Israel and Lebanon: A History

Internal Lebanese politics have long influenced relations with Israel.

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Like Israel, the Syrians had used the civil war to gain a foothold in Lebanon. They had intervened in 1976, first on the side of the Christians, then on the side of the PLO.

With close Syrian support, the PLO grew bolder and in July 1981 launched a huge artillery barrage on northern Israel. War was narrowly averted through last-minute American mediation.

Israel Invades

The cease-fire broke down a year later, when Israel launched Peace for Galilee, an operation designed to drive the PLO and the Syrians from Lebanon and pave the way for a peace treaty with the Lebanese Christian leadership under the charismatic Bashir Gemayel.

In June 1982, Israeli ground forces quickly overran PLO positions in southern Lebanon; on August 30, Arafat and the rest of the PLO leaders were forced to leave Lebanon after intense Israeli shelling of Beirut.

Gemayel, elected president in July, spoke of peace with Israel, telling Israeli leaders that he would "come to Jerusalem as a second Sadat." Two months later he was assassinated, presumably by the Syrians, who wanted to pre-empt the burgeoning Israeli-Lebanese alliance, which they saw as a strategic threat.

The next day, Christian militiamen moved into the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila and butchered more than 300 unarmed civilians. Israel, which had allowed the militiamen into the camps to seek out Palestinian gunmen, was blamed for the massacre. Throughout the war, the world media had been highly critical of Israel and of its defense minister, Ariel Sharon, who was eventually forced to resign after an Israeli commission found him indirectly responsible for the killings.

Still, Israel and the new Lebanese authorities were able to negotiate a peace deal in the spring of 1983. But a year later, under intense Syrian pressure, Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, Bashir's older brother, renounced the agreement.

War With Hezbollah

After the war, Syria moved troops back into Lebanon, and quickly regained its influence over the Beirut government. In the South a new force emerged: Shi'ite Muslims, influenced by the 1979 Khomeini revolution in Iran formed the Hezbollah militia. Israel remained in occupation of a security zone in the South to protect its northern border. That led to an 18-year-long war of attrition with the Hezbollah, in which hundreds of Israelis died.

In February 1992, Israel assassinated the Hezbollah chief, Sheik Abbas Musawi, who was succeeded by the present leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. Two major Israeli air operations, Accountability in 1993 and Grapes of Wrath in 1996, followed persistent Katyusha attacks on northern Israel, but had little long-term effect.

In May 2000, Israel withdrew from Lebanon to the international border, in a move ratified by the United Nations. Hezbollah moved militiamen down to the border and, like the PLO before them, created a state-within-a-state in the South. In September 2004, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1559, which called for the removal of Syrian forces from Lebanon and the dismantlement of all militias, including Hezbollah. The Syrians and Hezbollah ignored it.

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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.