Revealed: The Deceptions by Begin, Sharon and Eitan Behind the First Lebanon War

A recently uncovered 20-year-old study by two IDF officers reveals how Israel’s political and military leaders deceived cabinet members, soldiers and, ultimately, an entire nation when they invaded Lebanon in 1982.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Ariel Sharon in Beirut, 1982Credit: AP
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Lt. Col. Meir Mintz was killed during a stakeout operation in Gaza in December 1993. At the time he was serving as head of the IDF’s special forces in the Strip. Some two decades after his death, a concise yet important study has been discovered – written by Mintz, while he was a student at the National Security Academy, and intelligence officer Eitan Kalmar, now a retired colonel.

The study uncovers the “iceberg” of lies that acted as the fraudulent war plan for the first Lebanon war, meant to create an alibi for the investigations that would ultimately follow. The military plan was written as if the true intention was to prevent taking steps that would escalate the conflict (entering Beirut, clashing with Syria), but took into account that such developments might be unavoidable “in the moment.”

The short study is seemingly the Israel Defense Forces’ most daring attempt to denounce the fraud perpetrated by then Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Rafael Eitan during the war itself in 1982.

The outrageous Israeli tactic was to leave generations of the nation’s sensitive raw materials in the hands of the army and intelligence agencies. The documents were labeled “top secret,” kept away from civilians, and thus a skewed, even false perception of the events was fostered.

The motivation for keeping things secret could have been fear of clashing with senior political and military leaders, both past and present, along with the hope that future embarrassing acts perpetrated by current leaders making their way up the ranks might also be covered up.

Conveniently, chance has delayed the publication of the study until now, after Sharon’s death. It’s not just that the IDF, the Israel Police and the Director of Security of the Defense Establishment (which closely guards the secrets of Dimona) are trembling in fear of the Sharon family and the classified documents they illegally possess, but also that the documents in the government’s possession are being closely guarded from the civilians who the state sent to fight in Lebanon.

The senior officers in the IDF of 2014 were the junior officers during that Lebanon war – from privates to company commanders.

The IDF itself is also afraid of the documents it possesses, embarrassed by the potential of unclassified studies that are slowly seeing the light of day, and doing everything it can to prevent journalists from obtaining them.

'No classified information'

The frustrating wait for another Lebanon study, by Shimon Golan, to be published is another reason why Mintz and Kalmar’s study – entitled “The Nature, Formulation, Actualization of Objectives of the War (Lebanon, 1982)” – is so important.

According to the authors, 10 years after the war began, there was a plethora of books, speeches and articles made by those involved in the war, as well as analysts and critics, but “not a single one was based on sensitive, classified information.”

As is customary, Mintz and Kalmar begin with a summary of Israel’s historical involvement in Lebanon.

“Aid to Christians in northern and southern Lebanon increased as Likud came to power,” especially after former Defense Minister Ezer Weizman stepped down, and Sharon and Eitan became more influential, in 1980 and 1981, and as Israel annexed the Golan Heights in December 1981.

In September 1979, a year and a half after the IDF’s Litani Operation [in south Lebanon], Weizman concluded a discussion on the objectives of the war, defining them as “breaking up the terrorist groups in southern Lebanon and the coastal areas.”

He defined a secondary objective as “creating continuity between the Christian enclave in the northern Jounieh area with the southern enclave near the coast, and attempting to establish a government more favorable toward Israel.”

The ranking is clear: the PLO was most important. Syria’s military presence in Lebanon wasn’t mentioned at all.

Following Weizman’s guidelines, the IDF created an operational plan for conquering southern Lebanon, entitled, “Bnei Tovim.” It’s worth wondering if the name was created randomly by a computer, or if it reflects the close relationship between Bachir Gemayel and Dany Chamoun, the sons of Christian leaders Pierre Gemayel and Camille Chamoun.

Two other plans, “Zohar” and “Hok Gomlin,” dealt with conquering territory up to the Zahrani River, and in response to the Syrian reinforcements.

In May 1981, before the elections that kept Begin in power and put Sharon in the defense minister’s chair, the IDF General Staff held war games, examining three different plans for “destroying Syrian forces and terrorists” in various sectors – “in order to create conditions for a new diplomatic arrangement with Lebanon that would increase security for Israel,” or in order to “allow for unrestricted use of airspace and widen the security buffer for the north.”

After expanding the goals to include “destroying Syrian and terrorist forces throughout Lebanon,” the “Arazim” operational plan – an updated version of “Bnei Tovim” – was complete

During the two years prior, “there were no discussions held at the level of defense minister or prime minister on possible objectives for a war or military operation, should such a scenario occur,” Mintz and Kalmar write. “The chief of staff and the operational departments made use of that void to modify objectives and rearrange priorities.”

Change of objectives

When Sharon became defense minister, Eitan’s favorite general, Avigdor Ben-Gal was taken out of the GOC Northern Command after four years there. The IDF General Staff then unveiled the “Oranim” plan, described as an improved version of “Arazim.”

On October 30, 1981, Sharon decided that the most important objective would be “neutralizing terrorists, including their military and political commanders.”

Sharon knew what other Israeli politicians didn’t: Destroying the PLO’s military capabilities, particularly its artillery, would not be effective if their command and government systems were left untouched – and this was before any aspirations to exile PLO leader Yasser Arafat and his associates to another country, within the framework of the “new order in the Middle East” plan (an attempt to bring down the Hashemite kingdom in Jordan and implement a Palestinian government there).

According to Mintz and Kalmar, Sharon told the general staff, “This first and foremost includes Beirut.” The operation was planned to be “rolling,” mostly because of apprehensions over the U.S. reaction.

Therefore, not all forces could be committed to battle from the get-go: “We cannot rely on partial plans that would ensure only some of the objectives, even though it might turn out that only some of the plans will be implemented,” said Sharon. “We must make plans to meet all objectives – a fast connection with the Christians, creating a threat that will cause the Syrians to retreat, and creating a situation in which no terrorists can retreat without being thoroughly disposed of.”

Mintz and Kalmar wrote: “With the new defense minister in power, a new order was given for the war’s objectives – neutralizing terrorists was the top priority, while Beirut was included as a target for attack for the first time. Also, the defense minister defined regime change in Lebanon as an unconditional objective, as important as any other.

"When Sharon came to office, he made the war plans clear to high-ranking IDF officers, which had not been done since September 1979, and he also gave a seal of approval for comprehensive additions to the plans originally concocted by Weizman, and developed by the chief of staff and his team.”

Sharon and Eitan, battalion commander and company commander in the Paratroopers, later brigade commander and battalion commander during the Sinai Campaign (Operation Kadesh), and finally as defense minister and IDF chief of staff, were never fond of one another.

Ehud Barak, as a general and head of the planning directorate, was Sharon’s protégé and secret aide. Eitan renounced Barak. During an operational briefing with the chief of staff, “the objectives were presented in a different order – [Eitan’s] third objective was Sharon’s first, and vice versa. Aside from that, the chief of staff stuck to the defense minister’s script completely.”

From December 4, 1981 until June 6, 1982, “operational plans for the Lebanese front continued to be formulated during a series of meetings,” during the annexation of the Golan and thereafter.

Explaining why entering Beirut was necessary to the 36th and 91st divisions of the Northern Command, Sharon stated, “This objective of physical destruction will have consequences that exceed creating peace for the northern Galilee, and create the possibility to engage in dialogue with Palestinians in territories we control, that we cannot currently speak to, as they are still being threatened by terrorist organizations.

"As long as the PLO command exists in Lebanon along with 10,000 to 20,000 combatants, it will be impossible to engage in dialogue or reach a political agreement with the Arabs in Judea and Samaria – something included in the autonomy plan,” added Sharon.

Sharon's monopoly

The “Oranim” plan was presented to the government on December 20, 1981. “It’s important to pay attention to two central points,” wrote Mintz and Kalmar.

“Even though both he and the chief of staff were aware of it, Sharon did not emphasize the problematic nature of fighting terrorists in territory controlled by Syria. Also, he saw a link between all the objectives, meaning that achieving the third goal (forcing a Syrian retreat from Lebanon) would lead to the fourth (creating a government favorable toward Israel, which would require territorial continuity for Bachir Gemayel’s people in the north).”

Sharon had a monopoly on the link between the IDF and the government, and after the military high command began its war dance, there was no way to warn the other ministers that Begin, Sharon and Eitan were hatching plans behind their backs to achieve secret objectives and hidden agendas.

It’s a lesson that still applies today: Israel’s political leadership is not the defense minister, nor the prime minister, or both of them together. Not Begin and Sharon in Lebanon; not Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak in Iran. It is the entire cabinet.

“We must try and create a new political reality in Lebanon, if the IDF is already in Beirut,” said Sharon 32 years ago, on May 4, 1982, to officers from the Northern Command. “It may not have been Israel’s objective when we set out, but if it has happens, we should consider it.”

He added that the IDF, which had planned to reach Beirut and oust the Syrian forces from Lebanon within four days, “would need to stay in Beirut for three to six months at least, in order to achieve this.” Sharon was a little off with his calculation. The IDF ultimately stayed in Lebanon – outside of Beirut – for 18 years.

An argument broke out on May 13, with Begin and Sharon on one side, Eitan on the other. The chief of staff insisted on understanding the war’s objectives differently to the prime minister and defense minister.

“The objectives haven’t changed,” he announced to the generals, as a direct order. Only the wording was changed. “In order to hide our intentions,” he said, “we must publicize that our goal is to move artillery away from our settlements.”

Their intent remained hidden from the ministers, soldiers and civilians, from those who were called up for reserve duty, and those called on to support the government and army in a war that was by choice.

The study by Mintz and Kalmar, also hidden until now and only revealed because it was not being held by the IDF, remains a silent memorial to those who fell in Lebanon – many of them to fire from Begin, Sharon and Eitan’s army – as well as the brave officer killed in Gaza three months after Arafat and Rabin signed the Oslo Accords in September 1993.

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