On the morning of June 6th, 30 years ago, Israeli tanks defied the French commander of a United Nations peace-keeping mission at a place called Taibeh, and crossed the border into Lebanon.
Their mission: destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization as a military fighting force, end the P.L.O. occupation of Lebanon, and restore Lebanon’s independence.
It was a big mission that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his defense minister, Ariel Sharon, felt compelled to undertake because earlier, more limited attempts to stop P.L.O. artillery batteries from shelling Israeli towns and villages had failed.
The U.N. force monitoring the border between the two countries since Israel’s last incursion into Lebanon in 1978 had turned a blind eye to the P.L.O. as it rebuilt its military networks in the border zone. So Israel chose to act in defiance of the international community in order to defend its borders and its citizens.
The 1982 Lebanon war became known as Israel’s longest war, and it marked the point when international public opinion — led by a left-leaning media enamored of the P.L.O. — turned irresolutely against the Jewish state.
I know, because I went to cover the siege of Beirut that summer as a young war correspondent and learned lessons that would change my life, my politics, and my faith forever.
President Reagan initially stood by Israel and affirmed her right to self-defense. But after hysterical news coverage of a two-day bombing campaign in early August, rife with claims that Israel was “indiscriminately bombing” Lebanese civilians, he called on Prime Minister Begin to accept a ceasefire.
Later, after the war, I remember listening to an Israeli colonel as he argued with reporters that Israel was very careful to attack only known military targets. To emphasize his point, he held up an enlarged gun-camera photograph of the sports stadium in Western Beirut, where the P.L.O. had based most of its anti-aircraft artillery. “Most of our bombs dropped within a 100-meter radius of the sports stadium,” he said, pointing out the craters.
“I can confirm that, Colonel, because I was in one of those buildings just outside the sports stadium,” I said. “When I was taken hostage, on July 14th, it was eight stories high. When they moved us to another location on August 4th, there was just one-and-a-half stories and pancakes.”
Israel succeeded in driving the P.L.O. from southern Lebanon and ultimately from Beirut, but failed to accomplish her broader goals for a variety of reasons.
She had over-estimated the stamina and integrity of her Lebanese Christian partners while under-estimating the reach of Syrian intelligence, which succeeded in penetrating the entourage of President-elect Bashir Gemayel and paying someone to plant a car-bomb that killed him and dozens of others that September.
But Israel also failed because the United States failed Israel, and at a crucial moment — when I was praying for Israeli bombs to set me free in a cellar in West Beirut — turned against Israel and pressured her to abandon military action before achieving victory.
The contrast between the response of the international community to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the Six-Day War 15 years earlier was striking. So are the lessons for U.S. policymakers today.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2006. After Iranian-backed Hezbollah militiamen kidnapped three Israeli soldiers and launched missile barrages against Israeli towns and villages, another Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, ordered Israeli forces to strike inside Lebanon against Hezbollah strongholds.
But Olmert declined at first to launch an all-out invasion, fearful of international condemnation and alarmed at the weak-kneed response from Washington, relying instead on commando raids and his air force.