Rashid Khalidi, Under Siege: PLO Decisionmaking During the 1982 War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).
Among the many books dealing with the 1982 war in Lebanon, Rashid Khalidi’s stands out by focusing on the perceptions and decisions of that campaign’s main target: the PLO. The book asks a series of questions in order to get to those at the core: Why did the PLO leave Beirut? What were the main pressures influencing the decision first to stand and fight and then to evacuate the city? Which pressures proved successful and which ineffective?
In answering these questions, Khalidi brings to bear his direct knowledge of the Palestinian movement and his personal experience of the siege of Beirut, adding a unique perspective to his abilities as a historian and political scientist. He draws heavily on unpublished material in the PLO’s archives in Tunis, and provides additional insight through selective interviews with senior military and political participants in the 1982 war.
Khalidi first surveys the importance of Lebanon as the PLO’s main base and the state of Lebanese-Palestinian relations in the pre-war period. He next outlines the main phases and features of the Israeli invasion, before moving into a more complex discussion of the interplay of military developments and diplomatic negotiations throughout the summer of 1982, culminating in the PLO’s acceptance of the Habib plan and a new exile.
Khalidi concludes that direct military pressure had the least impact on the Palestinian leadership’s decisions. In fact, the military situation was a major element stiffening Palestinian resolve, particularly as the fighters and civilians suffering the siege could see real, tangible results of their tenacious defense in the shape of significant Israeli setbacks both in the battlefield and in world opinion.
Khalidi asserts instead that a combination of political factors undermined the PLO’s position and ultimately led it to believe that a prolonged battle of wills around Beirut was futile. The most important factor was the attitude adopted by most Arab states, ranging from indifference to active hostility. In Khalidi’s view, it was the Arab “brethren” who prevented the Palestinian-Lebanese defenders of Beirut from reaping the political rewards due their courage and sacrifice. In support of this analysis, he refers extensively to transcripts of telex, telephone, and wireless communications between the besieged PLO leaders and their representatives abroad or non-Palestinian interlocutors.
In particular, the author highlights the negative role played by Syria and Saudi Arabia. Rather than use their regional influence to reduce American support for the Israeli invasion, Syrian and Saudi mediators actually blocked Palestinian-Egyptian-French attempts to link the PLO’s evacuation from Beirut with American recognition in principle of Palestinian rights.
An equally important factor in the decision to leave Beirut was the attitude adopted by various sectors of the Lebanese population and political groupings, particularly the traditional allies. The rift with the Shi‘i community was already deep in the pre-war period, and the PLO was denied bases in the Druze mountains; the last few months saw an estrangement of large parts of the Sunni community as well. Following destructive clashes in Sidon, partly instigated by Israeli agents, the city’s largely Sunni inhabitants became hostile to Palestinian deployment locally. This was critical to the defense of southern Lebanon. Later, the IDF siege of Beirut prompted that city’s own Sunni establishment to add its voice to those demanding a PLO withdrawal.
Had the PLO’s Lebanese support been more solid, it could have held out far longer despite Arab inaction. Conversely, more active Arab support would have encouraged the PLO’s Lebanese allies to suffer a long siege. Nonetheless, the PLO’s ability to hold out at all in the face of such daunting military and political odds shows that it still enjoyed a high degree of solidarity among the Palestinians and many Lebanese.
Discussing PLO preparedness for the war, Khalidi details measures taken in anticipation of an Israeli attack, such as constructing alternative underground command posts in Beirut, stockpiling ammunition and supplies, and deploying forces around the main population centers. He emphasizes that certain shortcomings in Palestinian combat performance were a result of chronic problems in training, armament and doctrine rather than short-sightedness. The PLO leadership bears a long-term responsibility for “serious structural flaws” that developed over the years in the capabilities of its forces, but it could not have done much more in the short term to prepare for the invasion.
There are few faults in this book. Khalidi does not explain who made decisions and how; he is interested in the why. One might also dispute his assessment of the PLO’s readiness for the war. It is true that, “pitted against the vast numerical superiority of the IDF, it made little difference what was done by the regional command,” but his own account of the crucial contribution made by the impromptu resistance of a handful of fighters in ‘Ayn al-Hilwa and Khalida to the morale and physical preparedness of Beirut’s defenders only emphasizes the fact that better planning at the battlefield level could well have resulted in higher Israeli casualties and greater delays in the IDF’s timetable, possibly with far-reaching political consequences.
One of this book’s strongest points is that it provides a unique glimpse of how things look from the Palestinian side. Thus Khalidi mentions issues that non-Palestinian observers tend to miss. A case in point is Palestinian provision of vital services in the 1976-1982 period. In his words, “when the [PLO] was too active it provoked charges the Palestinians were taking over the country; when it was not active enough there were complaints that the deterioration of the situation was the PLO’s fault.” It is this level of sensitivity that sets Under Siege apart from Helena Cobban’s comprehensive history of the contemporary resistance movement (The Palestinian Liberation Organization: People, Power and Politics), David Hirst’s modern history of Palestine (The Gun and the Olive Branch) and Aaron Miller’s political overview (The PLO and the Politics of Survival).
Furthermore, by taking a case study of Palestinian decision making during a specific crisis, Khalidi treats the PLO as an entity subject to familiar political dynamics, rather than a passing, extraordinary phenomenon. First and foremost, he sees the PLO not as an alien body that represents the Palestinians at some formal level, but as part and parcel of that people. Springing from them and sustained by them, it depends on its ability to know their needs and fears, both political and existential, in order to gain their support and approval. By focusing on how hard the PLO fought and why it eventually withdrew from Beirut, Under Siege brings out the Palestinians — men, women and children, fighters and leaders — as very human beings.