Word of the Day / Milhemet Ein Breira

Israeli leaders traditionally embarked on wars only when they had no choice but to fight to survive.

It’s a late September evening in 1982. In June, up to 3,500 Palestinians and Shia in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila had been massacred by Christian militants in West Beirut over three days.

Less than 210 kilometers south, 400,000 Israelis – 10 percent of the nation – flocked to Tel Aviv’s Kings of Israel Square, demanding an end to Israel’s military foray in Lebanon. Their banners read “[Defense Minister Ariel] Sharon – Disaster!,” “We are not the Middle East’s policeman,” “Commission of Inquiry into the Sabra and Chatila massacres!,” and the more lofty umbrella demand of “Peace Now.”

Attended by Israelis from across the political spectrum, the “400,000 rally" marked the culmination of a summer of protests. Underlying outrage about Sabra and Chatila was the concept that Israel had embarked on a war of choice, milhemet breira, as opposed to a "war of no choice," milhemet ein breira.

Traditionally, Israeli leaders only embarked on wars of necessity. That paradigm rejects militarism for its own sake. Israel wasn’t an expansionist warmonger, and only when the country had no choice but to fight to survive would it risk sending its sons into the shadowy wadis of death.

Yet when then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin outlined his justification for invading Lebanon in mid-1982, he said that although Israel chose the timing, it didn’t have a choice but to flush out the Palestinian militants operating out of southern Lebanon: rocket attacks and infiltrations were making life for many in the Galilee a daily game of Russian roulette.

By reengineering the strategic map and with a friendly Christian regime in Beirut, Begin hoped to eradicate violence in the north and bring "40 years of peace.”

Losing innocence

After being sold “Peace for the Galilee” – the official name for the operation used by Begin’s government – Israelis suffered from buyer’s remorse. Mounting Israeli soldier casualties and grisly images of dead civilians beamed around the world rocked public opinion, and in less than four months, the mood in Israel turned.

The outrage led to the establishment of the Kahan Commission, which in February 1983 determined that Israel bore indirect responsibility for the massacres by allowing the militants into Sabra and Chatila and assisting them with illumination at night.

The commission recommended Defense Minister Ariel Sharon resign, which he did only after a grenade attack on another demonstration demanding his ouster left one dead and scores injured.

Eventually, the debacle led to the resignation of Begin himself at the end of 1983. Israel withdrew to a security belt in southern Lebanon, and stayed there until evacuating in 2000. Almost 700 Israeli soldiers had been killed and Hezbollah reigns over southern Lebanon to this day.

Shoshana Kordova is on leave. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

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