The Legacy of the Lebanon War, Four Decades Later

June 24, 2022 | Lazar Berman
About the author: Lazar Berman, news editor at the Times of Israel and a reserve infantry officer in the IDF, has written for the Journal of Strategic Studies, Commentary, and other publications.

Forty years ago this month, Israel launched what is now known as the First Lebanon War, with the aim of driving the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Lebanese soil. Lazar Berman explains:

Kiryat Shmona, a small Israeli city a short distance from the Lebanon border, had indeed been burning over the previous year. The Palestine Liberation Organization’s Katyusha fire from inside Lebanon in July 1981 had caused residents to flee, and rockets continued to rain down over the ensuing months. The final straw came on June 3, 1982, when members of the Palestinian Abu Nidal Organization tried to assassinate Israel’s ambassador in London, Shlomo Argov, leaving him in a coma until his death in 2003.

The campaign was seen as an entirely justified operation against the Palestinian terrorists who were firing rockets on border towns, slaughtering passengers on buses, and shooting Israeli diplomats in Europe.

Although the most intense fighting was over in a few months, and the main part of the war lasted only until 1985, the IDF would remain in Lebanon until 2000, as it found itself dragged into conflict with the Syrian army, various Lebanese factions, and eventually Hizballah. The war succeeded in ousting the PLO from Lebanon, yet it is remembered by Israelis much as the Vietnam war is remembered by Americans. Berman analyzes its enduring legacy:

Israel has . . . become extremely skittish about capturing ground, once seen as the key to victory. Now, the fear of getting stuck occupying hostile territory leads military planners to design campaigns around air and artillery fire, resorting to ground maneuvers only as a last resort, and only when they know how and when forces are going to leave. The tentative and ineffectual ground maneuver in Lebanon in 2006 and the limited incursions in the rounds of fighting in Gaza are symptoms of this Lebanon syndrome.

The failed effort in 1982 to install a friendly government in Beirut also restricts Israel’s foreign policy four decades later. Before the war, Israel built ties with a range of proxies across the Middle East and beyond, including in Iraqi Kurdistan, Yemen, and of course, Lebanon. But since sinking into the Lebanese mud, Israel has been careful to keep its boots clean. Iran, meanwhile, has turned its proxy forces into valuable assets in the region.

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