Backgrounder: Israel in Lebanon

"For the man whose knowledge is not in order, the more he has of it, the greater will be his confusion."
-- Herbert Spencer (1820-1923)

Events which drew Israel into military involvement in Lebanon date back to 1968, when PLO fedayeen moved to establish an independent power-base among the country's 300 000 Palestinian refugees. Similar efforts in nearby Jordan were crushed by King Hussein in 1971, after which PLO headquarters were set up in Beirut, turning Lebanon into the primary breeding ground of Arab terrorism against Israel.

The PLO created a quasi-governmental autonomy in Lebanon - a state-within-a-state. In 'Fatahland', on the foothills of Mount Hermon, up to 15 000 men were trained to carry out attacks on Israel. Between 1968 and 1974, PLO operations saw 1200 Jews and Arabs killed, and nearly 3000 wounded.

The same six years witnessed nearly 900 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians killed in Israeli retaliatory raids as Lebanon's government learned, from the start, that it would be held accountable for anti-Israel attacks planned in and launched from its territory.

In 1974, attacks between Christians and Muslims ignited what became known as Lebanon's civil war. The designation was not entirely accurate, as it was not a purely Lebanese-versus Lebanese conflict. It was, in reality, a PLO-waged war against Lebanon's Christians, with Lebanese Muslims siding with the terror group against their fellow countrymen.

Syria - which has never recognised Lebanon's independence - sent in Syrian-trained Palestinian brigades in 1975, shifting the tide in the Muslims' favour. A sympathetic Israel offered shelter and protection to several thousand Christians who fled to Lebanon's south. In early 1976, after fierce fighting had claimed at least 70 000 lives, Syrian President Hafez el-Assad agreed to end the fighting on condition his troops could remain in Lebanon.

Assad also agreed to Israel's demand that Syrian and Lebanese government troops not venture south of Tyre, into what became known as the Red Line zone. In the ensuing months a Christian militia trained and armed by Israel, operated in the zone with Israel to oppose PLO infiltration into the Galilee.

In 1978, Syria permitted PLO terrorists to sail down the coast to Israel, where they hijacked a bus. The gunmen nearly reached Tel Aviv before being stopped by Israeli forces. In the exchange of fire, 34 Israeli civilians were killed, along with the terrorists.

Israel responded with "Operation Litani", sending 8000 troops into Lebanon to wipe out the PLO bases in the south. The aim was not realised, and many Lebanese were killed, spurring the UN Security Council to assign a 3000-man international peacekeeping force, UNIFIL, into the area east of the Red Line zone. UNIFIL's presence failed to stop the PLO attacks, and terrorists were able to fire rockets into the zone from beyond the peacekeepers' positions.

In 1980, with Assad's consent, the heavily-armed PLO began a prolonged shelling of northern Israel, keeping the populations of 33 towns and settlements in shelters most of the day and night.

In March 1981, Syria violated its 1976 treaty with Israel by sending helicopter-borne troops to fight Christians in the Beka'a. Israel destroyed two of the choppers, and Assad moved SAM anti-aircraft batteries into the Valley, further violating the ceasefire. An Israeli plan to attack the batteries was prevented when US President Ronald Reagan sent emissary Philip Habib to broker an agreement between Damascus and Jerusalem.

That July, after a six-week moratorium, Israeli aircraft attacked PLO bases, triggering a PLO response which saw rockets hit the Israeli town of Nahariya and immobilise the entire western Galilee. Habib brokered another truce, but its terms permitted the PLO to rearm and fortify its bases in southern Lebanon to the point where Fatahland could boast the equivalent of five infantry brigades.

By 1982 the PLO ruled virtually all Lebanon, from two-thirds of Beirut south to the Red Line zone. For Israel, the situation had become untenable.

In June 1982, "Operation Peace for Galilee" was launched, and 80 000 IDF troops moved into Lebanon. While the declared aim of the invasion was to create a 40km wide PLO-free zone north of Israel, Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon actually planned a far more daring operation: the removal from Lebanon of the entire PLO and its Syrian overseers, and the placing of the country into Christian hands.

Entire communities of Shi'a and Christian Lebanese welcomed the Israelis as liberators from the PLO reign of terror.

Syria had sent 16 000 additional troops into Lebanon after the Israeli invasion. Clashes between the two states resulted in numerous casualties, while Israel managed to wipe out Syria's SAM batteries plus 20 per cent of the Syrian airforce. Fearing Soviet intervention on Syria's behalf, President Reagan pressured Israel to accept a cease-fire.

In the end, Sharon achieved only part of his goal, driving the PLO out of Lebanon in August 1982. Arafat's fighters were replaced by an international force comprised of French, Italian and American troops. The war had cost more than 650 Israeli lives, and left Syria in a stronger position of control than before. As continued attacks by Lebanese Muslims inflicted heavy casualties on Israeli soldiers, pressure grew at home for the IDF to withdraw. In November 1982, a Shi'a attack on IDF headquarters in Tyre killed 74. Syria meanwhile incited attacks on US and French troops.

In 1983, a dangerous new Islamist organisation was born. The Hizb'Allah (Party of Allah), which drew its inspiration from Iran rather than from the PLO, dedicated itself to the creation of an Iranian-style Islamic republic in Lebanon, and the removal of all non-Islamic influences from the region. It also carried out attacks under the name of the "Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine".

Almost immediately, Hizb'Allah scored major victories, killing 241 US Marines and 58 French legionnaires in suicide bombings in October 1983. Five months later, the Americans and French were gone, leaving most of Lebanon under the occupation of tens of thousands of Syrian troops. By the late 1980s Hizb'Allah had over 5000 men receiving training in camps throughout Syria and in the Beka'a Valley. Its commanders reported directly to the Iranian Ambassador in Damascus.

Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, which began in 1983, was finally completed two years later. For the last 15 years, Israel's military involvement has been largely restricted to maintaining, together with the allied South Lebanon Army, a 3 to 18km wide security zone contiguous with the Israel-Lebanon border, the purpose of which is to take northern Israeli towns out of Katyusha rocket range. The on-going, low-intensity war has claimed the lives of over 1200 Israeli soldiers. Hizb'Allah's ongoing attacks against the SLA and IDF are supplemented by rocket fire into Israel's northern communities. Periodically, hostilities heat up and Israel conducts raids against Hizb'Allah bases north of the zone, sometimes successfully, on other occasions not. Recently Hizb'Allah began taking delivery of longer-range rockets which can be fired into Israel from north of the zone.

Lebanon - Vital statistics

Total land area: 10,230 sq km.

Border with Syria: 375 km.

Border with Israel: 79 km.

Coastline: 225 km.

Population: 3,776,317 (July 1996 est.)

Ethnic divisions: Arab 95%, Armenian 4%, other 1%.

Religion: 70% Muslim (there are 5 legally recognised Islamic groups: Alawite, Druze, Isma'ilite, Shi'a, Sunni). 30% Christian (there are 11 legally recognised Christian groups - 4 Orthodox Christian, 6 Catholic, 1 Protestant)

Chief of state: President Elias Harawi (since 1989) was elected for a six-year term by the National Assembly and in 1995 the National Assembly amended the constitution to extend his term by three years

Head of government: Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri (since 1992)

By custom, Lebanon's president is a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of the legislature a Shi'a Muslim

Hizb'Allah - The Party of Allah

The radical Shi'a group, Hizb'Allah - also known by the names "Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine" and "Organisation of the Oppressed on Earth", among others - was formed in Lebanon in 1983. It is believed to have 3,000 full-time members, of whom up to 500 are directly involved in terrorist activity.

According to a US State Department publication on 'Patterns of Global Terrorism', Hizb'Allah is dedicated to the creation of an Iranian-style Islamic republic in Lebanon, and the removal of all non-Islamic influences from the region. It is strongly anti-West and anti-Israel, and is closely allied with, and often directed by, Iran, from whom it receives substantial financial, training, weapons, explosives, political, diplomatic, and organisational aid.

Apart from its direct anti-Israel activitites, Hizb'Allah has been involved in numerous anti-US terrorist attacks, including the suicide truck-bombing of the US Embassy and US Marine barracks in Beirut in October 1983 and the US Embassy annex in Beirut in September 1984. Hizb'Allah hijacked TWA 847 in 1985. Elements of the group were responsible for the kidnapping and detention of most, if not all, US and other Western hostages in Lebanon. It publicly claimed responsibility for the car-bombing of Israel's Embassy in Buenos Aires in March 1992.

Hizb'Allah operates in the Beka'a Valley, in the southern suburbs of Beirut, and in southern Lebanon. It has established cells in Europe, Africa, South America, North America, and elsewhere.

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