As the Israeli invasion of Lebanon enters its third month, the polarization of the Israeli public continues. People there have become increasingly aware of the terrible destruction being wrought on the Lebanese and Palestinian peoples by their military machine. More important for most citizens, concern has spread over the heavy casualties that are certain if the Israeli army seeks to conquer West Beirut.

This concern was manifested in the massive Peace Now demonstration of July 3. This unprecedented event for Israel indicated the absence of the national consensus that has characterized public opinion in all previous wars. The slogans of the demonstration were cautious: They called for a ceasefire and political negotiations rather than the immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces and recognition of the PLO. Many of the participants probably objected less to the fact than to the scale of the invasion of Lebanon. But the impact of the demonstration was such that the parties of the governing coalition felt obliged to organize a massive counter-demonstration in support of Prime Minister Begin, which attracted 250,000 people to Tel Aviv on July 17.

Another manifestation of disaffection was the appearance of opposition within the army itself. Ninety reserve soldiers and officers signed a letter to Begin in early July, stating that the government was trying to solve the Palestinian problem by military means and impose a new order on the ruins of Lebanon. Begin, they said, was “spilling our blood and the blood of others on behalf of the Phalangists.” They asked that they be allowed to serve within Israel rather than in Lebanon. A similar letter, from 35 members of an elite unit, argued that this war was “a dangerous gamble to achieve political goals, for which a heavy price is being paid in army casualties and in injury to innocent civilians.” The soldiers applauded the protests on the home front. [1]

The wave of military opposition was capped by the resignation in late July of Col. Eli Geva, a much-decorated armored brigade commander in Lebanon. Geva requested that he be relieved of his command because, he said, “I do not have the courage to look grieving parents in the eye and tell them that their sons fell in an operation which in my opinion was unnecessary.” He added that the prospect of massive civilian casualties also contributed to his decision. The resignation of this high-ranking officer in the midst of the war shocked the Israeli public. The government released him from his contract in order to avoid further controversy. [2] The opposition continues. In early August more than 2,000 front-line reservists petitioned Begin to remove Defense Minister Sharon, declaring that they had no confidence in his leadership. [3]

The army protests appear to have come mainly from reservists — civilians mobilized for limited periods — and those officers who are uneasy with the those of conquest and domination propagated by Sharon and the Likud. Many soldiers are confused and distressed by the suffering they have caused or seen. Some have come to realize that they are fighting not a “gang of terrorists” but an entire people. The blatant contradictions between official pronouncements and realities in the field have also aroused distrust and anger. The protesting soldiers are a minority within the army, and they have all taken pains to stress that they will continue to follow orders. They reflect the ambivalent attitude of the Labor Party, which approved of the invasion when it was supposed to be a 25-mile incursion and then expressed limited and rather mealy-mouthed criticism of the expanded war. Labor Party leaders guardedly criticize the devastation of west Beirut and call for a political solution to the crisis, but they continue to call for the expulsion of the “terrorist” PLO from Lebanon. [4]

Many of these Israelis opposing the war have been somewhat radicalized by the experience of the last nine weeks. Some liberals have moved to openly endorsing the call for recognition of Palestinian rights. Their outrage and ongoing struggle testify to the persistence of concern for human decency in Israel. But the opposition to the war is definitely in the minority. Recent polls indicate that some 75 percent of the Israeli public support Begin’s policy. The war has boosted the popularity of Begin’s Likud to the unprecedented 47.4 percent mark, an increase of 10 percent since the war began. The Labor Party, by contrast, has dropped 7 percent in the polls. [5] Army casualties have not yet reached an unacceptable level. The daily massacres of Palestinians and Lebanese and other brutalities are routinely denied or ignored. The Israeli government has dehumanized its victims. “Security” justifies every atrocity. Just as refugee camps are routinely described as “terrorist camps,” now west Beirut is considered a “terrorist fortress.” [6]

Up to this point, the Likud has felt little pressure from its mass base, the majority of Israeli Jews who derive from Arab or Asian countries. The war has cost between $2 and 3 billion so far. In July the government instituted “temporary” measures to raise about $1 billion of this domestically: cuts in subsidies from 50 percent to 20 percent of basic commodity costs, leading to sharp increases in consumer prices for foods and transportation; increase in the value-added tax from 12 to 15 percent; war levies on electricity, telephones, movies, travel and consumer durables; and a “compulsory war loan” by which Israelis will have four percent of their gross income deducted for nine months as an interest-free “loan” to the government, to be repaid over 12 years. US aid is slated to be about $2.5 billion in fiscal year 1983. Yikir Plessner, deputy governor of the Bank of Israel, insists that Israel should not have to seek additional aid: “Obviously this war is not particularly popular with the rest of the world…. It is better to do it in our own strength.” [7] We can expect, nonetheless, that the US taxpayer will be asked to pick up the tab for this war. Even before the war, Israel’s deficit was headed toward $5 billion for the current year. Haim Ben-Sahar, president of Tel Aviv University and a leading economist, advised Begin early on to “use the war as an excuse to start now taking emergency measures that wouldn’t be accepted during peacetime.” [8]

Hints of disagreements within the cabinet have been about the best means of achieving Israeli goals while avoiding antagonizing the United States excessively. The entry late in July of the Tehiya Party into the coalition cabinet further strengthened Begin’s government. This ended the breach between Likud and the most racist and fanatical — indeed fascist — elements on the Israeli political scene. Tehiya’s members broke with Begin over the return of the Sinai, and because they favor immediate annexation of the West Bank and Gaza, a step for which the prime minister was not quite ready. The invasion of Lebanon, designed to smash Palestinian resistance and thereby facilitate the complete absorption of the occupied territories removed the last obstacle to a reconciliation. Indeed, Tehiya members have their eyes on southern Lebanon as well. Tehiya leader Yuval Neeman writes that “the IDF must be prepared for a long stay in Lebanon…to consolidate the Shiite, Christian and Druze elements” there, and must be prepared to adopt a position “which will seem almost permanent.” “A long stay in Lebanon will achieve peace in the Galilee,” he continues.

In the interim, Israel will have an opportunity of reaching a stage of socioeconomic or technological development in the nearby region which, geographically and historically, is an integral part of Eretz Yisrael. Israel could possibly even reach an agreement on border rectification…. The Litani River could be exploited by both nations as Israel proposed in the 1953 Cotton Plan. It is, perhaps, also possible that Israel could integrate the strip south of the Litani, with its friendly citizens, into Israel’s development plans. [9]

According to Sheli Party chairman Uri Avneri, army rabbis have issued Israeli soldiers serving in Lebanon with leaflets showing a map of Lebanon on which towns and villages are designated only by ancient Hebrew names. Beirut is called “be’erot” (Hebrew for wells), and the whole of Lebanon is described on the map as “the property of the tribe of Asher.” [10]

While the eyes of the world are turned to Lebanon, the Israeli policy of gradual annexation in the West Bank moves ahead. The government is building additional settlements, and the settlers continue to brutalize the Arab inhabitants there. Defense Minister Sharon has deposed the mayors and town councils of several additional West Bank and Gaza towns since the war began, for refusing to collaborate with his “civilian administration.” The “village leagues,” set up and armed by the Israeli authorities to terrorize the population and secure cooperation with the hated occupation, have been unleashed to break the continuing spirit of resistance. It does not seem that they have been particularly successful: on July 25, for example, the people of two West Bank villages attacked league gangs who were attempting to intimidate them: Eight people were injured. [11] In Nablus, Sharon had to appoint a new IDF officer as “mayor” because the previous one “did not win the cooperation of the municipality workers.” [12] It is safe to predict that once the situation in Beirut has been somewhat resolved, the level of settlement activity, expropriations and repression in the West Bank and Gaza will be stepped up further in order to finish the job begun in Lebanon.

The events of the last weeks bear out Shulamit Aloni’s contention that Israel has adopted a “Dayr Yasin” policy: the use of maximum military terror to break the Palestinians and compel the surrounding Arab states to accept Israeli hegemony. The relatively humane — by comparison with Begin — “good cop” face of Zionism that Israel sought to display during the long reign of the Labor Zionists now appears to have been merely a passing historical phase. The “bad cops,” prepared to use any means they deem necessary to achieve their goals, are firmly in the saddle.

The exact outcome of the crisis in Lebanon is not yet clear. Expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon will be claimed and perceived as a victory for the government’s hard line. It will not, of course, be the end of the Palestinian question, as many Israelis would like to believe. Resistance will continue. What seems certain is that the savage invasion of Lebanon portends further bloody wars, upheavals and expulsions (of Palestinians from the West Bank, for example). It also signals the triumph of the most racist and reactionary forces within Israel, and promotes the gradual subversion of Israeli democracy. This process is already underway, as government actions and statements harass anti-war activists, purge honest journalists and threaten democratic rights.

Wars of conquest and heightened repression of the Palestinians under Israeli rule will continue to undermine the fabric of Israeli society, fostering chauvinism, corruption and authoritarianism. It is difficult at this moment to find any grounds for optimism. Despite the best efforts of a brave and vocal opposition, Israel seems determined to follow a course that can bring only further suffering and disaster to all the peoples of the region.


[1] Haaretz (weekly edition), July 4-9, 1982.
[2] Haaretz, July 28, 1982.
[3] Jewish Telegraphic Agency, August 10, 1982.
[4] Haaretz (weekly edition), July 30, 1982.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Al-Ha’mishmar, July 27, 1982.
[7] Washington Post, August 13, 1982.
[8] Wall Street Journal, July 8, 1982.
[9] Jerusalem Post, June 24, 1982.
[10] Haaretz, July 26, 1982. (See Alexander Cockburn and James Ridgeway in the Village Voice, July 27, 1982, for additional instances of the insane thinking that is perfectly acceptable in Israel as political discourse.)
[11] Haaretz, July 26, 1982.
[12] Maariv, July 23, 1982; translated in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, July 27, 1982.

How to cite this article:

Zachary Lockman "The Israeli Opposition," Middle East Report 108 (September/October 1982).

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