Paul Alster
Israel-based print and broadcast journalist

The man who triggered the First Lebanon War

Next week will mark 30 years since the start of the Lebanon War, while May 25th marked the 12th anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon. Much has been written about the rights and wrongs of the conflict, and opinions still remain divided as to whether Israel’s offensive proved the right way to combat terrorist threats from the northern border. But it is the spark that finally ignited the war that remains a most personal and poignant memory for me.

How so? How could a 14-year-old boy from the north of England have even a tenuous connection to such tumultuous events? Well, all those years ago I was a young jazz musician, in demand to perform concerts, play nightclubs, and entertain at charitable events. In the spring of 1982, I was asked to do a cabaret spot at a big Jewish charity evening at which the guest of honour was to be the Israeli Ambassador to Britain, Mr. Shlomo Argov. I duly went along, played for 20 minutes, and after the show was informed that the ambassador wished to speak with me.

I found myself in the company of a charming, affable man who appeared genuinely interested in my career and seemed to have enjoyed my music to the extent that he extended an invitation to me to come to London at some point in the not-too-distant future to perform at an Embassy event. We chatted for five minutes or so, and when he moved on I felt I had made something of a connection with this significant figure. I was quite thrilled by his invitation.

A few weeks later, on June 3, 1982, I was stunned by a news flash on the late-evening edition that reported that Shlomo Argov had been shot as he left a banquet at London’s Dorchester Hotel. The 52-year-old was attacked by three men — a Palestinian, a Jordanian and a colonel in Iraqi intelligence — at close range, sustaining bullet wounds to the head. All three men were soon captured, the Jordanian, Hussein Ghassan Said, having been shot (but not killed) at the scene by one of Argov’s bodyguards, while the other two were apprehended at their hideout a few hours later. They were subsequently tried and sentenced to a total of 95 years in prison in Britain.

All three belonged to the Abu Nidal organization, a notoriously brutal terrorist group that broke away from the PLO after Nidal and Yasser Arafat had a fallout. The group was responsible for many grisly murders, hijackings and bombings around the globe. Abu Nidal was the founder of Fatah, the current governing party in the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and was himself assassinated by Iraqi intelligence in Baghdad in 2002.

Despite the bullet wounds to the head, Shlomo Argov did not die. He lay in a coma for more than three months before eventually recovering consciousness, but was left paralysed and severely disabled as a result of his terrible injuries. He suffered greatly for the rest of his life before eventually passing away in February 2003, at the age of 73.

The audacious attack on Israel’s ambassador to London prompted a swift and well-documented response, with Ariel Sharon leading the calls to go into Southern Lebanon to drive the Palestinian terrorists out of the region and negate the threat they were believed to pose to residents on Israel’s northern border.

On June 6, 1982, just three days after the attack on Argov, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, (the man who only a few years earlier had signed the famous peace deal with Egypt), ordered Israel’s forces into Lebanon, where they were to remain for 18 years until 2000, when Ehud Barak instigated a unilateral withdrawal from the territory. Some 675 Israeli soldiers were sadly killed during the occupation as well as many more on the opposing side made up of Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian fighters, and as is always the case in any war, many civilians.

Most people under the age of 40 have heard much about what has become known, (as a result of the renewed hostilities in 2006), as the First Lebanon War and its consequences, but not everyone of my generation and younger remembers the trigger that prompted the final decision by Israel to move to neutralize the threat it perceived as a major barrier to security within our borders.

Argov himself was reportedly deeply distressed by the fact that the attack on him had prompted the invasion that in due course would cost countless lives amongst the ranks of Israel’s soldiers.  His reaction is not surprising when you consider he was a career diplomat whose raison d’etre was to find political solutions to international problems, rather than be quick to turn to military force. It was reported by a number of international media sources that only a year after the attack in London Argov declared:

Israel cannot get entangled in experiments or hopeless military adventures… If those who initiated this war in Lebanon had envisioned the scope of this adventure, it could have saved the lives of hundreds of our best young people.

It is hard to believe that 30 years have indeed passed since that audacious, brutal attack on Shlomo Argov on the streets of London that, (rather like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 that triggered the First World War), started a conflict that lasted very nearly a generation.

For me, I still vividly recall my brief conversation with Israel’s ambassador to London, his kindly manner and his interest in my career, and only wish the terrorists had missed their hand-picked target those few weeks later and that the chain of events that followed had never come to be; although if it hadn’t have been Argov, doubtless the murder or attempted murder of another significant Israeli target would have eventually provoked the traumatic Lebanon War and all that followed.

About the Author
Paul Alster is an Israel-based broadcast journalist with a special interest in the Israel/Palestinian conflict and Middle East politics. He is a regular contributor to a variety of international news websites including The Jerusalem Report, and was formerly's main Middle East correspondent. He can be followed on Twitter @paul_alster or at