The recent decision to exhume the corpse of Yasir Arafat from the bowels of the earth, which coincides with the 30th anniversary of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon this summer, an invasion of which Yasir Arafat can be said without controversy to be the chief author and catalyst, has set me to remembering the fate of the many thousands of innocents who still lie buried there on behalf of his not inconsiderable efforts to put them there.
This unseemly recent initiative to retrieve the one-time PLO Chairman from his earthly slumber, incidentally, has also further set me to pondering some of the particulars that characterized this strange and terrible war, one of which occurred in the blue skies over the Bekaa Valley with lightning like alacrity, and the other down on the ground which mired a nation in a protracted, 18-year quagmire.
On the afternoon of June 9, 1982, Israeli Air Force F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers began demolishing the Soviet built Syrian SA-2, SA-3, and SA-6 surface to air missile batteries concentrated in the West Bekaa Valley of Lebanon with virtual impunity, 17 out of 19 being destroyed within 10-20 minutes.
The following morning, the F-4’s returned to dispatch the remaining two, and the Syrians scrambled some 60 of their Soviet-made MiG-21 and MiG-23 fighters to take the Phantoms out and establish Syrian air superiority of the Bekaa. The IAF tracked them the moment they left their runways, and got their birds in the air within minutes. The Israelis flew in a carefully layered formation of American-made F-15 Eagle fighters, with their superb look-down capability and sophisticated radar, flying at 30,000 ft, and American-made F-16 Falcon and their own Kfir fighters flying below them, where their smaller-bore radars worked best on targets silhouetted against the sky.
As the Syrian fighters flew into the valley at about 2:15pm, they were hit by a hail storm of electronic jamming, courtesy of an E-2C ECM reconnaissance craft that was directing the Israeli fighters to their soon-to-be downed prey. The Syrian pilots, who almost totally relied on ground control, were now cut off and began to flounder. Then the Israelis arrived at the scene, and the turkey shoot began. The Soviet made MiG-21 and MiG-23’s were simply no match for the American made F-15’s and F-16’s, and their airborne radars and air-to-air missiles were found to be even more inferior. Even worse, the Syrian pilots were using rigid, unimaginative Soviet tactics of flying in massed groups designed to destroy enemy formations by shock, weight of numbers, and closeness of formation.
Vectored by the E-2C’s, the Israeli F-15’s and F-16’s put 25 Syrian MiG fighters and 3 helicopters to the bottom of the Bekaa, and the following day downed another 18. By the end of June 1982, the Israelis had shot down 85 Syrian Mig’s—19% ofSyria’s total combat planes. 40 had fallen to American–made F-15 Eagles, 44 by American-made F-16 Falcons, and one had been downed by an American-made F-4 Phantom. Not a single Israeli fighter plane was lost in air combat. In three days the Israeli Air Force had routed the Syrian Air Force in one of the most lopsided air battles in military history.
If only the war being waged on the ground could have been conducted with such surgical swiftness and decision.
The war in Lebanon was a tragedy for both Lebanon and Israel, two nations that, left to their own devices, had no quarrel and no reason to go to war. From Israel’s perspective, it was not an unnecessary war, but it was less necessary than the previous wars had been when the life of the nation hung in the balance. The PLO attacks in the previous years were certainly a serious national-security threat, if not an existential one (though the border had been relatively quiet since the summer of 1981, there were, however, over 240 terrorist attacks by the PLO on Israelis, in Israel, the territories, and abroad).
That some response to this long campaign of terror and provocation was justified seems obvious; no sovereign state could or should be expected to suffer such attacks in silence and inaction. That the Israeli invasion met criteria for “just war” theory should go without saying. Whether the course of action the Israelis did take was wise, has long been the subject of debate. However, all one really has to do is ask what the United States would do if such a situation existed on its northern or southern borders. The question answers itself.
One thing, however, is certain: that Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon could have ever thought they could tame the sectarian furies of Lebanon and install a friendly regime in its place was a dangerous and costly fantasy. They expelled the PLO only to watch Hezbollah sprout up in their stead, saw their transient “alliance” with the double-dealing Phalangists slowly evaporate, and merely allowed the Syrians to strengthen their murderous grip on Lebanon as their vassel/slave state, where their depravities there far exceeded the worst excesses of the Israeli invasion and occupation combined many times over. It was all in vain.
But that, of course, is being wise after the event, hindsight being the prerogative of readers and writers of history. Who knew what to do at the time? And who are we to gainsay the decisions that were made? What were the alternatives? To do nothing?
No one should whitewash the tragedy of the Israeli invasion for the peoples of Lebanon, but no one should whitewash the far greater role played by the PLO, the Syrians and others in provoking the invasion and the innocent blood that was on their hands in the course of it, or, for that matter, long before it. Indeed, no one did more to upset Lebanon’s fragile sectarian balance than did Arafat and the PLO, who transferred to Lebanon all of the death, destruction, and chaos that they had previously been conferring upon Jordan, (from whom they had been violently ejected in 1970), and whose attacks on northern Israel, like Hezbollah attacks later on, brought nothing but conflict and chaos to southern Lebanon, and the West Bekaa.
Life’s brevity forbids a complete inventory of all of the depravities committed by Arafat and the PLO during their tenure in Lebanon. I shall, for my purposes here, mention but a few representative examples: the massacres at Damour and Tel-al Zaatar.
There is a grim, unintended irony at the prospect of presently exhuming Arafat’s corpse; for it was at the town of Damour on January 20, 1976 that Arafat and his terrorist thugs committed an act of mass exhumation unique in the sordid annals of tomb desecration. The PLO first butchered some 584 of the town’s civilians, then desecrated the Christian cemetery there, digging up coffins, robbing the dead, opening tombs and vaults and scattering bodies and skeletons about the graveyard. Inside a local church, a beaming portrait of Arafat and his AK-47 toting guerrillas was placed over the altar.
At Tel al-Zaatar on August 12, 1976, Arafat’s PLO first subjected the city to an unrestrained orgy of rape, mutilation and murder, then leveled the village, and finally butchered 2-3000 civilians in cold blood in a ferocious artillery barrage while they were trying to escape. As John Bulloch, The Daily Telegraph correspondent in Beirut at the time wrote,
“In their bitterness the Palestinian commanders ordered their artillery to open up on the fringes of the camp with the ostensible objective of hampering the attackers and helping those inside; instead the shells were landing among the hundreds who had got through the perimeter and were trying to escape. When they were told of this, the Palestinians made no attempt to lift their fire: they wanted martyrs”.
Robert Fisk, who was and is no friend of Israel, wrote,
“When Arafat needed martyrs in 1976, he called for a truce around the besieged refugee camp of Tel el-Zaatar, then ordered his commanders in the camp to fire at their right-wing Lebanese Christian enemies. When, as a result, the Phalangists and “Tigers” militia slaughtered their way into Tel el-Zaatar, Arafat opened a “martyrs’ village” for camp widows in the sacked Christian village of Damour. On his first visit, the widows pelted him with stones and rotten fruit. Journalists were ordered away at gunpoint.”
In another interview, published May 30, 2002, Fisk recalled,
“Arafat is a very immoral person, or maybe very amoral. A very cynical man. I remember when the Tal-al-Zaatar refugee camp in Beirut had to surrender to Christian forces in the very brutal Lebanese civil war. They were given permission to surrender with a cease-fire. But at the last moment, Arafat told his men to open fire on the Christian forces who were coming to accept the surrender. I think Arafat wanted more Palestinian “martyrs” in order to publicize the Palestinian position in the war. That was in 1976. Believe me that Arafat is not a changed man.”
Fisk also wrote of the PLO during the siege of Beirut of 1982:
“There was still, even now, an inability within the PLO to admit that the Palestinian presence in Lebanonhad contributed to the nation’s agony. Arafat and his colleagues blithely continued to associate the Phalangists with the forces of “imperialism,” as part of the international conspiracy with which the Arab regimes had always been obsessed. This only helped to encourage the political and religious division of Lebanon.
True, the Phalangists were now collaborating with the Israelis, but the contempt with which the Palestinian guerillas had treated the Lebanese was almost subconscious and long preceded the 1982 invasion…The trouble in West Beirut was that many Palestinians acted as if they did own this sector of the city. Most [residents of Beirut] would have been as happy as the Israelis to see the PLO leave, providing the guerillas were not replaced by Phalangist militiamen from East Beirut.” (“Pity The Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon,” (1990), p.290)
Fisk might also have added that the PLO had also made extensive preparations to bomb Israeli population centers with both rockets and terrorist attacks, and, in the siege of West Beirut of 1982, they inducted child soldiers into military service, deliberately placed military targets next to schools, mosques, hospitals, churches, and apartment buildings (just like their Hamas and Hezbollah prodigies would later on), and Arafat warned that if the Israelis threatened to break into West Beirut, the PLO “would simultaneously blow up some 300 ammunition dumps and bring holocaust down on the city.”
The Israeli involvement in Lebanon, in fact, was a mere part of a conflict bitterly raging between a whole host of other factions: between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, both against Christians, the Druze against the Phalangists, the Maronites and the Phalangists and the inter-rivalry of their various militias, the PLO against the Phalangists, the Syrians against the PLO, and the rivalries and turf wars between the various groups within the PLO. The conflicts, mini-conflicts and turf struggles that destroyed and destabilized Lebanon had actually very little to do with Israel, and predated their involvement. In Lebanon, every man’s hand was raised against the other, and all against the stranger.
Some 130,000 to 250,000 people were killed (more than 100,000 before the 1982 invasion), hundreds of thousands dislocated and dispossessed, and more than a million people wounded in this civil war, minus any Israeli involvement. Over the years there have been a lot of very, very, bad actors who have passed through the revolving door of the Land of the Cedars, and I hardly think it an exaggeration to say that the late, soon-to-be exhumed Yasir Arafat was among the worst of them. Not by a long shot.
This is all of more than just academic interest to me.Lebanon is my mother’s ancestral homeland. Her grandfather came to America from the town of Mashghara inWest Bekaa around the turn of the century, and her maternal grandfather came from an area around there at around the same time.
(Both, I am told, were seeking to elude conscription in the Ottoman army. My maternal great grandfather, Sharif Mohammed, also helped found one of the very first mosques built in North America here in my home town of Michigan City,Indiana in 1923).
All my life I have heard tales of Lebanon. The beauty of the country, and the warm, generous hospitality of its people. Several of my uncles have visited our relatives there in Mashghara and Bint J’Bail, and have told me of the relatives we still have living there, relatives I have never met. Someday, when Lebanon is truly free, I hope I can go there and meet them. Insh’allah
God only knows what horrors they have seen over the years.
Today both Gaza and South Lebanon have been converted into defacto military fortresses by paramilitary terrorist groups wedded to lunatic ideologies of violent jihad and martyrdom. When not oppressing and torturing their subjects, the bulk of their resources and activities are almost solely dedicated to the next round of martyr-making with Israel. They are merchants of death, and nothing but. They worship it, preach it, practice it, and industriously instill it into their youth as if nothing else in the world mattered. All for Jihad. Jihad, Jihad, Jihad. For this, they will happily convert the whole of their dominions into rubble-strewn scrap-heaps of smoke and flame again and again.
This, more than anything else, is Arafat’s true legacy. And may he rot for it.