May 25, 2016

Israel and Lebanon: Problematic Proximity

Throughout the relatively short history of their existence as modern states, Israel’s and Lebanon’s mutual border has proven to be largely disadvantageous to both countries. The picture is not entirely negative. In the British Mandate period, as the Jewish community of Mandatory Palestine grew and developed, brisk trade and commercial relations existed between Jewish and Arab communities in the northern Galilee, and the Christian and Shi’a Muslims of southern Lebanon.[1] Similar relations–though in a far more problematic context–reemerged to some degree in the period of Israeli occupation of part of southern Lebanon from 1985 to 2000, as large numbers of residents of the Israeli “security zone” found work across the border in Israel. However, for the most part, the proximity of Israel and Lebanon has been unfortunate for both countries.

For Lebanon, Israel’s establishment was the primary cause for the eventual arrival of the Palestinian national movement to within its borders in 1970. This, in turn, was a key factor in precipitating the country’s ruinous civil war, the Israel-PLO war on Lebanese soil in 1982, the partial collapse of Lebanese sovereignty after the Syrian entry in 1990, and the partial Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon until 2000. This calamitous series of events has continued until the present day, with the emergence of a powerful pro-Iranian militia among the country’s ascendant Shi’a population, and this organization’s subsequent use of the territory under its control to launch a ruinous war against Israel in 2006. Syrian attempts to regain influence and control in Lebanon after Damascus’s involuntary withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 have further contributed to destabilization.

From Israel’s point of view, it has been the Lebanese state’s weakness that has made it a thorn. The inability of Beirut to control its borders and the subsequent eruption of Palestinian nationalism in Lebanon has made the country uniquely problematic from the point of view of Israeli defense planners and strategists.

With Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, Israel was able to engage in straightforward relations of either cold or hot war or peace. If the former prevailed, Israel could build deterrence, knowing full well who was ultimately the “address” and therefore responsible for anything emerging from the relevant country’s borders. In Lebanon, since the early 1970s, no such assumptions have been possible. With central authority largely a fiction for long periods, Israel has had to contend with guerrilla and paramilitary organizations–Palestinian and Shi’a–partially answerable to outside interests, over whom the Lebanese state can exert little, if any, control. The result has been to make Lebanon into a location for proxy, asymmetrical wars against Israel.

This article traces the history of Israeli-Lebanese relations, looking back to the origins of the border between the two countries, noting its very recent vintage and the starkly different state of affairs that pertained in the area now northern Israel and southern Lebanon during the Ottoman period.

Key episodes in the Israeli involvement in Lebanon are outlined. The article also examines the process whereby the Palestinian national movement became a player in internal Lebanese affairs and the effect this had on both Lebanon’s internal situation and eventually on the Israel-Lebanon context. Also discussed are the Litani operation of 1978–the first large-scale incursion of Israeli forces into Lebanon– the 1982 war, subsequent Israeli involvement in southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000, and the 2006 war. The article concludes with observations regarding key elements and likely future direction of relations between Israel and Lebanon.


During the period of the Ottoman Empire, the border between Lebanon and Israel as currently constituted did not exist, nor did the Ottomans maintain administrative units called “Lebanon,” “Palestine,” or “Israel.” In this period, travel and trade between the areas today divided between Lebanon and Israel was common.

Both these areas, rather, were shared out between several subdistricts. The arrival of the British and French to the region saw the creation of the modern border between then British Mandate Palestine and Lebanon. The border drawn up in 1923 remains the accepted international border today between Israel and Lebanon.[2]

During the period of the European mandatory powers, the border was relatively open and travel between Palestine and Lebanon was common. The rural areas of southern Lebanon, however, became a natural base for Arab irregular forces when widespread violence against both the British authorities and the Jews began in 1936. The fact that this area of Lebanon was a sleepy and neglected rural backwater exacerbated this process.[3]

Beirut proved to be the cradle of two contradictory political trends. On the one hand, the Lebanese capital was a center for Arab nationalist clubs and secret societies, and hence for early support for the Arab cause in Palestine. This tendency was exacerbated by the arrival of a number of Palestinian Arabs fleeing the disorder in Palestine after 1936.[4] On the other hand, there was a tendency in Zionist thought from the earliest days to see the Christians of Lebanon, and in particular the Maronites, as natural potential allies of their cause. This notion derived from the Maronites’ pro-Western inclination and from their historical self-image as refugees from encroaching Islam.[5] Yet while there was a general feeling among the Zionists that the Lebanese Maronites were natural allies, there was also a countervailing sense that they were too small and weak a community for this fellow-feeling to have much consequence.

Lebanese troops played a small part in the war of 1948 and were pushed back by the forces of the nascent Israeli army (IDF) into Lebanon during the final, victorious phase of the war in late October 1948. The 1923 border was reestablished after the 1949 armistice. The border was sealed against infiltration and quiet throughout the 1950s.

The Israeli interest in the Maronites, however, did not disappear in the intervening years. Rather, a particular strand in Israeli policy thinking continued to believe in the possibility and promise of an Israeli-Maronite alliance that could lead to peace between Israel and Lebanon. In 1955, against a background of strife in Lebanon, the idea resurfaced. Moshe Sharett, then Israel’s foreign minister, described how he fought “tooth and nail” against a scheme conceived of by then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan. The plan was for Israel to buy off a Maronite officer–“even a major will do”–those who conceived the scheme considered. The officer would then request Israeli intervention in Lebanon, and would come to power as an Israeli client. The scheme was still-born. Sharett’s view of the Maronites would be considered prescient by many given subsequent events. He referred to them as a “broken reed.”[6]

This idea never reached the operational stage (despite the far stronger position of Ben-Gurion and Dayan in the hierarchy compared with Sharett). The Israeli-Lebanese border was well-guarded and quiet throughout the 1960s. Lebanon played no part in the Six-Day War of 1967. An incident in 1968, however, was a harbinger of what was to come: On December 28, 1968, in retaliation for a Palestinian attack on an El Al plane at the Athens airport–which resulted in the death of an Israeli civilian–Israeli special forces carried out a raid on Beirut International Airport in which more than a dozen airplanes were destroyed on the ground. The planes all belonged to Lebanese airlines–Middle East Airlines, Trans-Mediterranean Airways, and Lebanese International Airways. The two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) who had carried out this attack had travelled to Athens from Beirut.

The 1967-1970 period was in many ways the high point in the popularity of Palestinian organizations committed to armed struggle, and Beirut had become a center of ferment and focus for these groups. In November 1969 in Cairo, PLO leader Yasir Arafat and Lebanese army Chief of Staff Emile al-Bustani signed an agreement affording official Lebanese recognition to the “Palestinian revolution.” The agreement gave the Palestinians permission to conduct the “armed struggle” from Lebanese soil, on the condition that this did not undermine “Lebanon’s sovereignty and welfare.”[7] In retrospect, both Lebanon’s welfare and its sovereignty would suffer grievous damage as a result of this decision.


The series of events leading to Israel’s involvement in Lebanon began with the defeat of the PLO in Jordan at the hands of King Hussein’s forces in 1970. A large Palestinian population of refugees and their descendants had been resident in Lebanon since 1948. Palestinian political and paramilitary activity preceded the watershed of 1970, beginning in the mid-1960s, and attempts had been made by the government of Lebanon to regulate it. However, the arrival of the Fatah leadership to Beirut, accompanied by 3,000 Palestinian fighters, transformed the situation. Henceforth, Beirut became the international center of focus for the PLO and the place of residence of its senior leadership.

As a result, Lebanon became one of the theatres in which the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians would be played out. In 1970, Palestinian terrorists attacked an Israeli school bus en route from Moshav Avivim. Twelve schoolchildren were killed. Four years later, 21 school children were murdered in Ma’alot by terrorists of the PLO-affiliated Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In another attack, 18 Israelis were killed in Kiryat Shmona.[8] In April 1973, in an operation code-named Spring of Youth, Israeli special forces struck back at Beirut. The operation targeted three prominent leaders of Fatah–Muhammad Yusuf al-Najjar, Kamal Adwan, and Kamal Nasir. All three were killed in the attack, and Israeli forces also bombed a building used by the PFLP.[9]

Civil order broke down in Lebanon in 1975, in a civil war in which the Palestinians played a central role. This period also saw the launching by Palestinian armed organizations based in southern Lebanon of attacks on Israeli targets across the border. These attacks were carried out both by Fatah gunmen and by members of the PFLP. A massacre of 37 Israelis by a Fatah armed group that crossed into Israel for the purpose set the stage for the first large-scale IDF entry into Lebanon.[10] The so-called Litani Operation of 1978 was launched on March 14 and saw IDF forces advancing across southern Lebanon to the Litani River, occupying this area for a week-long period. The operation involved 25,000 troops. It was intended to dislodge the PLO from the border area, destroy the PLO bases in southern Lebanon from where the attacks on northern Israel were emanating, and to extend the area of territory under the control of Major Sa’ad Haddad’s militia. Haddad, a Greek Catholic professional military officer, had formed an anti-PLO, pro-Israeli militia in the south, which later became the South Lebanese Army (SLA).[11]

In the course of the operation, the PLO was pushed back above the Litani River, and a number of refugees headed for the north. Israeli forces withdrew after the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 425. The resolution called for immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon and established a UN military presence in southern Lebanon.[12] IDF forces departed southern Lebanon in the following weeks, handing over positions to the SLA of Major Haddad.

The entry of UNIFIL did not usher in a period of quiet. Rather, the UN forces became themselves a factor in a tense triangle that saw them clashing with both PLO forces and Haddad’s SLA.


Contacts between Israel and prominent Lebanese Maronite politicians had been developing since the mid-1970s against the background of the breakdown of civil order in Lebanon and the central role of the PLO in the Muslim/leftist coalition against which the Maronites were fighting. Over time, Bashir Gemayel, scion of a leading Maronite family and most prominent among anti-Syrian Maronite leaders at the time, became the main Maronite contact for the Israelis. Other Maronite leaders were taking an opposite stance, in the wake of Syrian intervention in the civil war in support of the Maronites in September 1976. However, Bashir remained aloof from the Syrian-Maronite alliance and is considered to be centrally responsible for maintaining the Maronite link to the Israelis. In the period of calm following the Syrian intervention in 1976, Bashir worked to develop the link, which was maintained on the Israeli side by officials of the Mossad Intelligence Agency.

Throughout, Bashir’s purpose was to encourage Israel to intervene against the Syrian garrison forces in Lebanon. He benefited from the Likud victory in the May 1977 Israeli elections. The new Israeli government increased the level of contacts, and soon hundreds of Phalange militiamen were going to Israel for training. In December 1980, Prime Minister Menachem Begin gave a pledge to Gemayel guaranteeing the safety of the Christians of Lebanon. With tensions between the Phalange and the Syrians in the area of Zahla growing, and with the Syrians preparing to install a puppet government in Beirut that would exclude Gemayel, Bashir sought to bring the situation to a head and to ensure active Israeli support for his cause. Bashir provoked a clash with the Syrians in Zahla and requested that Israel launch an air strike in support. Israel obliged, downing two Syrian helicopters. Syria in response brought Sam-6 missiles into the Zahla area, portending a serious escalation. The tension was defused with subsequent U.S. mediation, though the missiles were not removed. Yet the incident showed the extent to which Israel’s alliance with the Maronites had developed–to a point that now promised to embroil Israel deeper into the internal Lebanese situation than at any previous time.[13]


The PLO had been in the process of establishing itself as a semi-conventional force in southern Lebanon. By the end of the 1970s, a virtual state-within-a-state existed in the area. Since its expulsion from Jordan in 1970, Lebanon remained the last territorial foothold available to the PLO. In the south, its officials ruled with a harsh hand. The movement concentrated 6,000 of its total of 15,000 fighters in southern Lebanon. They were backed up by a force of 60 World War II vintage T-34 tanks. With Israeli efforts at sealing the border against infiltration improving, the prospect of developing an artillery presence in southern Lebanon seemed to the PLO leadership to represent the best way of projecting a credible threat to Israel. The urgency of this process was enhanced by a growing sense that the Begin government, reelected on a narrower right-wing base in 1981, was planning to launch an operation to drive the PLO from southern Lebanon and hopefully destroy it once and for all.

The situation began to deteriorate toward war in the summer of 1981. Israel undertook the bombing of PLO concentrations in southern Lebanon beginning on May 28, 1981. The operations continued for a week. The PLO, fearing a large-scale Israeli response, offered only a minor response. After a six week respite, the bombing began again on July 10, 1981. The PLO now responded with Katyusha rockets and barrages from its field artillery. The exchanges of fire continued for two weeks. U.S. envoy Philip Habib then brokered a ceasefire agreed upon on July 24.[14]

The ceasefire failed to deal with the PLO’s arming and build-up of artillery in the south. In this way, it did not address the central Israeli concern and thus failed to halt the process of deterioration. From the Israeli point of view what was taking place in southern Lebanon was an attempt by an organization committed to Israel’s destruction to organize a conventional military force that would then be used to make war on Israel at a time of the organization’s choosing. The government was thus deeply concerned by the long-term implications of the PLO’s control of southern Lebanon–particularly for the security of the 68 Jewish communities in the Galilee.

From the PLO’s point of view, the organization was far from reaching a stage where it could pose a serious strategic threat to Israel. However, its immediate hope was to maintain and build its south Lebanon enclave. The PLO henceforth adopted a strategy of adherence to the ceasefire coupled with a determined drive to increase PLO forces in the area, with a particular emphasis on increasing long-range artillery capability. Thus, in the period between the July 1981 ceasefire and the Israeli invasion a year later, the PLO artillery presence in southern Lebanon more than tripled–going from 80 cannons and rocket launchers to 250 by June 1982.[15]

The spark that eventually precipitated war was the June 5, 1982 assassination attempt on then Israeli ambassador to Britain Shlomo Argov by the Abu Nidal group. Israel bombed PLO targets in southern Lebanon in retaliation. The PLO responded, and on June 6, Israeli forces invaded. The immediate goal was to push the PLO back 40 kilometers–thus putting the Galilee out of the range of the group’s Katyusha rockets. From the outset, however, there were more ambitious goals to the Israeli invasion. Israel also hoped to strike a blow at Syrian influence in Lebanon, and if possible, to see Israel’s ally–Phalange leader Bashir Gemayel–elected as Lebanon’s president. Should this be achieved, the way would be clear for Israel to conclude its second peace treaty with an Arab state. An additional goal of the invasion, as conceived by Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, was to bring about the eclipse and destruction of the PLO in Lebanon.

Of these goals, only the first and the last were achieved—and the last in a manner less complete than Israel had hoped. Israeli forces continued to Beirut, destroying Syrian anti-aircraft batteries on the way and laying siege to Beirut. Fighting between Israeli and Syrian forces began from June 7. On that day, the IDF destroyed two Syrian radar stations–one deep in Syrian-controlled territory north of the Beirut-Damascus highway. This was an early indication that Israel’s war aims went beyond merely pushing the PLO back 40 kilometers. By June 13, Israeli forces had reached Beirut and began laying siege to PLO-controlled West Beirut. With this early, high tempo phase of the war concluded, the Israeli intention was now to bring about the removal of the PLO from Lebanon. West Beirut was subjected to Israeli air and artillery attack.

On August 12, 1982, Yasir Arafat agreed to the departure of PLO forces from West Beirut. Through U.S. mediation, it was agreed that the PLO leadership would be relocated to Tunisia, with seven Arab states agreeing to accept a portion of the PLO’s fighters.[16] The evacuation of the PLO began on August 21.

The departure of the PLO from Lebanon represented a significant achievement for Israel. With this achieved, however, Israel’s more ambitious plans began rapidly to fall apart. Relations with the Phalange had become strained in the course of the initial invasion and the siege of Beirut. At the root of this was Bashir Gemayel’s refusal to order his men to take part in ground operations against the PLO in West Beirut in line with Israeli expectations. On August 23, 1982, Bashir was elected president of Lebanon. On September 15, the new president was murdered in a bomb attack while addressing a group of women activists of the Phalange party in the Christian neighborhood of Ashrafiyya in East Beirut. In the days following his election, Bashir had already begun to show signs of moving away from his link with Israel, but his death in effect destroyed the Maronite alliance with Israel, which had always been far more fragile than leading Israeli policymakers of the time had chosen to believe.

The death of Bashir placed the entire Israeli project in Lebanon in jeopardy, at a moment when it had seemed to be reaching fruition.[17] In response, Israeli forces moved to take control of West Beirut, with the intention of ending the PLO military threat. In light of heavy losses while fighting in Palestinian refugee camps along the coast, it was decided that Phalangist forces would be responsible for entering the large Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The result was that Phalangist militiamen, enraged at the assassination of their leader, moved on the camps. The Christian militiamen were concerned to avenge not only the murder of Bashir but also previous massacres carried out against Christians by PLO forces, such as the massacre at Damur in February 1976.

On September 16-17, a massacre of civilians by the Phalange took place in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, which were in an area under the overall control of the IDF. An Israeli commission of enquiry into the massacres found that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon bore “personal responsibility” for the massacre because of his having failed to take the “danger” that the Phalangists might commit a massacre into account when he permitted them to enter the camps.[18] Estimates of the number of victims of the massacre vary.

Israel’s involvement in Lebanon had by now become a matter of deep political controversy in Israel. The Sabra and Shatila massacre galvanized Israeli opposition to the war amid claims that Defense Minister Sharon had misled the cabinet regarding the original extent of Israel’s war aims. The Kahan Commission report was published on February 9, 1983, with Israeli forces still in control of southern Lebanon up to Beirut. Against the background of the report, Ariel Sharon resigned as defense minister, staying on in the cabinet as minister without portfolio. Then, in September 1983, Menachem Begin resigned as prime minister, disappearing from Israeli public life. While the precise reasons for Begin’s resignation have never emerged, it is generally assumed that the pressure brought on by the events in Lebanon, and particularly by the ongoing loss of life among Israeli troops, were primary factors in bringing about his resignation.[19] Begin was replaced by former Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

The 1982 Lebanon War was very much the brainchild of Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, and in due course, it ended the political career of the former and appeared for a time to have done the same for the latter. Ultimately, Israel achieved its limited military aim of removing the PLO from Lebanon, and this undoubtedly represented a significant gain for the Jewish state. Yet this was achieved purely by Israeli arms and without connection to the Israeli-Maronite alliance that formed the political backdrop to the invasion. This alliance proved to be built on sand. Before his assassination, it was clear that Bashir Gemayel was attempting to move away from the link to Israel.[20] The Israeli link to the Maronites produced a single diplomatic achievement–a peace treaty signed between Israel and Lebanon in March 1983. This treaty recognized the 1923 border as the legitimate border between the two states. The treaty was not to the liking of the Syrians, who were far more effective power-brokers in Lebanon than the Israelis. The treaty was duly unilaterally abrogated by the Lebanese side in March 1984.[21]

Israel’s alliance with the Maronites derived from a faulty analysis of the real balance of forces in Lebanon and some extremely adept lobbying on the part of the Lebanese Phalangists. Israel overestimated the strength of their Maronite allies, their sincerity, and their ability to impose their wishes on the rest of Lebanon. In the case of Prime Minister Begin, there was a genuine concern at the possible genocide of Lebanese Christians which, as a Holocaust survivor, he wished to help prevent. In the case of Defense Minister Sharon, the concern was to deliver a mortal blow to the PLO, and at the same time bring about peace between Israel and a Maronite-dominated Lebanon. This ambition proved beyond reach. Nevertheless, the end of the PLO’s role in Lebanon may have played a role in precipitating the more moderate turn taken by the Palestinian national movement at the end of the 1980s–since it definitively rendered unrealistic Palestinian ambitions to develop a conventional military force with which to challenge Israel.


With its main Maronite ally dead, Israel attempted to work with Bashir’s brother Amin and to move forward toward a peace agreement under U.S. mediation. Amin proved not strong enough to play the role envisioned for him according to this idea. Instead, amid the kaleidoscope of shifting alignments and angry calls for the withdrawal of IDF forces, Israel became increasingly concerned with protecting the lives of its own soldiers. In August 1983, the slow process of withdrawal began, with Israel removing its forces unilaterally from the area of the Shuf Mountains, where it had been seeking to mediate between the Phalange and Druze forces loyal to Walid Jumblatt. Jumbalat at the time was allied to Syria, and his forces were the clearest threat to Amin Gemayel’s attempt to consolidate control over the country. The United States, attempting to mediate between Gemayel and Israel, asked Israel to delay the move, but this proved impossible. IDF forces withdrew to new lines along the Awali River. Predictably, Jumblatt’s forces rapidly overran the area following the Israeli withdrawal, resulting in large-scale atrocities against Christian civilians.

An anti-Gemayel, anti-Israel, anti-U.S., and pro-Syrian alignment was now emerging as the key political force in the country. Among the various elements involved in this alignment, little noticed at first, were pro-Iranian Shi’a militants who had organized under the auspices of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Biq’a. Israel’s withdrawal to the Awali River line removed the IDF from the cauldron of Beirut, but left Israel entrenched as an occupying force in the Shi’a south of Lebanon.

The result was that in the next period, Israel found itself the unexpected target of Shi’a attacks.[22] On its entry into Lebanon, the IDF had found itself welcomed by the inhabitants of the Shi’a villages of the south. Traditionally a politically inactive people for the most part, the Shi’a had found themselves subject to a brutal and arbitrary rule by the PLO, which had led them to see the IDF as liberators in the summer of 1982. This feeling rapidly changed, however, as Lebanon’s Shi’a found themselves subject to a heavy-handed Israeli occupation. A number of inflammatory incidents deriving from Israel’s ignorance of the sensibilities of Shi’a Muslims contributed to the deterioration of the situation. The Shi’a violence against the Israeli forces was carried out by two organizations–the Amal militia, which had constituted the main political force among the Lebanese Shi’a since its establishment in the 1970s, and the smaller, pro-Iranian Hizballah which would eventually eclipse Amal. The IDF remained deployed along these lines for the next two years, in the course of which the Iranian-sponsored Hizballah grew in popularity as a force combining opposition to Israeli occupation with a wider Shi’a Islamist ideology implacably opposed to Israel’s existence and to the West.[23]

American forces, harried by attacks from pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian terror groups, departed Lebanon in late 1983. Israel’s peace treaty with Lebanon, as mentioned above, was abrogated the following year, and with this, the Israeli attempt to intervene in Lebanese politics effectively came to an end. Syrian interference had proven the more ruthless force, and it was this, coupled with Israel’s own faulty understanding of the nature and dynamics of Lebanese politics, that doomed Israel’s ambitions.

In the meantime, Israeli forces remained deployed along the Awali River line, under increasing attack from Hizballah and Amal. In June 1985, the IDF again redeployed further south–leaving all of Lebanon save a 12-mile-wide “security zone” close to the Israeli border, which was maintained in cooperation with the SLA, the militia founded by Sa’ad Haddad and later led by Antoine Lahad. The security zone was intended to prevent attacks on Israeli communities on Israel’s northern border. It largely succeeded in this while exacting a steady toll on the lives of the IDF soldiers stationed in it from the attacks of Hizballah.


Hizballah, which emerged as the key Shi’a force opposed to Israel in the 1990s, was simultaneously an authentic grassroots representative of the Lebanese Shi’a and a pro-Iranian ideological Islamist movement committed to the destruction of Israel. The movement developed from its beginnings as a body known mainly for the practice of kidnapping foreigners and suicide bombings into a formidable guerrilla force in the 1990s. Hizballah maintained constant pressure on the IDF in the buffer zone, engaging in attacks on convoys, placing roadside bombs, occasional rocket attacks, and attacks on IDF outposts. Over time, the organization began to employ sophisticated weaponry, including Sagger anti-tank missiles.

The ending of the Lebanese civil war as a result of the signing of the Ta’if Agreement in 1989, and Syrian intervention in 1990 did not have a major effect on the situation on Israel’s northern border. Ta’if permitted Hizballah to keep its weaponry, unlike other militias, because it was classified as a “resistance” group rather than a militia.[24] Syria gave it free rein to continue attacks on Israeli forces. In 1993, and again in 1996, the IDF undertook major operations beyond the Security Zone and deeper into southern Lebanon. Both operations–Accountability in 1993 and Grapes of Wrath in 1996–were undertaken in response to Hizballah shelling civilian communities in northern Israel. Both operations demonstrated the difficulties of locating and destroying Katyusha rocket launchers.

Israel was unwilling, however, to widen the scope of operations against Hizballah in a way that might have brought it into potential conflict with the Syrians. The result was that the situation reached an effective stalemate, with Israel losing an average of two or three soldiers per month to Hizballah attacks.

The Security Zone succeeded in keeping northern Israel safe from terrorist infiltration. During the period of its existence, only two successful armed infiltrations of the border took place, and in both cases the gunmen were killed before carrying out their attack.[25] Yet the maintenance of the Zone also exacted a cost from IDF personnel. Israeli public discontent with the seemingly endless conflict in southern Lebanon began to increase after a helicopter accident claimed the lives of 73 soldiers in the Security Zone in 1997. An incident on September 5, 1997, in which 12 members of the IDF’s naval commando unit were killed, further eroded the Israeli public’s willingness to see the IDF stay in southern Lebanon.[26] A protest movement founded by Orna Shimoni, whose son was killed in southern Lebanon, demanded immediate unilateral withdrawal from the Security Zone by the IDF. In 1999, Ehud Barak was elected prime minister with a clear promise to withdraw Israeli forces to the international border.

Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Security Zone began on May 22, 2000. It was carried out without prior consultation with Israel’s SLA allies. This was because of Israeli concerns that the SLA, whose rank-and-file was largely Shi’a and recruited because of economic incentives, was infiltrated by Hizballah and therefore any information given to them would reach Hizballah. The withdrawal was completed by May 24. In its final phase, it turned into an undignified rush for the border as the SLA collapsed. A considerable amount of military equipment, including armored vehicles, was left behind and fell into Hizballah hands. Some of this equipment may still be seen in southern Lebanon, where Hizballah has converted it into monuments for its victory. At the entrance to Bint Jbayl, for example, an ancient SLA tank may be seen, with a cardboard statue of Ayatollah Khomeini triumphantly standing on it. This image, perhaps more than any other, captures the essence of the last phase of Israel’s involvement in southern Lebanon.

In June 2000, the UN confirmed that Israel’s withdrawal had brought the country back to the international border and that Israel was therefore in accordance with UN Resolution 425. Thus ended the 18-year period of Israeli military involvement on Lebanese soil. Subsequent events did not develop as Israel had hoped, however, and did not allow the Israelis to draw a line under the painful, generation-long experience with Lebanon.

The Lebanese army failed to deploy in the south of the country, which remained under the control of Hizballah. Hizballah, meanwhile, did not transform itself into a purely political domestic force following the Israeli departure. Rather, the movement claimed that the Israeli withdrawal was not complete because, it claimed, the Shab’a farms, a 22-square-kilometer area on the border between Lebanon and the Golan Heights, also constituted part of Lebanon. This claim did not stand up to international scrutiny. A 2005 report by the UN secretary general stated that: “The continually asserted position of the Government of Lebanon that the Blue Line is not valid in the Shab’a farms area is not compatible with Security Council resolutions. The Council has recognized the Blue Line as valid for purposes of confirming Israel’s withdrawal pursuant to resolution 425 (1978).”[27]

The UN Security Council subsequently passed Resolution 1310, which confirmed that Israel had fulfilled its obligation to leave Lebanese territory.

Nevertheless, the Shab’a farms claim was used as a casus belli by Hizballah, which vowed to continue attacks on Israel unless the area was ceded. Hizballah’s determination to continue its fight against Israel and the failure of the Beirut government or the Syrian power-brokers in Lebanon to interfere with this resulted in continued tension on Israel’s northern border.

Ironically, the result of Israel’s military intervention in 1982, and its subsequent long military occupation of southern Lebanon, was to remove the Palestinians permanently from the Lebanese political map and as a military threat to Israel–while making a new and more potent enemy in the Iranian-backed Hizballah, which pursued a similar tactic of rocket fire and guerrilla attacks from the same south Lebanese area that Israeli strategists had once called Fatahland.

The period of 2000 to 2006 was characterized by flare-ups between Israel and Hizballah, deriving from Hizballah attempts to kidnap IDF troops. The reason for the kidnappings was ostensibly to obtain the release of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. The broader purpose was also to maintain a front of military pressure on Israel, in the service of Hizballah’s patrons in Tehran and latterly Damascus. In October 2000, Hizballah forces attacked an IDF patrol in the Shab’a farms area, kidnapping three soldiers. Israel’s response was restrained, particularly in comparison with the declarations of Israeli politicians during the period of the withdrawal as to what Hizballah could expect if it refused to transform itself into a purely political Lebanese force.

In addition to its periodic attacks, Hizballah also engaged in the 2000-2006 period in massive investment in its military infrastructure in southern Lebanon. The organization built an extensive system of tunnels across the area, which would enable its fighters to move unhindered in the event of conflict with Israel. With Iranian assistance, the organization constructed a series of observation outposts along the closed border–which they effectively administered–in order to observe the Israeli side.[28] Hizballah General Secretary Hasan Nasrallah spoke openly of the movement’s intention of kidnapping more Israeli soldiers. An attempt at a kidnapping on November 21, 2005, failed when Israeli paratroopers near the village of Rajar on the border noted a Hizballah team entering Israel and drove them back. [29]


The Second Lebanon War began on July 12, 2006, with the shelling by Hizballah of the Israeli border villages of Zarit and Shlomi. The shelling was intended to act as a diversion for the commencement of a cross-border raid. The objective of the raid was the abduction of IDF soldiers for use as bargaining chips to secure the release of Lebanese citizens convicted of terrorist acts and incarcerated in Israel. A contingent of Hizballah fighters attacked two armored Humvees manned by IDF reservists from a combat engineering unit. Three IDF soldiers were killed, two more injured, and two abducted by the Hizballah men and taken back across the border to Lebanon. Five additional soldiers were killed, and a Merkava tank destroyed as the IDF attempted to rescue the soldiers.[30]

The Hizballah attack was met by a determined Israeli response, which began with Israeli airstrikes on Lebanese targets, including Hizballah’s south Beirut headquarters and the Rafiq Hariri International airport. The Israeli response was more far-reaching than Hizballah had expected. It represented an Israeli attempt to end the long stalemate between Israel and Hizballah once and for all and to strike a decisive blow against the Iran-supported organization.

Hizballah leaders were undoubtedly surprised by the extent and ferocity of the Israeli response. However, once its dimensions became clear, the movement was able to mobilize according to prior existing plans to await the Israeli ground assault. In the following days, the movement reinforced the border villages, moving in elements of its regular force. At an early stage, however, the Israeli political leadership chose to rule out a major ground assault to the Litani River. Instead, an intensive air campaign commenced. Israel enjoyed some early successes in destroying Hizballah’s long-range missile capability. Israeli defense sources claim to have destroyed around 80 percent of this capability.[31] Yet Israel found no effective answer to the launching of shorter range missiles from the area under Hizballah control.

Hizballah would fire almost 4,000 rockets in the course of the fighting, with over 200 rockets a day fired in the final days of the war.[32] Hizballah was not able to adjust or coordinate its rocket fire in a sophisticated fashion, and hence the rockets were employed in essence as a terror weapon, designed to produce panic and disorientation among Israel’s civilian population in the north.

Limited ground operations began on July 17, 2006. These consisted for the most part of what were essentially large-scale raids by Israeli forces into areas adjoining the border. Together with the air campaign and the war on the ground close to the border, the Israeli navy imposed a blockade on the Lebanese coast, which Hizballah proved unable to dislodge–despite its early success in hitting and badly damaging an Israeli ship, the Hanit, with a C-802 missile.[33]

These, then, were the contours of the war for the greater part of its duration: limited ground operations by the IDF in an area adjoining the border, air operations up to Beirut, as well as a naval blockade; and on Hizballah’s side, defense of areas under ground attack and a successful effort to maintain a constant barrage of short-range rockets on northern Israel.

This situation changed somewhat in the final days of the war, as the IDF began larger-scale and more ambitious ground operations. This phase saw the IDF push for the Litani River, achieving some tactical objectives, though with considerable loss of life.[34] The targeting of IDF armored forces in the Wadi Saluqi area, with resultant heavy IDF losses, received much publicity.[35] A ceasefire came into effect at 8:00 a.m. on August 14, 2006, following the passing of UN Resolution 1701. The end of the fighting found some IDF forces deployed at the Litani River but with Israel far from control of the entire area between the river and the Israeli-Lebanese border. Symbolic of this was Hizballah’s continued ability to fire short-range missiles into Israel, which the group demonstrated by continuing the barrage until the very minute that the ceasefire went into effect.

The conduct of the Second Lebanon War, and in particular the perceived failure of Israel to achieve its stated objectives, such as the freeing of the two kidnapped soldiers and the disarming of Hizballah, led to a mood of deep disquiet in Israel in the months that followed the war.

The aims of the war from Israel’s point of view had been defined in the cabinet on July 19, 2006. They included:

·       Freeing the kidnapped soldiers and bringing them back to Israel, with no conditions.

·       The cessation of the firing of missiles and rockets against the citizens of Israel and against Israeli targets.

·       Complete implementation of Resolution 1559, including the disarming of all the militias as well as the imposition of its sovereignty by the Lebanese government throughout its territory, and also the deployment of the Lebanese army along the border with Israel.[36]

Following the ceasefire, it was clear that of these objectives only the second half of the third had been achieved. This led to the widespread and clearly justified sense later summed up in the final report of the Winograd Committee of the war as a “great and grave missed opportunity.”[37]

Many international observers felt that the mood of pessimism that very noticeably descended on Israel in the weeks following the war was exaggerated.[38] Resolution 1701, which ended the fighting, changed the situation in southern Lebanon to Israel’s advantage, in that it ended the de facto Hizballah domination of the southern border area that had pertained since the unilateral Israeli withdrawal in May 2000. According to the resolution, control of the south and of the border would be taken over by a beefed up UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) force and by the Lebanese army’s deployment in the south for the first time since 2000.[39]

The loss of the control of the border and of freedom of operation south of the Litani was a significant setback for Hizballah. Clearly, however, much would depend on the extent to which the international community would prove determined in ensuring the implementation of the resolution. It was also evident that these achievements notwithstanding, Israel had failed to achieve the greater number of its goals as the Israeli government itself had defined them, and the performance of the army–in particular the ground forces–was cause for deep concern and disquiet regardless of the clear damage inflicted on Hizballah in the course of the war and by its outcome.

Hizballah, for its part, declared that the war represented a “divine victory” for the movement.[40] The movement initially claimed to have suffered minimal losses. As the underdog, it was able to point to the generally acknowledged impressive performance of its fighters in the defense of southern Lebanese towns and the failure of Israel to destroy the organization’s infrastructure of command or to kill any of the senior leaders of the movement. A statement made by Hizballah leader Hasan Nasrallah in an interview with a Lebanese TV channel shortly after the war, however, indicated a more complex response to the war within Hizballah. Nasrallah said that had the movement known of the likely IDF response to the kidnapping operation, it would have never have carried out the kidnappings. This statement became the subject of much interpretation and speculation.[41]




Since 2006, Lebanon has been wracked by renewed internal political instability, deriving from an attempt by Hizballah to capitalize politically on its performance in the war and to achieve veto power in the Lebanese governing coalition. The long period of political standoff between pro-Iranian Hizballah and the pro-western March 14 coalition has brought the country to the brink of renewed civil war.

The changes wrought by Resolution 1701 began to be implemented in the period following the war. The open, armed Hizballah presence in southern Lebanon disappeared. UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) was increased from 2,000 to 13,000 troops. Lebanese military forces deployed in the south, taking control of the border.[42]

However, there is deep concern in Israel at the manner in which 1701 has been implemented. UN forces have not deployed in the eastern part of the country, adjoining the border with Syria. The result has been an unhindered rearming of Hizballah starting almost immediately after the ceasefire in 2006. By summer 2008, Hizballah was believed by Israeli military officials to have entirely replaced losses in ordnance experienced in the 2006 war and in fact to have increased the number of missiles under its control in comparison to the pre-July 2006 period.[43]

Many observers consider that a renewal of hostilities between Hizballah and Israel is a matter of time. Lebanon has become–not for the first time–one of the key locations in which the central power struggle of the Middle East is being played out. That struggle now is between pro-U.S. states and an alliance grouped around Iran. In Lebanon, Hizballah represents the pro-Iranian side, with the largely Sunni, Saudi-supported March 14 Movement representing the pro-U.S. forces. As of now, Hizballah has succeeded in preserving the absolute autonomy of its military infrastructure, enabling it to renew conflict with Israel at a time of its choosing (even if the presence of UNIFIL continues to restrict its ability to operate openly south of the Litani River.) The ongoing regional tension and the enmity between Iran and Israel suggest that the long and ruinous history of war between Israel and various armed factions committed to its demise on Lebanese soil is likely not yet over.[44]




Israel’s involvement with Lebanon has been related from the outset to the weakness of Lebanese central state authority, and for a while also to the Israeli sense that the Christians of Lebanon represented a natural ally for Israel. The latter idea is now defunct in Israeli thinking, following the experience of 1982-1984. The consensus to be found among Israeli officials dealing with Lebanon is that Moshe Sharett’s statement of 1955 that the Christians were a “broken reed” is now confirmed.[45] As a consequence of this, Israel currently has no dealings with any of the major political actors within Lebanon.

However, while large-scale Israeli adventures to make alliance with political forces within Lebanon are part of the past, the weakness of the Lebanese state and central authority remain very much part of the present. One of the results of this weakness, which is itself a product of the country’s divided sectarian make-up, is its vulnerability to outside penetration, and therefore its oft-repeated, luckless fate as the launching-ground for attacks by various forces (the PLO, Syria, now Iran and Hizballah) against Israel, its southern neighbor–with whom the majority of Lebanese have no particular dispute or quarrel. This fact remains the core reality behind Israel’s relations with Lebanon. It is–unfortunately for both countries–unlikely that the final word in this story has been written.

Israel itself must take some of the responsibility for the direction of events. Specifically, Israeli policymaking was gripped by a kind of inertia in the period following the departure of the PLO from Beirut. This was partially the result of the alliance with the Maronites and the faith which Israeli policymakers had placed in it. Yet in staying entrenched across southern Lebanon, long after the relationship with the Maronites had gone sour, Israel incurred the enmity of southern Lebanese Shi’a and allowed the Iranian-supported Hizballah to capitalize on this enmity for its own much larger hostility to Israel. Many leading Israeli policymakers agree in retrospect that Israel should have withdrawn to the international border by 1984.[46]

The bitter opposition of Hizballah to Israel and the movement’s deep entrenchment among the Shi’a of Lebanon served to confound expectations that Israel’s May 2000 withdrawal would mark the end of major conflict in that area. These are now part of the reality of the region and are considered by many observers to be likely at some point in the future to lead to further open conflict.

 * Dr. Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Herzliya, Israel.


[1] Laura Zittrain Eisenberg, “Do Good Fences Make Good Neighbors?: Israel and Lebanon After the Withdrawal,” Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, Vol. 4, No. 3 (2000), p. 18,

[2] “Country Profile: Lebanon,” UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office,

[3] See Frederic C. Hof, Galilee Divided: The Israel-Lebanon Frontier 1916-1984 (Boulder: Westview, 1985).

[4] Zittrain Eisenberg, “Do Good Fences Make Good Neighbors?,” p. 19. See also Fouad Ajami, The Dream Palace of the Arabs (Pantheon, 1998), pp. 26-110 for an examination of the interaction between Lebanon and Arab nationalism.

[5] Reuven Ehrlich, The Lebanon Tangle: The Policy of the Zionist Movement and the State of Israel towards Lebanon, 1918-1958 (Tel Aviv: Maarachot, 2000). Also Laura Zittrain Eisenberg, My Enemy’s Enemy: Lebanon in the Early Zionist Imagination, 1900-1948 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994).

[6] Zeev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari, Israel’s Lebanon War (London: Counterpoint, 1984).

[7] Helena Cobban, The Palestinian Liberation Organisation: People, Power and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 47.

[8] Gal Luft, “Israel’s Security Zone in Lebanon – A Tragedy?” Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 3 (September 2000).

[9] For a more in-depth account of this operation see Ahron Bregman, Israel‘s Wars: A History Since 1947 (London: Routledge, 2002).

[10] Zeev Maoz and Ben D. Mor, Bound by Struggle: The Strategic Evolution of Enduring International Rivalries (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), p. 192.

[11] Schiff and Ya’ari, Israel’s Lebanon War, pp. 24-25.

[12] Resolution 425, complete text, Mideast Web,

[13] Schiff and Ya’ari, Israel’s Lebanon War, pp. 29-30.

[14] Ibid., p. 37.

[15] Ibid., p. 84.

[16] Ibid., p. 227.

[17] Thomas Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem (London: Collins, 1990), p. 157.

[18] Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the events at the refugee camps in Beirut, February 8, 1983, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs,

About Jonathan Spyer

Dr. Jonathan Spyer is Director of the Rubin Center (formerly the GLORIA Center), IDC Herzliya, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010) and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post newspaper. Spyer holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master’s Degree in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His reporting on the war in Syria and Iraq has been published in a number of major news outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Times, Weekly Standard and many others. His blog can be followed at: