Thick clouds of disinformation covered the Israeli public at the outset of the invasion of Lebanon, the counterpart to the dark clouds and debris that cover the death, the gutted cities, the utter destruction along the Lebanese coast and its hinterland. The Israeli media itself indulged in the disinformation. Pictures would show an Israeli soldier giving some food to a young survivor of the intensive Israeli bombing of civilian population centers. The press carried very long accounts of a few Lebanese being treated in Israeli hospitals.

It proved hard to seal a small country like Israel hermetically from the flow of facts from the battlefields, towns and camps of Lebanon. The Israeli media, with few exceptions, feels obliged to counter this inevitable penetration of information. The fact that Lebanon has been torn apart by intensive civil war for the past seven years facilitated this campaign, since it allowed the media to portray the centralized Israeli power as bringing “peace and stability” to this country.

At first, Israel did not allow the Red Cross to deal directly with the population under occupation, and declared it an enemy organization trying to slander Israel. Foreign correspondents are kept under very tight control by the Israeli army. One thing is certain though — what was seen on TV in the West and what was reported by the few who succeeded to visit the scene of violence in time is just the tip of the iceberg of destruction inflicted by the Israeli army.

What were the reasons behind this unprecedented level of destruction of civilian targets? The official response, repeated endlessly in the Israeli media, is simple enough: “We had to do everything to safeguard our soldiers’ lives who were fighting the Palestinian terrorists who were encamped in the heart of big population centers.”

Israel’s military establishment also voiced other reasons for its “war of luxury with minimal losses” — a phrase used by many reporters. “We have got a well-oiled, well-prepared military machine. Why not use it then?” Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan asked during an interview on the eve of the war. There was an enormous craving inside the army to try out in real action the immense war machine, completely rebuilt with generous American help since the inconclusive 1973 war. Another high-ranking military official asked, “Why make a surgical operation against the PLO in a large town when we can use our firepower, technology, tanks, airplanes and boats to level it out and open the way for our ground forces to occupy and clear it out from the terrorists?”

The real reasons for the scale of the war and destruction are political, and lie deeper than these technicalities. They are related to Israel’s role as a regional superpower, and the need to face directly the problem of the Palestinians, nearly 2 million of whom are living inside Palestine, side by side with and under the control of 3 million Israelis.

A Grim Warning

The dimensions of the destruction went far beyond what was needed for a successful military operation against the incomparably weaker Palestinian and Lebanese forces. The demonstration of Israel’s power of destruction, and its readiness to use it in such a murderous way, is a grim warning to all in the Middle East. This was intentional. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon has advocated many times in the past that Israel should acquire the image of an unpredictable, “crazy state.” Only thus will the 2 million Palestinians keep their heads down. The most fundamental and long-standing reason for the massive destruction was stated plainly by the Israeli government; to demolish the “infrastructure of the PLO terrorist organization.” This infrastructure is recognized by all to be the very population itself as a cohesive entity. The destruction of these centers as viable national and economic centers, and the scattering of the Palestinian population and their Lebanese allies to the four winds, was the real reason behind the scale of destruction. This recalls American policy in Vietnam, in which whole districts were declared “free-fire zones” in order to deprive the National Liberation Front of its population centers by total destruction of these centers themselves. Many Israeli strategists claimed in the past that America failed in Vietnam and elsewhere because it did not apply this policy vigorously enough. In Lebanon, Israel is trying its hand at applying these same policies more effectively.

According to Ha’olam Hazeh the orders to the Israeli army were to kill as many “terrorists” as possible and not to take war prisoners. [1] A “terrorist” is any person who is associated with the PLO, since the PLO is defined by Israeli law to be a terrorist organization. Some soldiers were shocked to find that almost every man, woman and child in the refugee camps was associated with the PLO in one way or another — receiving assistance, being employed in PLO-sponsored workshops and so on. The Israeli media has dropped altogether the notion of refugee camps. They are called “terrorist nests” to legitimize their destruction and the dispersion of their surviving residents. “The terrorists are two-legged animals,” Begin told the full Knesset. [2] The army is sorting through the entire Lebanese population, to weed out the “terrorists.” Several soldiers have complained bitterly that the formal commands forced them to behave “very much like the Nazis did during World War II.” [3] Later in the war, fewer soldiers were willing to kill randomly. So Sharon called on Maj. Saad Haddad. Haddad’s soldiers have been very busy, and do not question what they are doing. [4]

The war in Lebanon is designed to subdue the whole Palestinian people — directly in Lebanon, by implication and example in Syria, Jordan and inside Palestine itself. The Palestinians should not be allowed, according to Israel, to gather and develop a national infrastructure outside of Israeli control. Political observers in Israel repeat time and again that any independent Palestinian centers will give rise in time to a national leadership, a new PLO, even if Israel succeeds in destroying the present organization as a viable force. Shulamit Aloni, an independent member of Parliament, put it this way: “The feeling among members of my party is that in Lebanon we have entered with a policy which is a direct continuation of Dayr Yasin and Qibya…a policy that allows hitting civilian women and children…. They gave legitimacy to hitting non-military populations.”

The official Israeli hope is that the destruction of the PLO and its popular bases in Lebanon will facilitate the enforcement of Col. Menachem Milson’s “civilian” regime in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As soon as the war broke out, Milson stepped up repression in the West Bank — dismissing local councils, shooting at demonstrators and greatly increasing the freedom of action of the armed militia of the collaborationist “village leagues.” Begin’s and Sharon’s great long range problem has always been how to impose a servile local leadership on the 2 million Palestinians who live under direct Israeli rule, a leadership that will allow Israel to annex the Occupied Territories and continue its massive colonization policy.

Three months ago Milson described Israel’s situation as “the most crucial battle with the Palestinians ever since 1948.” True, the level of death and destruction in Lebanon is unprecedented, but it is a natural extension of an “overkill” policy which goes back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the same Ariel Sharon was advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Then, it involved the massive bombardment of towns in Jordan, such as Salt and Irbid, and refugee camps. The former chief of staff, Mordechai Gur, initiated the bombing of civilian populations in Lebanon. During the war of attrition with Egypt, Port Said, Ismailiyya and Suez were savagely bombed, and populations had to be evacuated to Cairo.


Sharon’s “Big Thing”

The present war against the Palestinians and the Lebanese left is but the current stage in a long-range plan which is Sharon’s brainchild. It involves a detailed plan to “solve” the national problem of the Palestinian people and simultaneously to allow Israel to occupy its “rightful” position in the Middle East as a regional superpower. The plan is one consequence of the trauma of 1973’s inconclusive war with Egypt and Syria. Israel drew the lesson that one cannot fight on two fronts. Begin made peace with Egypt to secure Israel’s rear, and built the future on an all-out confrontation in the northern/eastern front. Many Israelis argue that the return of Sinai was a very high price for the peace with Egypt and that this lost territory and power of deterrence must be recovered elsewhere. The army interpreted the loss of Sinai as a result of its failure to roll back the Egyptian forces in 1973, in a war that cost 3,000 Israeli lives.

Ever since 1973, then, army men and politicians have been devising schemes to recover Israel’s military and political credibility — its reputation for ruthless and devastating superiority in any all-out war. To overcome this burden, Israel has completely rebuilt its army, exchanging massive American aid for the peace treaty with Egypt. This credibility could be gained only through a major war with Syria. Syria refused to cooperate. Some see the Lebanon invasion as a clear and sufficient demonstration that the “army regained its own strength” and that Israel was seen by all “to overcome the Soviet military machines of the first line — the tanks, the planes and the missiles.” [5]

The very heart of the Lebanese, Syrian and Jordanian populations lie within a few dozen miles from Israel’s border. The new one-front strategy of Israel involves a determination to carry the fighting to heavily populated areas. To Sharon’s mind, their proximity opens up new possibilities. Israel will attempt not only to destroy Arab armies in order to defend and extend its occupation, but will further attempt to subjugate the Arab regimes themselves to Israel’s will. Sharon would turn the region around Israel into an Israeli zone of influence, in which internal political options are determined in Jerusalem.

Sharon’s plan for the Palestinians is to turn Jordan into the “Palestinian state”: to give the Palestinians far-reaching autonomy on the east side of the Jordan. The subjugation of Lebanon is a prelude to the subjugation of Jordan. This implies replacing King Hussein with a “moderate” Palestinian leader who will turn Jordan into Israel’s backyard. The Palestinians in Lebanon should be transferred to this new “Palestinian state,” east of the Jordan River. So will a million or so Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This plan — the “truckloads solution” — has been discussed for years in the Israeli press. Its correspondence with early Zionist policy is now stressed in part of the media to remind the squeamish that a precedent already exists.

This Pax Hebraica will ensure that Israel joins the Middle East club as the local superpower, with direct links to and lines of control over neighboring states. However grandiose this plan might have looked before June 6, 1982, it is now accepted as a “good and bold strategic direction” in some political circles. The Reagan administration’s unconditional support for Israel makes Sharon’s scheme attractive even to some leaders of the Labor alliance. The cynicism and tolerance showed by the Soviet Union and many Arab states have further increased the support for this plan.

Hesitation and opposition does exist inside the Labor Party, based on the fear that it might not work, that Israel is risking its future, and that the government should leave some other options open. Whatever its long-term chances, in the coming years this approach will mean much death and destruction on Israel’s northeastern front. The Israeli public will have to pay heavily for such a high-risk policy in casualties, in a falling standard of living and in endless military service. It is far from clear that Israeli society can carry for many months and years the heavy burden that such a strategy implies. The Israelis must live day after day, shoulder to shoulder with the Palestinian people, the direct victims of this wild policy. They depend more and more on the Palestinian workers for the maintenance of their war society and economic infrastructure, for their daily bread, their wash, their industrial products and the very construction of the “Jewish state.” The model of South Africa will become more and more applicable to describe the Israeli nation.

Israeli Dissent

During the first three weeks of the invasion, there were at least a dozen demonstrations against the war, some attracting tens of thousands of participants. This war is certainly the first one in which there is no national consensus among Israeli Jews about both aims and means. One should not exaggerate the extent of the opposition, but it is far from negligible. This phenomenon of vigorous public opposition expressed itself from the very first day of the war, and has far-reaching political and ideological implications.

Professor I. Leibowitz, for instance, a distinguished philosopher at Hebrew University, chief editor of the monumental Hebrew Encyclopedia, a highly respected and religiously observant public figure, held a press conference on June 17, 1982. He compared the policy of Israel toward the Palestinians during this war to the policies of Nazi Germany during the first six years of their regime. He called on soldiers not to cross the 1967 border line and to refuse to serve in the Israeli army beyond these borders because “what is done there turns a human being into a murderer.” [6]

These words serve as the rallying cry for the growing opposition to the war, though most of the opposition do not understand the need to “go that far.” Any public opposition to the minimum plan of a security strip of 25 miles evaporated the moment it became clear that the US supported Israel to the hilt, except for consistent non-Zionist organizations like the Committee in Solidarity with Birzeit University. But the extension of the war to Beirut and to the Syrian army is seen as a dangerous and unjustifiable “exaggeration.”

In order to understand the broadening of opposition to the war, one must realize that most of the heavy casualties suffered by Israel were caused by the extension of the conflict far beyond the 25-mile excuse to an all-out war with the Syrian forces in Lebanon. By government declaration, the extended aims of the war are “to institute a strong Lebanese government which will sign a peace treaty with Israel and expel the Palestinians.”

The opposition to the war expressed by public figures like Leibowitz is not shared by any of the main political organizations. They do not question the legitimacy of trying to enforce a new order on Lebanon, though some express doubt whether it is possible and fear the ultimate cost. Although Peace Now said time and again before the war that they opposed any military adventures in the north, the group characteristically decided not to oppose the war publicly “while our members are fighting in the north.” Here again, the consent of the American president was crucial. The members of the kibbutz movement inside Peace Now were most vehemently opposed to “public actions” against the war. [7] Within Peace Now, however, certain sections wanted to take to the streets in opposition to the war. The Tel Aviv section decided to join the 15,000 people who demonstrated in that city on June 26 against the war and for negotiation with the Palestinian leadership.

A week later, on July 3, Peace Now attracted a crowd of about 80,000 people in Tel Aviv for its own demonstration. The main slogans called for the resignation of Sharon and negotiations with the Palestinians. In practical terms, however, Peace Now’s demonstration did not come out against the “need” to secure a 40-kilometer strip in Lebanon. They called for an immediate ceasefire. They did not call for a withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon. On the contrary, they see the present situation where the PLO is trapped in Beirut as an opportune moment to negotiate and “encourage the moderate element in the PLO.” The leadership of Peace Now is deeply divided over its attitude towards the war, with an important sector supporting the thrust of it, but warning against “going too far into Lebanon.”

The pressure applied by this demonstration was very weak precisely because its main thrust seemed to support the moderate elements in the government. The present Sharon tactic of “static fire” rather than ceasefire is totally consistent with the major demand of the demonstration. The meeting between Arafat and the Israeli journalist-politician Uri Avneri drew a much sharper reaction, and contributed much more to the opposition movement. Avneri proclaimed that he came to express his solidarity with the Palestinian people and his support for the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own inside Palestine. These far-reaching words did strike a very important chord in the Israeli public. More and more people realize that one cannot brush aside the Palestinians forever.

Unlike the American Jewish leadership, who do not have to pay with their lives and do not have to live day after day with its immediate victims and consequences, public opinion here extends no blank check to government policy. If war drags on for a long time, the opposition in all walks of life will grow. For this reason, Israel must attempt to finish it off quickly, even at a very great cost in human life. But the length of this war may very well be beyond Israeli control, even with full American support.

The fate of the anti-war movement in Israel depends on the length and outcome of the war. It has already grown beyond anybody’s anticipation. Its aims are far from guaranteed, and no end is in sight. As the war and occupation of Lebanon slowly becomes a war of attrition combined with desperate international struggle to achieve a new order in Lebanon, the movement will grow and deepen. It may well become a powerful extra-parliamentary movement which supports the recognition by Israel of the basic human, civil and national rights of the Palestinian people.


[1] Ha’olam Hazeh, June 16, 1982.
[2] According to Jerusalem radio on July 15, 1982, Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s office issued the following statement: “Objectors to the righteous war are deliberately distorting two sentences spoken by Mr. Begin. According to one falsified citation, the prime minister called the Arab Palestinians two-legged animals. Such slander was never uttered by the prime minister. The actual sentence in Mr. Begin’s speech to the Knesset on June 8 was: ‘We will defend our children. If the hand of a two-legged animal is raised against them, that hand will be cut off, and our children will grow up with joy in their parents’ homes.’ The prime minister insists on all the moral validity of this sentence. Indeed, it is so that whoever raises his hand against a Jewish child with the aim of killing him is a two-legged animal. Another falsified citation said that this war had achieved its purpose: We have healed the trauma of the Yom Kippur war. The prime minister never said that the purpose of the Peace for Galilee campaign is the healing of the trauma of the Yom Kippur war, but rather he made it clear that one of the results of this operation is the healing of that trauma that was cast upon us by the terrible oversight of the Alignment government.”
[3] Haaretz, July 2, 1982.
[4] Yediot Aharonot, June 18, 1982.
[5] H. Eshed, a military spokesman of both Sharon and Peres. Davar, June 13, 1982.
[6] Kol Ha’ir, June 18, 1982.
[7] Yediot Aharonot, June 24, 1982.

How to cite this article:

Emmanuel Farjoun "A Dayr Yasin Policy for the 1980s," Middle East Report 108 (September/October 1982).

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