly known as Fedayeen) directly or by deterring them via retaliation raids. Both ways had failed. The Israelis could not find the Fedayeen in the field nor in their safe-havens, and the damage caused to the neighbouring Arab population did not really interest the Fedayeen because they were not from the same clans or families. The Israelis decided on a new strategy – they could not find the Fedayeen, but the governments of the host-states could. The new strategy was to compel the Arab governments to stop the attacks from their territory by retaliating for Fedayeen raids with counter-raids on the host-states’ military. Hopefully, repeated expensive defeats of their troops would shame the Arab governments and they would prefer to prevent further provocation of Israel. It took time, but the new strategy worked – Egypt was the first to gradually suspend Fedayeen activity through its border with Israel from the mid-1950s; then Syria, which, from the mid-1960s, continued to support Fedayeen activity but only if the actual raid was conducted through Jordan or Lebanon; and finally Jordan forcibly evicted the PLO from its territory in September 1970. Only the Lebanese border remained open for the Fedayeen raids. Encouraged by Syria, the Fedayeen had begun to gradually intensify their operations from Lebanon from the late 1960s. To the cross-border raids they added two new operational modes:

  • Stand-off fire – at first with short-range weapons and gradually with longer-ranged weapons culminating in the late 1970s with long-range field-guns and rockets.
  • Overseas raids – attacking Israelis and non-Israeli Jews in locations around the world. The most notorious attacks were the hijacking of civilian aircraft and the massacre in the 1972 Olympic games in Munich.

By the late 1970s, fighting along Israel’s border with Lebanon had become an almost daily affair. In theory Israel had a proven strategic solution. However, this solution was not suitable to the Lebanese theatre. It depended on the host-state having a strong central government capable of imposing its political will, and if need be, military will on the Fedayeen. Lebanon did not have such a government. By the early 1970s Lebanon’s society and political system had unraveled. Established by the French to provide the local Christian community a state of their own, in which they were a majority, its political system had been designed on a sectarian-religious basis. However, by 1970 the Christians were no longer the majority. They were still the largest religious group, but smaller than any other two groups combined.[iv] The arrival of the PLO’s military forces in Lebanon had completely destroyed the last vestiges of Christian superiority over the other religious groups. Lebanon disintegrated into civil war. Each religious group battled the others for territory, political and economic benefits and clans within each group often battled each other for domination of the group. The Lebanese army disintegrated along religious lines. The strongest military force in Lebanon was the PLO – also divided into factions often battling each other. A new-old actor entered the Lebanese stage – Syria. Syria had always claimed that Lebanon was actually an integral part of Syria, illegitimately torn away by the departing French Empire. Covertly Syria had assisted the gradual dissolving of the Lebanese government’s control. Another Syrian interest in Lebanon was money. Lebanese banks, the international port of Beirut, Lebanese agriculture and industry – all were important to the well-being of Syria’s fragile agriculture-based economy. The civil war threatened Syria’s economy and Syria reacted by invading Lebanon. At first, the Syrian invasion was aimed to assist the Christians because they dominated most of the areas important to Syria. However, gradually, the Syrians began to assert their domination against the Christians and fighting broke out between them – the ratio of power ensuring a Syrian victory.

Back to Israel in the early 1950s

Routine Security was an important issue, but Fundamental Security was considered more critical. It was clear that Israel could never match the size of her neighbours’ military forces. Foreign powers refused to sell anything other than second-hand, mostly well-worn, World War Two vintage equipment to Israel, so it was also fairly clear that Israel could not achieve technological superiority. During 1950 – 1953 a series of tactical disasters in Routine Security operations seemed to show that even the Israel Defence Forces’ superiority in tactics and fighting spirit no longer existed.[v] The Israel Defence Forces’ senior command addressed the quality issue in various ways not relevant to this article. What is relevant is that during this period Prime Minister Ben-Gurion advanced the idea of an ‘Alliance of Minorities’. The Jews were not the only ethnic minority struggling to float in the stormy sea of the Moslem Arab world: the Copts in Egypt, the Kurds and the Druze in Syria, the Kurds in Iraq and the Maronite Christians and the Druze in Lebanon. An ‘Alliance of Minorities’ would strengthen each separate minority in its own private struggle by splitting the attention and resources of the Moslem Arab states between a number of simultaneous conflicts. Israel’s main benefit would be that the Arab states would be hard put to enact the worst nightmare of Israel’s military leaders – called the ‘Everybody Scenario’, an organized alliance of all the Arab states conducting a simultaneous properly planned assault on Israel.[vi] As it turned out, the idea was stillborn. The Copts proved completely incapable of organizing effectively to further their political agenda. The Kurds were similarly split into rival factions, though from the early 1960s until 1975 the Iraqi Kurds managed to conduct an insurgency that diverted most of Iraq’s attention to them and away from Israel.[vii] The Druze and the Maronites were not interested. The Maronites were the only non-Jewish minority with a state of their own and saw no threat that required them to befriend Israel. However, as the situation in Lebanon gradually developed against them they turned to Israel for help. Though officially the idea of the ‘Alliance of Minorities’ had been shelved, the principle that helping another minority would help Israel remained – as in the case of the Iraqi Kurds.

The gradually worsening plight of the Maronites also triggered another Israeli ideological concept. One of the main complaints of the Jews following the Second World War was that they had been abandoned by the world to suffer the Holocaust. Even requests for small, relatively cheap actions that could have partially alleviated the plight of the Jews suffering Nazi persecution (such as the bombing of Auschwitz Extermination Camp which would have slowed the killing-machine) had been refused.[viii] When faced with cries for help from a religious minority, ostensibly about to suffer decimation and persecution, Israel’s political leaders were incapable of denying assistance. Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, the Mossad and the Israel Defence Forces were ordered to provide equipment and training and occasional military action to support the Maronites.

By 1980 some of Israel’s political and military leaders were already beginning to formulate a new strategy for solving the Lebanese conundrum. The new strategy was based on a series of assumptions:

  • The reason the Christians had lost power in Lebanon was the arrival of the PLO after it had been forcibly ejected from Jordan.
  • Destruction of the PLO’s military power and evicting its political infrastructure from Lebanon would enable the Christians to reassume their position as the dominant group in Lebanon.
  • Evicting Syrian military forces out of Lebanon would also be required.
  • The Christians would gratefully acknowledge Israel’s assistance in achieving their political goals by signing a full peace treaty with Israel – the second Arab state to do so (after Egypt) – and prevent the return of the Palestinian political and military leaders to Lebanon, thus terminating the Routine Threat on this front too.

Israel’s Minister of Defence at the time, Ariel Sharon, hoped that the successful result would also cascade into other theatres of conflict: removal of the PLO’s political and military infrastructure from its last contact with Israel’s border would fatally weaken its standing among the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states in general. This would also enable Jordan to sign a peace treaty with Israel, leaving only one Arab state on Israel’s border, a defeated Syria, alone in its refusal to accept Israel but far too weak to do anything about it. However, implementing the new strategy required a particular set of political conditions that would legitimize such an offensive in the eyes of the Israeli public and the world at large – especially Israel’s only ally, the United States.

In January 1981, and again in March and in April, the PLO initiated a series of artillery attacks on northern Israel, each lasting a few days. In late April, following the indiscriminate bombardment by the Syrian army of the Lebanese Christian town of Zakhle, Israel threatened to intervene against Syria.[ix] To put the point across forcefully, the Israeli air force was ordered to shoot down two Syrian helicopters flying near Zakhle. The Syrians responded by violating a tacitly agreed ‘red-line’ – they deployed a number of Surface-to-Air Missile batteries in Lebanon. Only American diplomatic pressure stopped Israel from immediately attacking these missile batteries. Meanwhile, on June 7th, while the diplomatic exchange was still in progress and tensions high, Israel surprised the world by destroying Iraq’s new nuclear reactor. On July 9th the Palestinians again fired a salvo of rockets into northern Israel. Over the next two weeks Israel and the PLO exchanged fire, and Israel prepared to conduct a large-scale strategic punitive raid into southern Lebanon. An attempt by the Syrian air force to intercept Israeli aircraft over Lebanon resulted in a Syrian aircraft being shot down. An Israeli air-strike on a Palestinian headquarters in Beirut accidentally killed and injured many civilians living around the target. This prompted American intervention, which brought about a ceasefire. However, the exact agreement was not clear. The Palestinians claimed the ceasefire was only for the Lebanese-Israel border and they were free to attack everywhere else. This left Israel at a disadvantage since it could be attacked almost anywhere but could not respond because all of the Palestinian’s political and military infrastructure was in Lebanon. From August 1981 to May 1982 the Palestinians conducted 248 attacks in Israel and overseas.[x] Israel responded with threats and troop deployments, but each time backed-off. In March 1982 and again in April Israel retaliated with air-strikes in Lebanon, and the Palestinians fired dozens of rockets from Lebanon into Israel, though aimed mostly at unpopulated areas so as not to over-antagonize Israel. On June 3, 1982 Palestinians shot the Israeli ambassador in Britain. Israel retaliated again with air-strikes in Beirut and the Palestinians again fired rockets into Israel. On June 5th, after two days of mutual firing, the Israeli government decided that it would not tolerate a repeat of the previous summer’s artillery duel. The Israeli Defence Forces were ordered to invade Lebanon and capture all the terrain from the border to just beyond the extreme range of the Palestinian artillery – that is to say, to advance to a line that was nowhere closer than approximately 40 kilometers to the border.[xi]

Theoretically, the supporters of the new strategy described above had received the ‘go ahead’ to implement it. In fact, they had not. Implementation of the strategy required the Israeli army to reach and capture Beirut – that was where all of the political infrastructure and leadership and most of the military infrastructure were located. It also required the Syrians to be either maneuvered into withdrawing from Lebanon or defeated and forced out. Both were well beyond the objective defined by the government. Minister of Defence Sharon faced two tactical problems to implement the new strategy: the political problem of convincing the government to increase the scope of the operation and convincing the public to support this; and the military problem of conducting the operation in disjointed phases as the government gradually allowed each extension of the operation, thus allowing the enemy time to recover, reorganize, reinforce and gradually comprehend the operational plan, making each succeeding phase harder to carry out.

The Israeli offensive began at noon on June 6th. Sharon gradually overcame both tactical problems but the price was that an operation planned to last a few days stretched to a number of weeks, then a few months. This stretching produced new problems. Politically, it allowed internal and foreign resistance to the operation to build up. As the war dragged on, parts of the Israeli public began to question the validity of the decision to initiate it and foreign powers began to intervene diplomatically. Militarily, the cost in casualties rose and further fueled the growing resistance in Israel to maintain the effort – the first mass Israeli demonstration against the war occurred on July 4th. However, despite all problems, the military objective was partially achieved towards the end of August – the PLO agreed to leave Lebanon and was shipped to Tunisia, and overt Syrian presence was removed from Beirut-proper.

The time had come to implement the second political phase – handing power back to a Christian-dominated government. The Israelis withdrew from parts of Beirut. The Lebanese conducted elections on August 23rd and Israel’s ally Bashir Jumayel, head of the largest Christian party, was elected to be the President of Lebanon. Israel’s strategy, as interpreted and implemented by Defence Minister Sharon, had prevailed. Then, suddenly, everything began to unravel. It quickly became clear that the Palestinians had covertly left a portion of their fighters in Beirut to conduct a guerrilla campaign against the Israelis. Having promised not to enter certain areas in Beirut, the Israelis demanded that the Lebanese government prove its ability to handle the common enemy on its own. However, on September 14th Syrian intelligence operatives assassinated President Jumayel. He was replaced by his brother Amin – who was understandably less willing to actually implement the agreements his dead brother had with Israel. Meanwhile, the Jumayel’s private military militia, tasked with clearing Palestinian guerrillas from two Palestinian neighbourhoods in Beirut – Sabra and Shatilla[xii], avenged the death of their leader by massacring a few hundred Palestinians.[xiii] Though conducted by Lebanese Christians the massacre was blamed on Israel – not just around the world, but also inside Israel. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis – nearly 10% of the Jewish population, gathered in the largest ever demonstration in Israel to protest the fact that the Israeli army had not prevented the massacre.[xiv] Lastly, Israel’s outright support for the Maronite Christians reassuming full power in Lebanon did not sit well with the other ethnic groups – the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Druze. Initially many members of these groups had supported the Israeli invasion, greeting Israeli soldiers with flowers and rice. Now they began to attack the Israelis. Leading these attacks were two Shiite parties – Amal (the larger of the two) and Hizbullah.

The primary political and military objective of the war had been achieved – the PLO had been evicted from its last stronghold directly in contact with Israeli territory. It could no longer conduct cross-border attacks on Israel proper. However, the secondary political object, though seeming at first to be in hand, was lost. The single bomb that killed Bashir Jumayel proved to be more powerful than all the thousands of bombs and shells fired by the Israelis. The Syrians remained in control of Lebanon. An Israeli judicial committee sacked Sharon for failing to prevent the massacre in Sabra and Shatilla.[xv] The Israelis did not give up immediately. But gradually, as casualties mounted[xvi] and it became clear that their continued presence in Lebanon was not going to achieve their second political objective of obtaining a peace treaty with Lebanon[xvii], they decided to cut their losses and make do with a half-win. The withdrawal was gradual and completed in 1985. To secure their border, the Israelis organized a buffer-zone held by the South Lebanese Army – a militia manned by local volunteers from southern Lebanon, funded, equipped and trained by Israel.

Israel’s withdrawal was accepted by all the Lebanese militias fighting against them as well as terminating the war – all except Hizbullah. For approximately 18 months the fighting subsided as Hizbullah grew from a small almost insignificant group into a major player, and then began a guerrilla-style offensive on the Israeli buffer-zone, forcing the Israelis to reinforce the South Lebanese Army with Israeli units. It seemed that Israel’s decisive defeat of the PLO had only achieved a brief reprieve and simply replaced the enemy at the gates. Against this new enemy the Israelis had no clear policy and no clear strategy other than to stick it out at the least cost possible in blood and resources. They continued to do this until 2000, when they withdrew from the buffer-zone.[xviii]

To sum up, from the mid-1950s Israel’s ultimate strategy against the Routine Threat was to punish the host-states until they prevented hostile actions from their territory. This strategy was not possible in Lebanon because the Lebanese government was too weak. In attempting to manufacture a strong Lebanese government Israel invaded Lebanon and evicted the PLO and then, in accordance with the concept of the ‘Alliance of Minorities’, tried to hand over power to the Lebanese Christians – thus alienating the other Lebanese religious groups. Moreover, the Israelis misjudged the Christians’ political and military strength relative to these other Lebanese groups – even with Israeli backing the Christians were no longer capable of ruling Lebanon. Three years later – in 1985 – under continuous attack, hundreds of additional casualties, and billions of shekels worth of resources more than planned, the Israelis decided to cut their losses and they withdrew. Not properly adapted to Lebanon – Israel’s strategy had failed to achieve more than a partial victory. This, it turned out, was just the beginning of a new war, with a new enemy (Hizbullah) upon the same turf.


[i] Iraq, which had no common border with Israel, had also sent forces to participate in the war, but refused to sign any treaty with the ‘Zionist entity’. The Palestinian Arabs lacking any organized leadership did not participate in the negotiations as an independent party. Technically they were represented by Jordan (which controlled and intended to annex the area later to be known as The West Bank) and by Egypt (which controlled the Gaza Strip).
[ii] Within ten years of independence Israel’s population almost tripled.
[iii] In one of these my father (then a teenager) and grandfather were captured by a Jordanian intelligence team and held tied to a tree for a whole day in an orchard near their home. Fortunately for them (and for the as yet unborn me) on completion of their mission the Jordanians preferred to withdraw without killing them.
[iv] The major ethnic groups were Christians (most of them Maronites, a few of other sects), Sunni Lebanese, Shiites, Druze and the mostly Sunni Palestinians.
[v] Of 85 cross-border raids conducted in this period only 38 were considered successful, 41 were considered total failures, and the remaining 6 were considered partial successes. There is no similar assessment available for defensive skirmishes, but anecdotal evidence shows a similar trend.
[vi] The Israelis had only just barely defeated the combined invasion of the Arab armies in May 1948, and that too only because the Arab leaders had deliberately sabotaged their own combined strategic plan, each one attempting to achieve his own goals at the expence of the others.
[vii] This insurgency received material support from Israel and Iran.
[viii] The Allies had claimed that they could not reach the camp, but bombed targets just as far and even in the vicinity of Auschwitz.
[ix] The Syrian assault on Zakhle was precipitated by the chief Christian militia trying to assert itself by claiming the town as belonging to it. The town is located on the highway leading from Beirut to Damascus, so the Syrians could not accept having it in hostile hands.
[x] 26 Israelis were killed and 264 wounded. 2 of the killed and a number of the wounded were along the Lebanese border.
[xi] The border is not straight, so that, for example, advancing along the coast from the northwestern tip of Israel approximately, 55 kilometers directly north actually brings one to only about 40 kilometers from the northeastern Israeli town of Metulla.
[xii] The usual term, “camps” regarding Sabra and Shatilla, is a misnomer – these were residential, albeit poor, multi-story, building city neighbourhoods.
[xiii] The exact number killed was debated vociferously – the Palestinians deliberately inflating the numbers to thousands in order to garner international support; the Lebanese Christians trying to reduce the number, claiming there was a two-sided battle, not a one-sided massacre and that many of the dead were in fact Palestinian combatants killed while fighting. 486 bodies were recovered, of whom 328 were Palestinian men (virtually all of military age), 142 were non-Palestinian men, 15 were women and 20 were children. A Lebanese committee of inquiry determined that the non-Palestinian men were killed mostly by Palestinians in order to steal and use their passports.
[xiv] According to the agreement signed prior to the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s withdrawal Israeli units were stationed outside the camps and not allowed to enter them. They provided logistical support for the Christian forces and were slow to respond to the claims of fleeing Palestinians that a massacre was occurring.
[xv] In fact, from the moment the committee was set up the entire Israeli political and military leadership were constantly distracted from their actual jobs of running the conflict to preparing their testimonies with their lawyers. For all intents and purposes, even if it was not called that officially, they were on trial as possible accomplices to murder, and the pressure affected their activities.
[xvi] From 5 June 1982 until 5 September 1982 the Israelis suffered 349 killed – most of them in the first week while fighting the Syrians. From 6 September 1982 until the withdrawal in June 1985, another 187 Israelis were killed – most of them from Palestinian (not Lebanese) guerrillas.
[xvii] Officially a Peace Treaty was signed in May 1983, and Israel hoped to withdraw from Lebanon by August 1983. In fact, the Treaty was stillborn – attacks continued on Israeli troops, and so, fearing that the withdrawal would simply bring these attacks back to Israeli territory, Israeli troops were withdrawn only partially; in March 1984 the Lebanese government officially rescinded its signature on the Treaty.
[xviii] 313 Israelis were killed in action from June 1985 until the second withdrawal in May 2000. After the second withdrawal up to June 2006 Hizbullah conducted some 200 raids and stand-off fire attacks on Israel – killing 20 Israelis and wounding more. These finally brought about the Israeli response known as the Second Lebanon War. Following which the Israel-Lebanon border has become nearly dormant with only one or two stand-off fire attacks per year.