Understanding the First Lebanon War, Through Fresh Israeli Eyes

In his new documentary series, director Duki Dror says he hopes to revisit the quagmire of the 1982 Lebanon War with fresh eyes – and fresh material, including new revelations about the massacre at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps

Young Palestinians in Beirut, 1975, from the documentary series on Lebanon.
Young Palestinians in Beirut, 1975, from the documentary series on Lebanon. Credit: Philip Rochot
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

One of my strongest childhood memories relates to the first Lebanon war in the early 1980s. I was seven and my father returned from an extended period in Beirut, sporting a beard and a shirt emblazoned with a green tree and red stripes. He pulled an orange glass giraffe out of his backpack along with Swiss chocolate and a letter in French written by a Lebanese girl who was my age. As an Israeli army officer, he had been living with the girl’s Lebanese Christian family in Beirut, and the girl had wanted to send me a message of friendship and hopes for peace.

None of this made sense to me. Why was my father living with a family with children in the middle of a city in a foreign country? Why would a girl from an Arab country write me a letter in French? And why would occupying soldiers receive gifts from the local population to give to their children waiting for them in an enemy country?

Watching the documentary series “Lebanon: Borders of Blood” which debuted on December 9th on Kan Channel 11 public television is an effort to clarify the depths and complexity of Lebanon’s national fabric, a country that was commonly described in Israel as a “quagmire” (and it turns out that it is not just seven-year-old girls who were a bit confused about what was happening there). The director of the series, Duki Dror, who created it with Itay Landsberg Nevo and German producer Reinhardt Beetz, prefers the image of a kaleidoscope.

Duki Dror, director of "Lebanon: Borders of Blood"Credit: Meged Gozani

When Dror began working on the series three years ago, he knew what he wanted to portray – the various sides involved in the ongoing civil war in Lebanon, in an attempt not to view it solely from an Israeli standpoint. “We have dealt so much in Israel with the story of Lebanon, but only by gazing at our own navels. ...‘Oy, look what we’ve done.’ Us, us, us. ...Whole pieces of the story were left out, and ultimately, it’s impossible to understand the reality in which you are living that way.”

'It wasn’t the killing fields of the Golan Heights or Sinai. In the case of Lebanon, soldiers came to civilian areas'

That’s also one of the serious criticisms directed at the heads of the Israeli military establishment in the series, at the army commanders as well as the political leaders who went into Lebanon without understanding it or knowing the constellation of forces and the various motives at work there. There was simply ignorance.

“Yes. The main objective of the series is to give the viewer a better understanding of the reality, of the complexity. We live in total ignorance and superficiality – on the part of both politicians and the media. Everything is always very dichotomous. For and against, left and right. Everything is very sharply divided. There’s something very interesting about the story of Lebanon; it’s not exactly a thicket, but a place full of conflicting interests. The purpose was to shed light on this [so].. at the end viewers shouldn’t say, ‘I didn’t understand anything about who was who.’”

“I wanted there to be a different villain at the center of every episode. In the first it was the Palestinians, the second, the Christians, in the third, the Israelis, in the fourth, the Syrians and in the fifth, the Iranians. Each time the viewer’s awareness gets a bit further developed.”

The decision to produce a series on Lebanon germinated while Dror was working on his most recent series “Inside the Mossad,” which was broadcast by Hot 8 and now by Netflix. “The part that most fascinated me in that series was the story of the Mossad and Military Intelligence in Lebanon, during the period of the civil war in the 1970s and up to Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982, and the Lebanese story within that.”

Dror says that initially he thought about developing a drama series on Lebanon for Netflix together with his German partner, Beetz. It was the 10­-part American TV series, “The Vietnam War,” directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, that brought him back to the documentary format.

That series inspired Dror in many ways. There was the inevitable comparison between Israel’s involvement in Lebanon and the superfluous U.S. intervention in Vietnam for many years, involvement that exacted a huge price.

One of the impressive aspects of the series is the gallery of Lebanese interviewees

But there was also a style in the Burns’ series that spoke to Dror, namely an intertwining of the big historical story with the smaller more private, personal stories.“The idea was to place the micro and the macro facing each other. You go to the small stories of the characters that were part of the story, and also give the macro of the geopolitical, political, military and diplomatic processes,” he explains.

“Burns’ example was very suitable for us. The simplicity, the unadorned cinematic language. So we decided that all those interviewed would be interviewed on a uniform, neutral background. We wanted all the characters to be presented equally, and the emphasis would be only on what they were saying to the camera, and of course, the archival materials.”

A scene from the film: A Palestinian woman and an IDF soldier in Rashidiyeh refugee camp in Lebanon. Credit: Kan archives

The archival research was done by Hagit Ben Yaacov and Daniela Reiss Razon, and according to Dror, that was “a journey of its own that took two years.” In the archives of the former Israel Broadcasting Authority they found footage that had never been aired, “Things that were filmed and were left on the editing room floor that were like gold,” he says. “In the second episode, for example, there’s the story of a paratrooper force entering the Rashadiyeh refugee camp in south Lebanon, where they suddenly meet a Jewish woman who speaks to them in Hebrew. These are the stories behind the big story,” he says.

Assad's double game

From the start the plan was to tell the stories of all the parties involved in Lebanon, but Dror said there was no guarantee that the goal would be achieved. “You have a fantasy, but you don’t know who you’ll meet and which people will agree to participate. It becomes more possible when you cooperate with other artists and production bodies from different countries.”

Indeed, one of the impressive aspects of the series is the gallery of Lebanese interviewees, including Assaad Chaftari, a Phalange intelligence officer; Samir Geagea, commander of the Phalanges in northern Lebanon and today a member of the Lebanese parliament; Souheil Natour, a PLO man who was responsible for the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, and former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel.

A Palestinian fighter in Beirut, 1982, from the series "Lebanon: Borders of Blood."Credit: Pierre Perrin/ Gamma-Rapho via

What do you consider your biggest achievement?

“The things that were said during the interviews. For example, the sharp things said by the former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon and Syria, Ryan Crocker. It wasn’t easy to persuade him to be interviewed. He was very close to the Syrian regime, to the Assads, both father and son, and he has the inside information about what apparently happened in the massacre at the refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila,” he says, referring to the 1982 killing of at least 600 Palestinians by Christian Phalangist militiamen in an area under the control of the IDF. The number of people who died in the massacre remains contested. 

'You can find evil in all of them. In [Ariel] Sharon, in [Yasser] Arafat in [Sheikh Hassan] Nasrallah'

“To hear it from someone so senior, who was in the U.S. foreign service, is a journalistic achievement. He spoke about the double game played by Assad, about the involvement of the Syrians in Lebanon, who changed sides all the time depending on their strategic needs or domestic interests in Lebanon. He spoke about Elie Hobeika, the senior Phalange officer who organized the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, and who essentially worked with both the Mossad and the Israel Defense Forces. Crocker reveals something previously not known, and that’s that Hobeika was actually a double agent who also worked for the senior Assad. He said Assad initiated the massacre to harm the Palestinians and blame Israel for it.”

In general, Israel comes out of this series looking pretty stupid.

“Mainly ignorant and drunk with power. In the series you hear Nissim Levy, a Shin Bet security service man, who had been in Iran before the war and is familiar with the complexity and the struggle between the Shi’ites and the Sunnis. When he got to Lebanon he understood that not a single IDF officer knew what a Shi’ite was. They didn’t understand the internal war in the Muslim world. Israel sees everything in black and white. We see them as enemies, as monochromatic, we don’t see the hues. Renowned American political commentator and author Thomas Friedman talks in the documentary series about the feeling that all the parties thought, ‘We can have it all.’ That all those involved, especially the Israelis, were addicted to the idea that it’s possible to win and be stronger than the others, and rule. But every time it boomerangs.

How would you define this? Evil? Barbarism?

“Disability. Sometimes a criminal disability. And also the limitations of a public that believes the leaders, who think they will liberate them with patriotic discourse, or any kind of blather that [ultimately] will leads to tragedy.”

The founder of the Christian Phalangists, Bashir Gemayel, left, speaking to militiamen, from the series "Lebanon: Borders of Blood."Credit: Alain Dejean / Sygma via Getty I

Are there real bad guys in this story?

“I don’t think so. I think there are people here who are limited and tragedies.”

Not even Hezbollah?

“Yes. You can find evil in all of them. In [Ariel] Sharon, in [Yasser] Arafat in [Sheikh Hassan] Nasrallah. But if you observe solely with those glasses, you can’t penetrate and understand their operating systems more deeply, beyond the top layer. That’s one of the things about the characters that I’m most curious about understanding.”

One especially significant interview from Dror’s perspective was the one done with American journalist Terry Anderson, who was an Associated Press correspondent in Lebanon, was kidnapped by Hezbollah in 1985, and held prisoner until the end of 1991. It was not easy to persuade the pro-Palestinian Anderson to be interviewed, but when he agreed, he touched Dror in a particularly personal way.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Director Duki Dror says he would have been happy to interview him.Credit: AFP

“My father had been a Prisoner of Zion for five years in an Iraqi prison, after he tried to escape to Israel when he was 17 and got caught,” Dror says. “I grew up with a post-traumatic father, and it affected me. To meet someone who had been in captivity so many years apparently touched a certain point. I felt great empathy for his experience and I was actually in tears.”

Was there someone you wanted to interview but couldn’t?

“Hassan Nasrallah. I would be very happy to interview him. Maybe we could have gotten to him with a little more effort, I don’t think that’s totally unrealistic.”

March of folly

In the end, the Israeli side is more detailed and familiar, which is natural. One of the three creators, content editor Itay Landsberg Nevo, formerly head of the documentary department at the IBA, fought a few years in Lebanon, both in the Litani operation (1978) and in the first Lebanon war. Dror describes him as “someone with great knowledge of military history.” Landsberg Nevo wanted to portray Israel’s involvement in Lebanon as a march of folly, inspired by t historian Barbara Tuchman’s book, in which she described historic events in which decisions made by leaders for political reasons and not necessarily out of concern for the fate of the country brought about huge tragedy. Dror wanted to turn the march of folly from a local issue to a regional issue.

Dror himself entered the Israel Defense Forces just as the first Lebanon war broke out. He was a photographer in the Engineering Corps and served in Lebanon, but was not involved in any combat.

“My whole generation is a generation of people who served in Lebanon,” he says. “At 18 you have no insights into what you’re doing and what the army’s logic is and where they’re sending you and why the army is there. Only afterward it becomes clear to you that there were delusional moves by a leadership that thought it could resolve a problem in such an aggressive manner, invading a neighboring country and bombing its capital. It’s no surprise that many members of my generation felt betrayed by the state, which launched a war of choice with objectives that were unattainable, and left the country. The fact that Israel also stayed there so many years afterward, when the declared objective – getting the PLO out of Lebanon – had been achieved, and the pack of lies by the leadership that this elicited, made people lose faith.”

Renowned American political commentator and author Thomas Friedman in 'Lebanon, Borders of Blood'

“Veterans of the Lebanon war are a traumatized generation,” Dror continues. “But it’s not the trauma of [the] Yom Kippur [War]. It wasn’t the killing fields of the Golan Heights or Sinai. In the case of Lebanon, soldiers came to civilian areas. [Journalist] Anat Saragusti says in the series that the IDF set up a command post in the Archaeological Museum in Beirut. The dissonance of a place in which normal people like them live, all war-torn and bloody, simply shook up those who were there. It’s the type of dissonance that puts you even more into shock, and causes an even greater lack of understanding of the world in which we live. In what should we believe? Whom should we believe?”

After completing his military service, Dror went to the United States and studied filmmaking in Chicago and Los Angeles. It was nearly nine years before he returned. “After the army I wanted to run away from here. I was nauseated by this place. I’ve never opened my psychological Pandora’s box, but I would imagine that part of it is connected to my military service.”Although he didn’t deal at all with documentaries during his studies, his final project was a documentary on prisoners serving life sentences teaching illiterate prisoners to read and write. The film did well at several important festivals, success that gave him entry to the world of American documentary making, but it was then that Dror decided to return with his partner to Israel.

“After a period of readjustment, a difficult year or two, I didn’t understand what I’d been doing there for so many years,” he says. “To this day I’m ambivalent. I’m crazy about America, I love the margins there; they are so wide and fascinating. The best writers and the best creators are there.”

Former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, from a scene in the series "Lebanon: Borders of Blood."Credit: Matthias Bolliner / Zygote Films

In Israel he created a long list of documentary films on a variety of subjects, among them “Café Noah,” on the Arabic musical tradition brought to Israel by immigrants from Iraq and Egypt; “Raging Dove,” about a welterweight boxing champion from Nazareth; “The Journey of Vaan Nguyen,” about the Israeli poetess of Vietnamese origin; “Side Walk,” that documented children as they made their way back and forth from school; and “Mendelsohn’s Incessant Visions,” about the German-Jewish architect Erich Mendelsohn. Last year he directed, “There Are No Lions in Tel Aviv,” a film about the city’s legendary zoo.

“Lebanon: Borders of Blood,” is only his second documentary series, but Dror says that now he prefers the series format. “Documentary films are very limiting. There’s a certain thesis and the film works to prove this thesis without opening to the sides. I prefer to make series. You can create things that are deeper than in films of 90 to 120 minutes.”

A feminist version of Lebanon

Yet in addition to the series that is being broadcast by Kan, Dror and his partners also produced a 90-minute documentary film on the same topic and using the same materials, for showing abroad. It was broadcast a few weeks ago on both German and French television. In contrast to the series, in which the overwhelming majority of interviewees are men, the film’s two central characters are women.

“The declaration of intent is the same, but the [angle of] observation is different,” Dror says. “The film is built around two main characters who are the anchor. One of them appears in the series – Hanin Ghaddar, a journalist born in a Shi’ite village in southern Lebanon who was forced to flee the country for writing about Hezbollah in a too-critical tone and who today lives in Washington. The second is Darina al-Joundi, a Lebanese-French actress and writer, who doesn’t appear in the series at all.”

How come in Israel there will be a series with generals – from all sides, but generals – and abroad there will be a film with a female, civilian perspective?

“The European broadcasters – German public television and the French station ARTE – wanted a film, not a series. In Israel the agreement with Kan 11 was for a series,” says Dror. “We even wanted a series with seven episodes [instead of five]. There’s no doubt that we stretched the limits of the ability of an Israeli broadcaster to deal with something that wasn’t Israel-centric, and which doesn’t have a majority of Israeli interviewees. We wanted to get to more female characters, and actually in the film we were able, in the space of 90 minutes, to utilize the female characters more and empower them. There’s something feminist about the film. The men make the mess and the women look on from the side and can do nothing to help.”

Most of the series is devoted to the first Lebanon war. The lengthy presence of the IDF in southern Lebanon from the war’s official end until 2000 is mentioned almost in passing. So it is with the Second Lebanon War of 2006. The main reason for this, according to Dror and the Israeli producer, Liat Kamai Eshed, was the desire to avoid overlapping between the new series and a different series that had been broadcast this year on Kan, “War With No Name,” that focused on the 18 years the army was in the security zone.

If that’s the case, why didn’t you just end the series with the end of the first war, in 1982?

“We want to show where it led, how the first war led to the second, and also its relevance for today,” Dror says.

Do you think we’ve learned anything?

“We’ve learned, but Israeli society is still addicted to solutions involving force,” he says. “We’ve become more sophisticated in our understanding of the regional interests and strategies, but still, this yearning for forceful solutions is a longing that even the smarter politicians will have to make use of, because that’s what the masses want.

“I am always thinking about the similarity between Israeli society and Lebanese society. The yearning for the West and the understanding that you are part of the Middle East, and what is happening to us today, this breakdown into tribes, the loss of the common good – that’s essentially what led to the civil war in Lebanon. It could happen here, too. In 1974 no one in Lebanon expected society to disintegrate and that there would be a civil war, that neighbor would murder neighbor, that the hatred and polarization would be such that people would shoot each other. I feel as if we’re going through a kind of Lebanonization in Israel.”