One thing is utterly clear and obvious about Israel’s war in Lebanon. Namely, that the level of violence and destruction inflicted upon the population in general and the Palestinians in particular has been much higher than needed in order to occupy Lebanon south of Beirut and to destroy the military power of the PLO, driving its armed forces out of the country. With all their deep-seated, though eroding, pro-Israeli bias the Western media have captured this elementary truth. The highlights of Israel’s violence were:
- Utter destruction of whole Palestinian communities in Lebanon. This was done not only during the fighting itself, by massive bombardment, but also by systematic house-to-house destruction of the largest refugee camps in Tyre and Sidon (Al-Rashidiyya and ‘Ain Hilwa) and Beirut – using bulldozers, dynamite etc.
- Systematic elimination (by killing, expulsion or detention in concentration camps) of all male Palestinian population between the ages of 14-65. According to well-corroborated reports, no Palestinian males of these ages are to be found in the area controlled by Israel.
- Deliberate destruction of Lebanese towns, especially along the coast, but also elsewhere.
- Attempts to expel as many Palestinian families as possible out of Lebanon. An Israeli reserve colonel, Dov Yirmiah, resigned his post in the army after he had been specifically instructed by the government not to extend any help to the Palestinian children and women who were wandering around the destroyed communities. In fact, on 18 June, he was told by a cabinet minister to ‘push the Palestinians eastwards’. He was not to allow them to set up tents as shelter against the intense heat. He was not even allowed to let anyone else take care of these refugees. 1 The Israeli hope was that this combination of starvation, lack of shelter, and mass arrest of the male population would eventually force hundreds of thousands of Palestinians out of Lebanon into Syrian-held territories.
- Brutal bombardment of Beirut, using anti-personnel weapons such as cluster bombs and phospherous shells, under the pretext of flushing out the PLO. The two main Palestinian neighbourhoods in Beirut were destroyed by combined attacks from air, sea and ground – driving all the population to the heart of Beirut, where they were subjected to further anti-civilian showers of bombs. The siege of Beirut lasted more than nine weeks and deprived the population of food, water, gas and electricity. This, as well as the destruction of hospitals and the deliberate bombing raids against blocks with heavy Palestinian refugee population, has been amply documented and widely reported.
In the light of all this, we see that the war in Lebanon has been much more than a war of occupation against the Palestinian forces and their Lebanese allies. In plain language it amounts to nothing less than a policy of genocide against the Palestinian people in Lebanon. Genocide in the literal sense of the word, namely the physical destruction of as many Palestinians as possible and the expulsion, scattering and detention in concentration camps of the rest. Israeli soldiers were under specific orders to kill as many ‘PLO members’ as possible. But, for better or worse, the PLO in Lebanon was a sort of quasi-state, with its own extensive bureaucracy and services – schools, clinics, hospitals etc. Therefore virtually every Palestinian in Lebanon was associated with it from birth to death in one way or another. The call for the destruction, annihilation and killing of the PLO infrastructure was simply a euphemism for a policy of utter destruction of the 500,000 strong Palestinian community in Lebanon as a national entity, and their elimination as individuals.
Dov Yirmiah, who had resigned his post as head of an Israel army unit dealing with the civilian population, wrote:
‘Whoever put the unit together did not assign to it the right people. Most of them knew no Arabic and some hated Arabs to such an extent that it obstructed the activity of the unit… The Red Cross aid was not accepted and I know of other attempts to help which were rejected – among them aid from Jewish and Israeli organisations. Is it not hypocrisy and cruelty to mention in this context that we distributed 3,000 blankets? The story of the tens of thousands of Palestinian children, women and elderly refugees will be told some time in the future and we will all have to pay the heavy human and moral cost. I shall mention only three things…
- When Minister Meridor [assigned to the matter by the government] was asked about the fate of the Palestinians on 18.6.82 he replied, “Push them eastwards”.
- The only policy of our commanders towards them was strict prohibition to deal with them in the framework of the unit. “Let UNRWA take care of them”.
- They were not allowed to set up tents plenty of which were in UNRWA’s hands. This was an inhuman and cruel act and it teaches us about the “humanity” boasted of by [the present commander] Maimon.’2
Notice that Col. Yirmiyah refers only to children, women and elderly Palestinian refugees. The menfolk were nowhere to be seen. They had ‘vanished’ into the concentration camps and eastward to Syria.
Once this genocidal dimension is recognised as being the only one in which one can comprehend Israel’s conduct in the war, the question naturally arises: Why did Israel go to such extremes of destruction, alienating the whole Middle East, including its newly-found ally Egypt, as well as both European and American public opinion? After all, the policy of destruction of the Palestinians in Lebanon will not itself bring any closer the resolution of the Palestinian problem; neither for the two million Palestinians who live under direct Israeli control in Palestine, nor for the many hundreds of thousands of Palestinian diaspora scattered around the Middle East.
The ‘Big Thing’
To answer this question one must comprehend both the short-term and long-term policies of the present government – plans which are direct continuations of the former Labour government’s policy of colonisation of the territories occupied in June 1967.
The short-term policies are well known: destroy the PLO, thus depriving the Palestinians of national cohesiveness and unity. This, Israel hopes, will make a de facto, and later formal, annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip much easier.
Israeli political analysts had long predicted the war with many of its appalling dimensions precisely on these grounds. The administrator of the occupied territories, M. Milson, had said at the beginning of 1982 that ‘we are entering into the most crucial stage of the war with the Palestinians since 1948’, thereby correctly setting the framework of the present war. Thus in the immediate sense the war in Lebanon was a war over the eventual possession of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel hopes to set up there a collaborationist structure around the Village League – an Israeli-sponsored organisation which however weak at the present is already entrusted with the conduct of many aspects of civilian day-to-day life such as licences, road building, emigration, schooling etc. In addition, for the first time in Zionist history Palestinian armed militias were formed to enforce the quislings’ rule. These are still no more than armed gangs who act as bodyguards and fascist thugs. But given time Israel will try to develop them into the core of a Palestinian repressive regime – to repress and help extinguish any opposition to the policy of rapid colonisation and land-grabbing.
This West-Bank dimension of the war is extremely important and widely recognised. It explains the attempts to destroy the PLO as a viable organisation. But it does not explain directly the genocidal aspect of the war. This aspect is derived from the wider context, present and future, of the war in Lebanon. Because, with all its immediate and far- reaching implications, the war is but one link in a whole strategic plan. This plan is the brainchild of Defence Minister A. Sharon and is referred to in Israeli parlance as the ‘Big Thing’. It revives an old ambition for a drive to the north-east, which was on the cards already in the days of the first Israeli prime minister, D. Ben-Gurion.3
The Lebanon war had its roots in the traumatic experience of the 1973 war with Syria and Egypt. No one in Israel has forgotten the spectre of the two Arab armies attempting to recover their national lands taken in 1967. Of course, the Egyptian army, even in a combined attack with Syrian forces, represented no real danger to the State of Israel as such. The trauma was caused by the fact that there could not be a knock-out Israeli victory; that despite huge effort during three weeks the Israelis could not roll back the Egyptian soldiers who were using modern weaponry; that despite many thousands of losses on both sides there was no decisive Israeli victory. The 3,000 Israeli soldiers who lost their lives had to be taken into account. In 1973 the mighty Israeli army had lost its credibility as an invincible force in the eyes of the Arab armies; and this state of affairs could not be tolerated for too long.
In the eyes of most Israeli politicians, the whole of Sinai was much too high a price to be paid for a peace with Egypt. The Israeli army had the awkward feeling that the loss of Sinai was the direct result of its inability in 1973 to achieve a rapid victory and the need to get American supplies in the midst of the war – supplies which emphasised Israel’s day-to-day dependence on the United States.
Therefore Israel undertook a complete renovation of its armed forces from A to Z. New aeroplanes, tanks and troop carriers and huge stores of supplies and ammunition were built, produced and bought with generous American help. The next war was to be fought without an American airlift of supplies – and with minimal Israeli casualties. Ever since 1973 Israel had been looking desperately for a large-scale war to test its renewed war machine and to re-establish its reputation as a local military superpower.
When Begin came to power he drew far-reaching lessons from the 1973 fiasco. His conclusions were radical and clear. Israel could no longer fight a major war on two distant fronts, north and south, and still achieve a decisive victory at acceptable costs in terms of loss of life and political dependence on the United States. One should not forget that the 1973 fiasco had also brought in its wake a sharp increase in the emigration of Israelis, with total net ‘losses’ from the immigration/emigration balance of about 40,000 Israelis according to official statistics: a very large number indeed by Israeli standards. Unable to fight wars successfully on two fronts, Begin decided that Israel’s future strategy would be to concentrate military action on one front – the north-eastern. In order to achieve this, he agreed to give up Sinai to the last inch of territory – in exchange for peace with Egypt. Israel’s relations with the Arab world, including Egypt, with the Palestinians both in Palestine and outside, as well as with the United States would be determined and decided by the military development on this one front.
The essential difference between the new north-eastern front, which includes Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, and the old Egyptian front is that in the former wars must be fought in densely populated areas. Three major Arab capitals – Beirut, Damascus and Amman – are within about an hour’s drive from Israeli-held territories.
Begin and Sharon decided that this fact opens up an immense new possibility for Israel. From now on, while concentrating on this front, Israel would strive to go much further in its wars. The aim of war would be not only to destroy Arab armies in order to defend old territorial expansions and acquire more land. An important strategic aim on this front would be to intervene directly in the political structure of the Arab countries around it. Israel would try to set up regimes which would suit its colonialist ambition on the West Bank, in southern Lebanon and beyond. For that it needs direct lines of communication and control over the nearby Arab capitals. This shift in Israel’s war aims has been amply illustrated recently.
First, one of the aims of the war in the Lebanon was to establish there a ‘strong state’ which would make peace with Israel and would be controlled by Israel’s allies in the Maronite community. The model of this state was set up by Israel several years ago in the shape of ‘Free Lebanon’ under Major Haddad – a direct Israeli agent. Israeli papers discussed openly day after day the need to establish direct Israeli-Phalangist control over the whole of Lebanon. This was achieved by the forced election of Bashir Gemayel to the presidency. B. Gemayel was not exactly an Israeli stooge but a longstanding ally, who would have depended on Israel for his very stay in power. The ‘need’ to station Israeli troops in Lebanon for the foreseeable future was pointed out by many Israeli analysts.
Another example of the same kind is the famous statement by Defence Minister Sharon that, had he been Prime Minister, he would have given King Hussein of Jordan 48 hours to leave Amman, his capital, thereby opening the way to the establishment of a ‘Palestinian State’ on the East Bank of the Jordan river.
The ideological and political driving force behind this new strategy is of course the old and by no means exhausted Zionist colonisation project of ‘The Land of Israel’ whose exact boundaries are to be determined by future developments.
The Israeli leaders shudder at the prospect of a hurried peaceful solution to the Middle East tangle which would integrate Israel too quickly into the region. It was realised with horror in Israel that the Sadat initiative, fuelled by Begin’s agreement to give up Sinai, would have a natural continuation. The continuation, as exemplified by the Saudi plan of King Fahd (which was endorsed in September 1982 by the Arab summit conference at Fez) implies Arab willingness to accept Israel into the Middle East club, on one condition: namely, that it is cut down to its ‘natural size’ – the 1967 borderline. This would imply that Israel must play a relatively minor role in the region’s politics, that the Palestinians would get a mini-state and that Israel’s further territorial ambitions are to be checked. This prospect is abhorrent to the Israeli leaders, not because they do not want peace, but rather because it would seal Israel within the 1967 border and throttle the Zionist project which they believe is still in its full swing.
Sharon and Begin do want to join the Middle East club but only on their own terms: as a local military and political superpower. Therefore as soon as the Sadat peace initiative started to spread to other Arab countries and especially to the PLO itself, something had to be done quickly to halt this development. The PLO’s approval of King Fahd’s plan and its rigorous adherence to the 1981 cease-fire agreement along the Israeli-Lebanese border were signs of moderation and acceptance of the diplomatic approach. This moderation is the very thing Israel fears most. Professor Yehoshua Porath, a distinguished scholar of Middle-East history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, author of several important books on the history of the Palestinian national movement, went so far as to say that Israel started the war precisely because of the very clear signs of moderation and strict control shown by the PLO.4 But this is only one part of the picture.
After Lebanon – Jordan?
In order to understand the nature of the Lebanon war one must put it in the context of Sharon’s grand plan, which goes far beyond the Lebanese involvement. It has at least two further interlinked elements: transforming Jordan into a Palestinian puppet state and concentrating the Palestinian people on the East Bank of the Jordan.
Let us recall that an eventual annexation of the West Bank and Gaza – which is the official government policy and the single most important project of Begin – implies a grave problem for the Jewish character of Israel. This is because in Palestine as a whole there are two million Palestinians living alongside about three and a half million Israeli Jews. If these Palestinians were granted Israeli citizenship, then in a generation or two the Greater Israel will have more Arab than Jewish citizens, and this is inconsistent with the Zionist notion of a Jewish State. If the territories are to be annexed without giving their inhabitants the same rights that half a million Palestinians already have in the pre-1967 lines – then this will create a severe national, social and juridical problem which will become ever more explosive with the growing dependence of the Israeli economy on Arab labour, and will confirm the trend of creating a society on the South African model. Both alternatives are extremely unattractive to Begin, or any other Zionist for that matter. Thus the grand plan of Sharon calls for ‘satisfying the national aspiration’ of the Palestinians by turning Jordan into the ‘new Palestine’ – opening the way for a large wave of ‘population transfer’ of Palestinians from all over the Middle East into ‘their own state’, namely Jordan. In plain language, this calls for the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza into Jordan.
The systematic expulsion of Palestinians from Lebanon in the war was a prelude to a much wider design in that direction. Israel hopes to put immense pressure on Jordan to accept them. Sharon’s plan may seem crazy at first sight, but then who would have believed at the beginning of 1982 that the subsequent atrocities against an Arab capital with a million inhabitants were possible? Further, let us not forget that in the 1967 war hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and Syrians were driven away from their homes and camps in the Golan, Gaza and the West Bank. They have not been able to return up to now.
The Jordanian-state solution to the Palestinian problem is discussed daily in all seriousness in the Israeli press; it is widely accepted in one form or another, even by many ‘moderate’ Israelis, as a just solution. The United States had to give special assurances to King Hussein that it does not support this solution. Hussein has taken special care recently to play down Palestinian influences in Jordan, where more than a million Palestinians live. Furthermore, in an editorial the New York Times.5 writes: ‘Winning Jordan’s help will require persuading King Hussein that his throne is at stake’. This thinly veiled threat against Jordan shows that at least this aspect of the ‘crazy’ Sharon plan has become a living, necessary, element of political manoeuvring in the Middle East. It has very wide support not only in Begin’s Likud but also in the Labour Party. The other part, namely the expulsion of Palestinians from Palestine, is more speculative and draws much less support in Israel – mostly because other Zionist parties consider it too risky and wild. Not that they would not be very happy with it if it could be carried through without shattering Israel’s future in the Middle East. The code word in Israel for expulsion is ‘the truck-loads solution for the Palestinian problem’, referring to the need to load most of them on trucks and send them away. It is a very serious proposition; and given half a chance, say in the shape of a war on the eastern front or a popular uprising in the West Bank, Israel may attempt to carry it through.
The most consistent outspoken supporter of the solution is Professor Yuval Ne’eman, Israel’s Minister of Science, representing the rather powerful Tehiya (Revival) Party. In several interviews he expressed his opinion that after the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel would have to deal with the demographic problem and that he thinks that within Greater Israel (= Palestine) there could be a minority of a million or so Palestinians. This implies expulsion of one million out of the two who currently live there.
Thus in the minds of Begin and Sharon the Lebanon war is an opening move in the one-front strategy. The aim of this strategy is to build around a greater Israel a zone of direct Israel presence and influence. A zone of pax Hebraica, in which Israel will have direct lines of communication and control over its immediate neighbours: Lebanon, Syria and Jordan and by implication over the entire Arab East from Egypt to Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Will Israel be checked?
It is highly doubtful whether actual developments in the field will go according to the above lines. The difficulties are enormous and quite obvious: to accomplish the first step, namely setting up an Israeli ‘strong-state’ protectorate in Lebanon, will be difficult by itself and in the coming years Begin and Sharon will find themselves bogged down in a Lebanese morass. They think that by brute force and with American acquiescence they can do it – but this is far from clear. If they do however, this will be a very long step in the direction of pax Hebraica because Israel would then be controlling a substantial portion of Lebanon, so neither Syria nor Jordan are safe. The less than friendly relations between these two Arab states will keep many options open for the Israelis to intervene both directly and otherwise.
But even if Sharon will not be able to carry through his ideas and ambitions, their influence will be felt throughout the Middle East in the coming decade. An era of fierce struggle, wars and strife is at hand – unless the United States decides to cut all this short. Because it is the United States and only the United States that can check Israel at will. Without the 4 billion dollar yearly handout to Israel, and without the diplomatic blank cheque given to Israel, none of the above can be carried through. Even if Begin or Sharon will try to ignore real pressure from the United States, the bulk of the Zionist political structure will not allow them to pit Israel against the United States for long. The economic and social implication of going it alone even for a few months are enormous and will topple anyone who will try to do so.
In the Lebanese war Israel very shrewdly used a window of confusion and indecision in American foreign policy: it had complete American support for all the immediate and long term aims of the war: 30 miles’ security strip, which simply means occupation by Israel’s stooges of the Lebanese land up to the Litani River; destruction; expulsion of the PLO, which means mass expulsion of Palestinians and setting up a strong state while leaving Israeli troops as long as the Syrians remain there – namely for a long time indeed.
Such complete and open support has never been given before, not even in 1967 when the United States did not endorse the annexation of Jerusalem.
The exact lines of American foreign policy are of immense importance for the future of the Middle East, but they are slow in forming. The longer Israel has a free hand in shaping the actual realities in the region, the more rhese new realities will become irreversible and the closer will the emerging American policy have to correspond to the pax Hebraica plan.
- Ha’aretz, 23 July 1982. (back) ↩
- Ibid. (back) ↩
- According to Ben-Gurion’s own diaries (as reported by his trusted biographer, M. Bar-Zohar) he proposed the following plan in a secret meeting held near Paris on 22 October 1956, in which he and the French Prime Minister finalised the plan of the Suez war: ‘First of all, the liquidation and overthrow of Nasser. Then – Jordan to be partitioned by giving the West Bank to Israel and the East Bank to Iraq (then still under Western tutelage). From Israel’s point of view, the condition for this is that Iraq should sign a peace treaty with Israel and agree to settle the refugees on its own soil. Lebanon to be cut up by giving part of it to Syria and another part, up to the Litani River, to Israel. In the remaining part a Christian state will be set up. In the enlarged Syria the regime will be stabilised under a pro-Western ruler.’ Ben-Gurion’s grand plan was rejected by France and Britain. See Michael Bar-Zohar, Ben-Gurion, A Political Biography, (Hebrew), Am Oved Publishers, Tel-Aviv, 1977, vol 3, p l234f. (back) ↩
- Prof. Yehoshua Porath, ‘First political summary’, Ha’aretz, 25 June 1982. (back) ↩
- Quoted in International Herald Tribune, 9 August 1982. (back) ↩