Israel and Lebanon: A History

Internal Lebanese politics have long influenced relations with Israel.

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Excerpted with permission of JTA.

Instead of the hoped-for oasis of peace tied to the Jewish state by a wealth of common interest, Lebanon has proven in recent decades to be a deadly arena of bloodshed and war. First it was the Palestinians who used the country as a launching pad for terrorist actions against Israel; then it was the Shi'ite Hezbollah. In both cases, outside powers used the militias as proxies against Israel; and, in both cases, cross-border violence eventually led to war. 

A Promising Beginning

Fifty years ago, things looked more promising. In the mid-1950s, Israel's first prime minister, David Ben- Gurion, had visions of peace with an independent Christian country in Lebanon. In February 1954, he wrote to Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, urging him to take diplomatic initiatives toward the establishment of a Christian enclave. Ben-Gurion hoped to create a coalition of like-minded religious minorities in the predominantly Sunni Muslim Middle East. But nothing came of the idea. For a decade and a half, relations between the two countries were virtually nonexistent, although Lebanon played no role in the 1967 Six-Day War. But, immediately after the war, because of the weakness of its central government and its proximity to Israel, Lebanon was identified by the Arab world as an ideal base for Palestinian terror. The Cairo Agreement of November 1969 gave the PLO special status in Lebanon, and after their defeat in Jordan in September 1970, Yasser Arafat, the entire Fatah leadership, and its fighting force moved into southern Lebanon.

Lebanon became a training ground for terrorists from all over the world. The PLO was able to recruit sympathizers from other terrorist organizations and from the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in camps across the country.

The 1970s

During the 1970s, PLO terrorists carried out hundreds of cross-border attacks into Israel. One of the worst was the "Ma'alot massacre" in which 26 people, including 21 students, were held hostage and killed in a school in the northern Israeli town of Ma'alot.

The influx of Palestinian fighters into Lebanon upset the delicate balance between Muslims and Christians in the country and, in 1975, led to civil war. Lebanese Christians seeking to restore the ethnic balance and free the country from growing PLO control looked to Israel for support. The two sides had a common interest: to drive the terrorists from their Lebanese base. Two Christian enclaves supported by Israel were set up in the South. That led to the establishment of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army under Maj. Saad Hadad.

In 1976, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin met with Christian leader Camille Chamoun on an Israeli missile boat off the Lebanese coast to formalize the arrangement. Israel, Rabin promised, would supply arms and training facilities. Two years later, Rabin's successor, Menachem Begin, upgraded the alliance, promising Israeli air cover if Christian positions were attacked by Syrian warplanes.

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Leslie Susser is JTA's diplomatic correspondent in Jerusalem. Also the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report, he has covered the peace process and Israeli domestic politics since the early 1990s.