The Ghosts of Lebanon


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People now call it Mukhayyam al-Shuhada: the Martyrs’ Camp. Set among picturesque hills and citrus orchards close to the Israeli border, the refugee settlement was home to an extensive social service, political, and militant recruitment apparatus set up by Palestinian organizations. So when the invasion started, the camp was high on Israel’s list. First, Israeli-backed paramilitaries surrounded the community, trapping civilians inside. Then, two dozen Israel Defense Forces tanks arrived. According to witnesses, the IDF tanks fired into buildings’ staircases—often a structure’s weakest point—to destroy escape routes and penetrate into underground shelters. This shelling was followed by intense aerial bombardment. One bomb hit a community center; of the 96 civilians sheltering there, only two lived. Palestinian militiamen in the camp held out for three-and-a-half days. Eventually, the IDF also used white phosphorus to subdue them. Survivors say they remember the cloudy trails the chemical left in the air—along with the black, crater-like burns it left on people’s skin. According to community leaders, the battle killed approximately 2,600 of the camp’s 16,000 residents.


This attack could well be a scene from Israel’s current war in Gaza, where the IDF has used tanks, airstrikes, and (according to human rights groups) white phosphorus in its attacks on Palestinian cities and refugee camps. But the battle actually occurred during a conflict that happened 41 years ago. The assault on Burj al-Shamali, the formal name for the Martyrs’ Camp, was one of the first urban battles during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The war began after a fringe Palestinian group tried to assassinate Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. The invasion’s immediate goal was to eradicate the Palestinian Liberation Organization, its guerrilla factions (among them Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), and other Palestinian militant groups. But Israeli officials had other ambitions, too. As it targeted Palestinian military and civilian infrastructure in southern Lebanon, Israeli leaders hoped to create a buffer zone along the Israeli-Lebanese border, end Syria’s presence in Lebanon, and install a friendly, right-wing Christian government in Beirut.

The similarities between Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and its operations in Gaza go beyond just the choice of tactics. Then, as now, the invasion began after a shocking Palestinian attack. Then, as now, Israel’s hawkish leaders opted for a maximalist response. Then, as now, much of the fighting took place in densely populated urban areas, with militants often interspersed among civilians. And then, as now, the IDF used disproportionate force.

This parallel is not heartening. If Lebanon is any guide, Israel’s war in Gaza will end poorly for both Palestinians and Israelis. Despite its military superiority, Israel never succeeded in eradicating the PLO. Instead, the IDF’s primary accomplishments were killing tens of thousands of civilians; fragmenting Palestinian groups into smaller cells that spent years conducting hit-and-run operations; inspiring the rise of a new Lebanese militant party, Hezbollah; and losing over 1,000 of its own citizens in an occupation that stretched until 2000. It is a pattern that is already playing out again. As of November 12, when the IDF’s assault cut off communications with many Gazan hospitals, at least 11,000 Palestinian civilians had died due to the fighting, a figure that will keep rising. Hamas’s October 7 attack massacred around 1,200 Israelis, most of them civilians, and Hamas has claimed that some of the 240 Israeli hostages taken during the incursion have perished in IDF bombings. The Israeli military has lost at least 39 soldiers in Gaza, as well.

And when all is said and done, it is unlikely that Israel will knock out Hamas or Islamic Jihad. It may significantly weaken them, as the IDF did to the PLO and many guerrilla factions in 1982. But the groups will remake themselves, and other organizations will emerge to fill any void—just as Islamist groups did in the late 1980s. Instead, what Israeli decision-makers will discover is something they ought to have already understood and that regional experts have known for years: there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Palestinian refugees have lived in Lebanon since the 1948 Nakba—or “catastrophe”—when more than 700,000 Palestinians were forced off their land by Zionist paramilitary groups working to expel Arabs from the territory that would become Israel. Between 100,000 and 130,000 of these refugees fled to Lebanon. There, most of the Palestinians settled—temporarily, they assumed—in Lebanese coastal towns. The poorest among them went to refugee camps. Laws prevented Palestinians from owning property, working in 72 different professions, or naturalizing, relegating many to permanent poverty and second-class status.

In 1969, Lebanese and Palestinian authorities struck the Cairo agreement, which ceded governance of the refugee camps from a branch of Lebanon’s intelligence services to the PLO. The PLO then spent years creating a vast governance and social service apparatus in Lebanon, including through its constituent militant factions. Those guerrilla factions, such as Fatah and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, built kindergartens and medical clinics while sponsoring scout troops and dance teams. They simultaneously ran training camps and recruited heavily from the marginalized refugee population, as well as from Lebanese communities, turning southern Lebanon into a base from which to launch Katyusha rockets and deadly insurgent operations into northern Israeli towns. Israel retaliated by repeatedly shelling Palestinian camps and Lebanese border villages, as well as with targeted assassinations and commando raids.

The IDF also carried out bigger operations, of which “Peace for Galilee”—the Israeli name for its 1982 invasion—was not the first. The IDF had, in fact, invaded southern Lebanon four years earlier in response to a cross-border Fatah-led bus hijacking that killed dozens of Israelis. The 1978 invasion was smaller than the 1982 one, but it still displaced over 285,000 people from southern Lebanon and killed thousands of Lebanese citizens and Palestinians. It ended with the adoption of two UN resolutions calling for Israel’s withdrawal, the establishment of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon to enforce those resolutions, and a cease-fire agreement between Israel and the PLO. But it did not weaken the Palestinian militant movement.

Operation Peace for Galilee was designedto be more expansive and definitive than the 1978 plan. But initially, it was also supposed to be quick. Military and intelligence decision-makers originally planned it as a 48-hour mission in which the IDF would eradicate PLO infrastructure and guerrilla installations within a 40-kilometer border zone before pulling back.


But when launched in early June, Operation Peace for Galilee was immediately affected by mission creep and groupthink. Rafael Eitan, the IDF’s chief of staff, and Ariel Sharon, the defense minister, were particularly belligerent, pushing for the military to move far deeper into Lebanese territory than planned. Sharon, like current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was accused of pursuing the war to serve his own political interests. (Domestic Israeli polls show abysmal levels of support for Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption and may well be ousted when the war is over.)

Netanyahu’s cabinet, like Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s in 1982, is dominated by hard-liners, and so the war is following an aggressive path. Israeli forces are already fighting inside Gaza’s largest city, and the government’s maximalist goal—rooting out Hamas—means there is no apparent strategy for how and when the fighting should end.In Lebanon, a similarly belligerent and imprecise strategy cost tens of thousands of civilian lives and ripped apart the country’s infrastructure. Sharon and Eitan even directed the IDF to lay siege to Beirut during the summer of 1982, consequently cutting off water, food, electricity, and transportation to the capital’s population of more than 620,000 people for over a month. Israel eventually forced the PLO and guerrillas to withdraw, but only after killing at least 6,775 Beirut residents, among them more than 5,000 civilians.

Israel is conducting an even more comprehensive siege of Gaza, and with similarly disastrous results. But Israeli leaders do not appear bothered by the humanitarian costs. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, for example, declared his country was fighting “human animals” and would act accordingly. His line echoes the sentiment of Eitan, who boasted in April 1983 that once Israelis “settled the land, all the Arabs will be able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle.”

Eitan’s astonishingly dehumanizing assessment illustrates part of why the IDF had so much trouble in southern Lebanon. Convinced of their superiority, Israeli military leaders did not expect or properly train for intense Palestinian or Lebanese resistance. As a result, when Israeli forces moved up the coastal highway that links Lebanon’s major cities, they were often overwhelmed by the fierce opposition they encountered in densely populated, impoverished refugee camps and local Lebanese communities. Even as many Palestine Liberation Army units collapsed and guerrilla commanders fled under IDF fire, camp-level militias—that is, groups dedicated to the defense of their home communities—individually managed to hold off the IDF for days by bogging it down in urban warfare, blowing up tanks, and killing multiple Israeli officers.


Consider, for instance, the IDF’s battle for Ain al-Hilweh—a refugee camp in the city of Sidon. For an entire week, cliques of Palestinian militiamen thwarted the Israeli military by dodging through the winding alleyways, squat buildings, and underground tunnels before ambushing Israeli forces. They blew up the IDF’s armored personnel carriers and tanks using only small arms. At least one Palestinian youth became famous for his ability to hit tank turrets at exactly the right spot with rocket-propelled grenades, destroying the tanks’ joints, disabling the vehicles, and exposing the soldiers inside. The camp was so lethal to Israelis that the IDF withdrew each night for safety, sacrificing the territorial gains it made during the day. Eventually, the IDF resorted to bombarding the camp with conventional ordinance and incendiary weapons, including white phosphorus, in order to take it, bulldoze the ruins, and continue pushing north.

Ground-level fighting was not the only way Israel sought to eliminate resistance. The military also used mass arrests, detaining 9,064 Palestinian and Lebanese men in a single prison camp in 1982 alone. But this, too, backfired on the IDF. Subjected to interrogations and beatings, the inmates—not all of whom were militants—staged both uprisings and escapes. Many who were guerilla fighters went back to their previous factions and continued battling. Mass incarceration and the destruction of the camps also created a vast population of homeless Palestinian women, children, and elderly people whom Israeli forces were not prepared to help—and who turned into some of the IDF’s most powerful critics. A protest movement led by Palestinian women in Ain al-Hilweh, for example, contacted international human rights groups, media organizations, and the United Nations in a successful effort to draw attention to their plight. They staged demonstrations, blocked roads, and symbolically burned the inadequate tents the United Nations provided, acts that both journalists and human rights organizations reported. Israel’s international reputation, already struggling, took another hit.

Today, Israel’s reputation is not doing much better. After an outpouring of sympathy following Hamas’s brutal attack, news stories about the conflict have increasingly focused on IDF-caused carnage in Gaza. International outlets have run stories about violence by Israeli settler militias in the West Bank, as well. According to reports by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Reuters,and human rights organizations, settlers in the West Bank have killed eight Palestinians since October 7, including a child. The IDF, which protects the settlers, has killed at least another 167, including 45 children. In addition to murdering Palestinians, the settlers have used arson, armed assaults, and death threats to expel nearly 1,000 of them from their villages. These attacks resemble the violence carried out by right-wing Lebanese militias in 1982 and 1983, which threatened and expelled Palestinian populations in Sidon—again under the IDF’s watch.

In fact, the IDF-militia alliance helped produce what became Operation Peace for Galilee’s most infamous massacre. After a bomb killed Israeli ally and Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel in September 1982, the IDF occupied West Beirut and surrounded its Sabra-Shatila refugee camp. The IDF then blocked Palestinians from entering or exiting from the camp or the surrounding neighborhoods. But it let IDF-aligned Christian Lebanese militiamen into the area. For two straight days, these militiamen rampaged through the district surrounding Sabra-Shatila camp, killing at least 2,000 Palestinian civilians and committing a host of other atrocities, including torture and acts of sexual violence. IDF soldiers, meanwhile, shelled the district and illuminated it with flares.

The massacre outraged people around the world, including within Israel. Roughly 350,000 Israelis joined a nationwide protest calling for Begin and Sharon to resign, prompting the government to conduct a public inquiry into the massacre. The resulting Kahan Commission found Sharon was personally responsible for the violence, and it declared that Eitan’s actions were “tantamount to a breach of duty.” Sharon was forced to resign and Eitan retired, both in 1983. Begin stepped down later that year.


Negotiations over the war, brokered in part by U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East Philip Habib, spanned the summer of 1982. In August, the parties agreed to a cease-fire. Under its terms, the PLO and members of the guerrilla factions—some 14,398 people total—evacuated Lebanon. Israeli and Syrian troops also agreed to withdraw from Beirut. A peacekeeping mission composed of U.K., U.S., French, and Italian soldiers was formed in August to facilitate the evacuation, protect Palestinian civilians, and help maintain the cease-fire. The PLO and Fatah shifted their headquarters to Tunisia, while other guerrilla factions dispersed to locations in various Arab countries. The Sabra-Shatila massacre occurred less than a month later.

The massacre was just one of the many indications that the PLO’s defeat was not the end of the war. It wasn’t the end of the PLO, either. Even though Israel succeeded in killing many guerrilla commanders and denying the PLO its base in Lebanon, the organization regrouped in Tunisia. Israel continued to occupy much of southern Lebanon, and the Palestinian fighters who survived Operation Peace for Galilee formed new cells and units and continued to battle Israel. These groups, disconnected from a formal command-and-control structure, proved capable of launching violent, chaotic attacks on Israeli occupation forces and targeting IDF collaborators. The Palestinian groups also operated in an environment increasingly shaped by local Lebanese resistance to the Israeli occupation, including Hezbollah—which was created to boot out the IDF—and leftist groups such as the Lebanese Communist Party. Collectively, these organizations proved impossible to defeat. Israeli troops occupied areas of southern Lebanon for another 18 years, conducting raid after raid and making arrest after arrest. But for all its capacity—the airstrikes and intelligence operatives, jeep patrols and commando units—the IDF could not eliminate its opponents.

Outcomes in Gaza will depend on negotiations over very different issues than those that existed in Lebanon. The latter is a sovereign country with its own government, citizens, economy, and complex dynamics. (Hosting the PLO and Palestinian guerrillas drove a wedge in Lebanese domestic politics and helped fuel the country’s 15-year civil war.) The former is a Palestinian territory that international organizations and human rights groups say Israel occupies, and over which Israel, along with Egypt, maintains a 16-year a blockade. It has no stand-alone economy or control over its electricity and water.


But the military and humanitarian lessons of Lebanon strongly suggest that the current catastrophic conditions in Gaza will grow only more acute and that there will be long-term, disastrous consequences for all parties. Israel’s long-standing approach to urban warfare, its plans for occupation (Netanyahu has said that Israel will assume “overall security responsibility” for Gaza for an “indefinite period of time”), its alliances with nonstate militias, and its use of mass imprisonment all echo what happened in Lebanon. It is therefore hard to imagine the outcome will be substantively different.

That extends, unfortunately, to the death toll. No one knows precisely how many people were killed in the 1982 war; official records do not include the people buried beneath rubble, the people whose families buried them in courtyards or on hillsides, or the people who disappeared during events such as the Sabra-Shatila massacre. But according to estimates from Lebanese government and hospital authorities, Operation Peace for Galilee killed 19,085 Lebanese and Palestinians in just the four months after it began, approximately 80 percent of them civilians. The PLO estimated that 49,600 civilians were killed or wounded, and that there were 5,300 military deaths. In those same four months, 364 Israeli soldiers were reported killed in action and another 2,388 were wounded. Over the course of the whole Lebanon war and the subsequent occupation of southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000, 1,216 Israeli soldiers died, mostly in engagements with Hezbollah.

Palestinian casualty numbers, of course, dwarf Israeli ones—another indication of just how disproportionate IDF tactics are. That does not make the Israeli toll insignificant. The damage is very real, and it extends beyond just deaths and physical injuries. A study by the Israel Trauma and Resiliency Center estimated that nearly 20 percent of the 70,000 Israelis who served in the 1982 war exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and that only 11 percent of them have sought treatment. Lebanon is referred to as “Israel’s Vietnam” for good reason.

Despite the likely consequences today, Israel has not been willing to consider a cease-fire,claiming that it would mean victory for Hamas. This is misleading. A cease-fire’s real winners would be civilians and nonviolent social movements, many of which have long advocated for an end to the occupation, blockade, illegal Israeli settlements, and a recognition of Palestinian equality as essential to both Israeli and Palestinian security. A cease-fire’s losers, by contrast, would be Hamas and Israeli hard-liners, both of which pursue extreme modes of violence—albeit one backed by the power of a state military and a vast surveillance apparatus—to achieve their ideological aims. Some Israeli extremists, for example, have publicly called for Gaza to be cleansed or for Gazans to be pushed into Egypt. Neither of those outcomes can happen without firing bullets.


Given the current, high tensions, it is hard to say how or when this war might end. Qatar has become increasingly central as a go-between in this conflict, brokering between Hamas, Israel, and the United States. But Washington is the only actor that can effectively pressure the Israeli government to halt mass killing in Gaza and violence in the West Bank. It remains to be seen if U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration will do so. So far, Biden has firmly rejected such asks, echoing Israel’s claim that a cease-fire would benefit Hamas. U.S. officials did successfully push Israel to accept a sequence of four-hour “humanitarian pauses” to admit aid. Given just how much assistance is needed, and the ferocity of the hostilities, these will likely have little lasting effect on civilian welfare in Gaza. But hopefully, Biden will eventually decide to push for an actual end.

If Biden does, he would follow a precedent set by another U.S. president: Ronald Reagan. When the Lebanon war began, Reagan’s administration split: some officials wanted to demand Israel’s immediate withdrawal under threat of sanctions, whereas others felt that the PLO and Syria should be forced to withdraw as well. But as the conflict devolved into a humanitarian nightmare, the president became more critical. In July 1982, the White House halted shipments of cluster munitions to Israel, declaring that the Israelis had violated arms agreements not to use these weapons on civilian areas. After a particularly deadly IDF barrage launched during the Siege of Beirut, Reagan called Begin and demanded the IDF stop the shelling. To do so, he used deeply emotional terms. “Here, on our television, night after night, our people are being shown the symbols of this war, and it is a holocaust,” Reagan said. In April 1983, he told the public his administration had halted F-16 sales to Israel and said they would not resume until the state withdrew from Lebanon.

There is evidence that the administration’s demands forced Israeli decisionmakers to change their behavior. In July 1982, the Washington Post wrote about the“striking” moderation in the Israeli government’s behavior—and cited Reagan as a leading reason. “The Israeli media reported that the key factor in the new ‘flexibility’ of the Begin government was a stern letter from President Reagan last week,” the article said.

Today, Biden must again use U.S. influence to push for an end to an Israeli war. A cease-fire is the only politically reasonable, security-enhancing, and morally defensible policy to advocate, especially if Washington has any hope of remaining a respected player in the Middle East. The alternative is to condemn the people of Gaza—most of whom oppose Hamas—to more bombs, bullets, and burns. It is to make them endure continued dehydration, starvation, and disease. It is to take an already impoverished, massively overcrowded enclave and set any chance it has at development back by decades. It is likely to create a new generation of militants who will risk their lives to fight Israel. “This has all happened before” is the strongest argument there is to stop something from happening again.



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