Another Summer, Another Siege:
Israel's War on the PLO
For forty years, my mother kept every article and letter I wrote from war zones, revolutions, and uprisings on five continents. She collated them, with her notes from our telephone conversations, in bulbous legal binders. I now have a hundred and twenty-six of them stored, floor to ceiling, in two closets that have been converted into bookshelves. This week, as the events in Gaza dominated the news, I pulled out the volumes from the summer of 1982.
I returned to Beirut, off a turbulent flight from the Gulf, just as Israeli warplanes began bombing Palestinian sites near the airport on June 5, 1982. Amid the deafening blasts and sirens that followed, the few of us on the plane scrambled across the tarmac to seek cover in the terminal.
Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization had moved its headquarters from Jordan to Beirut twelve years earlier, and Lebanon had been Israel’s biggest threat ever since. Palestinian rockets landed on Israeli settlements in the northern Galilee. A fragile ceasefire, brokered by the United States, had held for almost a year, with only one violation. But a sense of looming confrontation had been building since Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights the previous December. All it needed was a spark.
Two days before I arrived, a Jordanian gunman shot Shlomo Argov, the Israeli Ambassador in London, as he left a diplomatic banquet at the Dorchester Hotel. Israel blamed the P.L.O. (Britain subsequently tied the attack to the Abu Nidal Organization, a radical group named after a renegade who had turned against Arafat. Its goal was apparently to discredit the P.L.O., which had been gaining acceptance in Europe, amid a peace initiative proposed by the Saudis. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher later said that a hit list, uncovered in the investigation of Abu Nidal’s London cell, included the P.L.O. representative in London.)
Israeli warplanes immediately pummelled Palestinian targets across Lebanon, especially in the warren of refugee camps near the airport. On the day I landed, President Reagan, pledging to increase U.S. diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict, urgently appealed to Israel’s Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, for restraint along the border.
The next day, twenty-five thousand Israeli troops invaded Lebanon by land, sea, and air. Three long columns of tanks barrelled across a thirty-three-mile frontier, blitzing past seven thousand U.N. peacekeepers in a border buffer zone and through the olive and orange groves of southern Lebanon, on a mission to destroy Palestinian positions concealed in caves, wadis, and refugee camps. Begin assured Reagan that Operation Peace for Galilee sought only to push the Palestinians back twenty-five miles, beyond rocket range of the Galilee. “The bloodthirsty aggressor against us is on our doorstep,” he wrote. “Do we not have the inherent right to self-defense?”
Over the next week, Israeli troops, under the command of General Ariel Sharon, penetrated twice as far, capturing about a third of Lebanon and encircling the capital. The siege of West Beirut had begun.
About a half million people lived in the Muslim-dominated half of the capital, a densely packed area of about ten square miles that was home to both the P.L.O. and the American University of Beirut. The Israelis dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets—white one day, pink, blue, or yellow on other days—that warned the Lebanese against sheltering guerrillas and advised civilians to leave. I remember thinking that it looked, in the middle of the torrid summer heat, as if snow were falling on Beirut. I found one of the pink leaflets in my mother’s volumes.
Lebanon had already endured seven years of sporadic civil war, largely street battles with vintage weaponry. The Israeli invasion, with its battleships, advanced U.S.-made bombers, and high-tech tanks, was far more serious. The smell of war’s detritus—the bitter cordite and stench of decaying bodies, mixed with uncollected garbage—was inescapable. I’d covered many conflicts by then, but the bombs and sonic booms from warplanes rupturing the night scared me.
“The windows (now crisscrossed with masking tape to lessen the implosion of glass from bombs) began to rattle from the rockets landing nearby from Israeli gunboats,” I wrote to my parents. “I can’t decide which is worse: the thunder and shaking from shelling or the whizzing rumble of warplanes as they dive on us to offload their bombs.”
It was a summer of chaos and fear, often without water, electricity, or phones, and with dwindling food stocks. I used to go to fetch water from a pump and then carry it up seven flights to my apartment. The siege went on week after week, ceasefire after broken ceasefire.
At one point, I reported, “Many private wells are now dry, including the one at Red Cross headquarters,” where officials warned that the cutoff of electricity and fuel for emergency generators threatened all of West Beirut’s hospitals with imminent closure. The local director was particularly frustrated by his inability to get permission from the Israelis to bring in baby food, milk, and basic drugs to deal with rampant gastroenteritis among children.
Senior Israeli military officers repeatedly insisted that their mandate was to destroy the enemy while avoiding civilian casualties. I did see Palestinian fighters among the dead and wounded, but the P.L.O. had hidden its fighters, as well as tons of war matériel—rockets, mortars, howitzer shells, ammunition, and more—in an extensive network of tunnels.
The subterranean corridors, which I toured after the war, were reinforced with concrete and included a conference center, showers, and a kitchen. One tunnel had three floors. Some storage areas were large enough to conceal small trucks. I saw thirty rooms and still didn’t see them all. Palestinian commanders had reportedly visited Vietnam in the nineteen-seventies and modelled their network on the tunnels used by the Vietcong fighting the Americans.
The civilian toll far exceeded the damage to either the P.L.O. forces or the organization’s infrastructure. The Israeli use of U.S.-made cluster bombs, which explode mid-air, unleashing many smaller grenade-size explosives, was particularly lethal among children. Phosphorous bombs were equally deadly—and controversial. “The bombardment has become more and more indiscriminate, killing hundreds of civilians,” I reported.
“Famous landmarks have been erased. Buildings have been reduced to mass graves. … Among the facilities hit by Israel over the past nine weeks are five UN buildings, 134 embassies or diplomatic residences, six hospitals or clinics, one mental institute, the Central Bank, five hotels, the Red Cross, Lebanese and foreign media outlets and innumerable private homes and office blocks. While some of these may conceivably have been used as cover for the PLO, what is much more striking is how many undeniable PLO facilities have remained intact.”
Washington condemned the P.L.O. repeatedly, but, as the siege dragged on, relations between the United States and Israel grew increasingly testy over the plight of civilians. In early July, Reagan pressed Israel to lift the blockade of West Beirut and to restore water and electricity. In late July, he put a hold on cluster bombs sent to Israel.
On July 31st, Robert Dillon, the American Ambassador to Lebanon, angrily cabled Washington, “Simply put, tonight’s saturation shelling was as intense as anything we have seen. There was no ‘pinpoint accuracy’ against targets in ‘open spaces.’ It was not a response to Palestinian fire. This was a blitz against West Beirut. Our 21:00 ceasefire announced in advance over local radio stations was transformed instead into a massive Israeli escalation.”
On August 1st, on the eve of a meeting with Israel’s foreign minister, Yitzhak Shamir, Reagan told reporters, “The bloodshed must stop,” adding that he would make sure that the Israelis “understand exactly how we feel about this.” Pressed on whether he was losing patience, Reagan replied, “I lost patience a long time ago.”
At the meeting the next day, the President told Shamir, “When P.L.O. sniper fire is followed by fourteen hours of Israeli bombardment, that is stretching the definition of defensive action too far.” Both men were noticeably grim-faced in the official photographs.
Reagan had begun to feel repercussions at home and abroad. The American media savaged his Administration as weak and without direction. Time’s Walter Isaacson wrote,
Israeli attacks on West Beirut reinforced the impression that the U.S. is a helpless giant that can neither influence Israeli actions nor come to grips with events in the Middle East. Signs of U.S. ineffectualness in the current crisis have been conspicuous since the day in June when Reagan sent a well-publicized message from the Western economic summit meeting at Versailles urging Begin not to invade Lebanon. Begin sent his troops in the next day. … The stability of the Middle East and the credibility of American diplomacy hinge on whether words or rockets settle the status of the PLO in West Beirut.
The siege lasted ten weeks. More than seventeen thousand Lebanese and Palestinians died; most were civilians. Lebanese officials claimed that a quarter of them were under fifteen years old. Israel lost more than three hundred and sixty troops. In the end, Israel got some of what it wanted. The P.L.O. was badly battered; Arafat and three-fourths of his fighters were forced into exile. I watched while they fired final rounds from their Kalashnikovs as they marched to ships waiting to divvy them up in eight distant lands. Signs along the road exhorted, “Palestine or Bust” and “This is not Goodbye.”
The Israeli campaign did little, however, to solve the problem of rival nationalisms vying for land to call their own. And its consequences triggered an entirely new set of challenges. The Arab world had given only lip service to the P.L.O. during the siege. Iran was the only country to step in, dispatching eighteen hundred Revolutionary Guards to Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley. They did not engage Israel—they instead quietly fostered, funded, and armed the embryo of what became Hezbollah.
After the P.L.O. departed, Hezbollah launched its first suicide bomb—then a novel tactic—against Israeli military targets. On April 18, 1983, a car bomber attacked the American Embassy in Beirut, killing sixty-three people. Six months later, suicide bombers blew up a barracks housing U.S. Marines who had deployed to oversee the Palestinian withdrawal. Two hundred and forty-one American servicemen died.
In 1985, Israel’s defense minister, Yitzhak Rabin, looked back on the war and reflected,
I believe that, among the many surprises, and most of them not for the good, that came out of the war in Lebanon, the most dangerous is that the war let the Shiites out of the bottle. No one predicted it; I couldn’t find it in any intelligence report. … If, as a result of the war in Lebanon, we replace P.L.O. terrorism in southern Lebanon with Shiite terrorism, we have done the worst [thing] in our struggle against terrorism. In twenty years of P.L.O. terrorism, no one P.L.O. terrorist made himself a live bomb. … In my opinion, the Shiites have the potential for a kind of terrorism that we have not yet experienced.
Israel ended up lingering in Lebanon, at various troops strengths, for nearly two decades. It even made peace with Arafat before finally withdrawing, in 2000, under pressure from Hezbollah. It was the first time that Israel withdrew unilaterally from territory it occupied—without a peace treaty or any tangible political gain.