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Israelis Grapple with an Unfinished War

Inter Press Service

As the threat of war against Iran and its allies in Lebanon and Gaza lingers, questions have arisen over a war launched 30 years ago. Israel’s far-reaching invasion of Lebanon launched in June 1982 wasn’t an easy choice. Veterans still grapple with this controversial episode of Israel’s history whose name, objectives and legacy were never officially sanctioned.

Memories of that war launched Jun. 6, 1982, have echoes today. The war never really ended.

“We all have strikingly different versions of the events,” David Erez (not his real name), now 52, then commander of a platoon in the 50th Airborne Battalion, said at a veteran’s commemoration. “We were dispatched on so many missions. It’s hard to find someone with identical memories.”

The invasion’s publicly stated objective was to root out Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) forces who had established “a state within the state” in Lebanon and were shelling towns and villages in northern Israel, and to push them back some 40 kilometres away from Israel.

“We landed some 60 kilometres north of the border,” recalled Ethan Even (not his real name) from the 50th Battalion. “We took position on the coastal highway linking Tyre and Sidon to Beirut and on the mountain ridge overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, ambushing Palestinian terrorists, cutting off their retreat route.”

These were sobering times for Even. “Twenty-four hours after landing, we were ordered to move by foot some 17 kilometres northward; within 12 hours, we’d distinguish Beirut in the horizon. It was hallucinatory. Some of us actually thought we saw the Israeli city of Haifa.”

Within a week of house-to-house combat deep inside Lebanese territory, they reached Kfar Sil near the international airport on the outskirts of Beirut. This was the first time ever that Israeli troops occupied an Arab capital.

The paratroopers then camped in and around the metropolis already scarred by seven years of an uncompromising civil war, besieging PLO-controlled West Beirut.

The Palestinian fighters were finally allowed to leave the city in August. Arafat was expelled to Athens, resurfaced in Tripoli; a year later, he was exiled to Tunis where he relocated the PLO headquarters.

In 1994, following the landmark Oslo Agreement of September 1993 between Israel and the PLO, the beleaguered leader would eventually be allowed to settle his Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank.

But the 1982 war didn’t end with the end of PLO presence in Lebanon. Israeli troops remained in Beirut. That’s when Even – now a documentary film-maker – realised that “Ariel Sharon (Israel’s Defence Minister at the time) had ulterior motives; he wanted not only to pacify Lebanon but to impose a new order there.

“We escorted Lebanese legislators at gunpoint in Armoured Personnel Carriers to the Parliament to have them vote for Bachir Gemayel,” Even said.

A leader from the right-wing Christian Phalange group, Gemayel was a key Lebanese ally of Israel. He was elected president in August 1982.

Three weeks later, nine days before taking office, Gemayel was assassinated when a bomb exploded in his Phalange headquarters. The next morning, on Sep. 15, Israeli paratroopers were invading West Beirut, “to fill the vacuum of power and enforce law and order,” Even explained.

At night, Phalange militiamen were authorised by Israel to clear the Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Chatila of any remaining PLO militants. The Israeli military was reluctant to expose its troops further.

Determined to avenge the death of their leader, the Phalange went on a killing rampage. Some 800 Palestinian refugees were slaughtered in what would be known as the ‘Sabra and Chatila massacre’. Israeli troops were encircling the camps.

“We heard shooting,” Even recalled. “Our battalion fired mortar flares to check what was going on, thus indirectly facilitating the Phalange’s gruesome operation.”

A Commission of Inquiry concluded that Sharon bore “personal responsibility” for failing to prevent the massacre. He’d eventually resign a year later. During the second Palestinian Intifadah (2000-2005), he became Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, Amin Gemayel succeeded his brother at the helm. Forced to sign a peace agreement with Israel in 1983, under Syrian pressure, he abrogated it a year later.

By then, ‘Operation Peace for Galilee’ was known as ‘War Peace for Galilee’. While entangled for 18 years in the occupation quagmire of southern Lebanon, it was re-named ‘the Lebanon War’; then re-named again ‘the first Lebanon war’, when Israel’s ‘second Lebanon war’ was waged in 2006.

“No wonder it took not one year, not ten years, not even 25 years, but 30 whole years to commemorate whatever you call this war,” said Even.

Die-hard advocates of the 1982 war argue that “theirs” compelled Arafat to abandon the “armed struggle” against Israel. Critics retort it precipitated the creation of the Lebanese party and militia Hezbollah, a far more formidable enemy than the PLO, with its thousands of missiles and rockets now threatening Israel.

Trying to overcome the never-ending polemic, the veterans concurred almost consensually that the prevailing calm was “delusional”. “Israel and Lebanon will face each other again for a third-round confrontation,” Even gloomily concluded.

Pierre Klochendler is a contributor to Inter Press Service.

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