Michael Jansen, The Battle of Beirut: Why Israel Invaded Lebanon (London: Zed Books, 1982).
It used to be said that history is written by the victors. This has been true of Israel’s previous encounters with the Arabs. Not only did Israel alter the concrete facts on the ground in Palestine and other Arab areas, but it succeeded in generating a literature that almost permanently distorted subsequent views of what actually happened. Israel may now be losing the informational battle. This is exemplified by the abundant material on Israel’s summer assault on Lebanon and the Palestinians that will be used by serious scholars. The presence of a different generation of correspondents and writers in Lebanon and Israel as it proceeded with its devastating attacks, and their courage in reporting those attacks, helped considerably to convey the facts of the war on a daily basis. Israel and its apologists have not been able to monopolize what the world should know about the war in Lebanon.
Michael Jansen has made excellent use of the reporting on the war to write this important book. The author has culled the reports and editorials in European, American and Israeli newspapers. She shows with meticulous detail the enormous discrepancy between the Israeli forces and their Palestinian/Lebanese adversaries in terms of manpower, resources and equipment. Despite the inequality, the defenders of Beirut were able to prevent the Israeli army from conquering the city. Jansen has assembled enough evidence to show that Israel did its very best to overrun the city, and eventually succeeded in doing so only once a pretext was found and the city was without any defenses. The Israeli army then sponsored the massacres of the populations of Sabra and Shatila, and began its systematic looting of Palestinian institutions and properties.
The Battle of Beirut is not confined to a study of the war. It is an important account of Israel’s political strategy, which clearly aims at the destruction of the Palestinians as a viable political community and the permanent alteration of the frontiers and structure of the Arab states of the region. More briefly, it is a study of American policy at a particular moment in history.
Jansen’s conclusions are clear: Israel won the military battle against the PLO and the Lebanese National Movement. In the process, Israel has caused an enormous damage to the Palestinians and the Lebanese population, mutilated Lebanon and weakened its structural basis. She gives reasonable data to show the extent of human and material damage. On the other hand, Israel itself has been morally damaged, perhaps permanently, by its brutality and deceit. Because the book was written while events unfolded, Jansen does not examine Habib’s active role in prolonging the war and the siege of Beirut. But the US negotiator’s hostility to the Palestinians, and his active collusion with the Phalangists and Israel, were too well known in Beirut to leave any doubt as to his and his superiors’ intention: the destruction of the PLO.
Similarly, it remains necessary to determine whether Israel was implementing American policy or was relatively independent in the pursuit of its objectives. With time and more evidence, Arab policies will become more intelligible than they are now. It will be possible for others to take up these and similar questions thanks to Jansen’s important contribution.