The Israeli Army Papers That Show What Ariel Sharon Hid From the Cabinet in the First Lebanon War

Shimon Golan’s book on the military and political decisions in 1982 offers no major revelations but sheds light on the war’s goals and the leaders who stood behind them

Benny Morris
Benny Morris
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Ariel Sharon and Menachem Begin visiting the captured Beaufort Castle in southern Lebanon, June 1982.
Ariel Sharon and Menachem Begin visiting the captured Beaufort Castle in southern Lebanon, June 1982.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit
Benny Morris
Benny Morris

Sheleg in Lebanon: Decision-Making in the Supreme Command During the Peace for the Galilee War, by Shimon Golan (in Hebrew). Published by Modan, the Defense Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces History Department, 608 pages, 128 shekels ($37)

Shimon Golan’s Hebrew-language book “Sheleg in Lebanon” is a collection of summaries of reports that reached the Israel Defense Forces’ Northern Command from the field and various headquarters branches as well as minutes from meetings of the cabinet, the General Staff and Northern Command forums, for the most part with the participation of Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and IDF Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan.

The “first” Lebanon war of June 1982 was effectively directed by Northern Command. (The operation against Hezbollah in 2006, today called the “second” Lebanon war, was in fact a protracted operation rather than a war – albeit a failed and embarrassing operation in terms of its management and results.)

At the heart of “Sheleg in Lebanon” – Sheleg being an acronym for Peace for the Galilee, the official name of the 1982 war – there is a gaping black hole – between pages 390 and 391. Page 390 ends with a report of a discussion between the head of the General Staff Operations Department and the deputy chief of staff, which took place on June 9 at 1:30 P.M. Page 391 begins with a briefing by Sharon at Northern Command that began at 5:39 P.M.

Between the two events, beginning at 2 P.M., the Israel Air Force destroyed the surface-to-air missile system in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. The system, which the Syrians had installed in the area in spring-summer 1981, threatened Israeli air supremacy over Lebanon and the advance of the IDF’s ground units in the war that began on the morning of June 6, 1982.

In the hundreds of preceding pages the writer, who works in the IDF History Department and has published books about the IDF command echelon during the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, tracks the war’s progress from its start hour by hour, almost minute by minute. And here, suddenly, there is a lacuna of four hours: no reports from the air force squadrons or high command, General Staff, Northern Command or the divisions in the field. Nothing.

To tell the truth, I was interested in reading this very long book mainly in the hope of learning something about that operation, Operation Mole, when within a few minutes and without losses, the IAF destroyed 15 of the 19 Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries and their two brigade headquarters, and apparently damaged several of the remaining batteries. It was a brilliant operation, especially in light of the IAF’s failure to suppress the Egyptian and Syrian SAM systems nine years earlier in the Yom Kippur War.

After page 391 one can gather a few grains of information about the operation. But in effect, due to the IDF censorship of the book, none of Operation Mole’s secrets are revealed; apparently, the modus operandi and the technical means are still considered relevant, possibly with an eye to future IAF operations. Only two pieces of information appear in the book: one, that after the operation the IDF gathered several “electronic” items that fell to the ground, to prevent their falling into enemy hands; and, two, more importantly, that eight of the 19 batteries attacked were on Syrian rather than Lebanese territory.

On other matters, on the other hand, the book does shed light – often a great deal of light. Most of the 1982 war’s important issues have already been discussed in previous works such as “Israel’s Lebanon War” by Ehud Ya’ari and Ze’ev Schiff (published in Hebrew in 1984 and in English by Simon & Schuster in 1985). The difference is that here everything is documented and comes straight from the horse’s mouth, as almost every word in “Sheleg in Lebanon” is based on an Israeli government or IDF document.

But for the most part – and this is a major shortcoming of the book, at least from the point of view of historians (who have no access to most of the documents used by Golan, which remain classified) – there are no precise descriptions of the documents on which the text is based. Often there are simply no footnotes. And when there are, as, for example, at the bottom of page 390, it simply says “”36 history north” or “35 ‘Superman’ communications network.” Such footnotes are meaningless. None of the footnotes tell us from what file, record group or archive the report quoted from or summarized in the text is culled. The reader, perforce, must rely completely on the author’s integrity and ability to properly use documents (which is not how historiography works).

An Israeli soldier sunbathing in Sidon, Lebanon, June 1984. Credit: Nati Harnik / AP

Israel’s new nemesis

While the book provides no revelations about the operation against the SAMs, light is shed on a number of cardinal issues in that “war of choice,” which was controversial almost from the word go, bitterly disputed between left and right, and whose consequences are still not entirely clear. Bottom line, Israel ultimately succeeded in the summer of 1982 in expelling the Palestine Liberation Organization and (almost all) its fighters from Lebanon, but paradoxically caused Arafat and the PLO to moderate their positions, at least publicly, in English. This allowed them to become acceptable interlocutors and led almost directly to the Oslo process and the entry of the PLO into the cities of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

And in the wake of the PLO’s demise, the war and the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon triggered the emergence of Hezbollah, resulting eventually in Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanon – and Hezbollah is a far more militarily formidable foe than the PLO, which it replaced, ever was. Hezbollah to some degree replaced the PLO as Israel’s nemesis.

Golan tells us a lot about Israel’s war aims and about the way these aims developed among the architects of the conflict – Sharon, Prime Minister Menachem Begin and, to a lesser degree, Chief of Staff Eitan. From the start it was clear that Sharon directed the campaign and that Begin and his cabinet were being led. Eitan almost always followed Sharon’s instructions, although occasionally reluctantly (for example, according to the book the chief of staff consistently was averse to confronting the Syrians).

After the war, the conventional wisdom was that Sharon had aspired to carry out what was known as Oranim Gadol (Big Pines). This operation was designed to uproot the PLO and its forces not only from south Lebanon but from its headquarters in Beirut as well, and to uproot the Syrians from Lebanon or at least from the areas between the Beirut-Damascus highway and the Israeli-Lebanese border. (In other words, to push up to 70 kilometers [43 miles] north of the border.) An additional aim was to destroy the SAM network in the Bekaa Valley.

Sharon also believed, apparently, that destroying the PLO infrastructure in Lebanon would facilitate Israeli control over the West Bank and perhaps even prepare the way for annexation of the territory. As for Lebanon, Sharon planned to install Bashir Gemayel as president – Gemayel’s Phalange Party had been an Israeli ally since Yitzhak Rabin began to arm it in the mid-1970s – and this would pave the way for achieving Lebanese-Israeli peace.

But in selling the operation, Sharon persuaded the cabinet to adopt Oranim Katan (Little Pines). Its objectives were more limited – to push back PLO forces to a line 40 kilometers from the border so that they would be unable, in terms of artillery and rockets, to threaten Israeli communities in the Galilee. And on the evening of June 5, the cabinet duly adopted Oranim Katan.

But as the operation unfolded, Sharon, sometimes with the aid of distorted descriptions of what was happening on the ground, was able to elicit a string of endorsements from Begin and his ministers of prospective military moves. Indeed, some of the endorsements were received after the event. In all, Sharon thus succeeded in expanding Oranim Katan into Oranim Gadol.

Golan’s book for the most part confirms this description of how the political-military juggernaut evolved – but it also at least implicitly supports a somewhat different version of what happened, in which Begin was at one with Sharon in aspiring to attain goals that went beyond Oranim Katan.

During Sharon’s clandestine visit on January 12-13,1982 to Beirut and its environs – accompanied by the chief of staff and senior IDF and Mossad officials – the defense minister clarified that the objective of the upcoming operation was “to remove the PLO” from Lebanon, which included reaching the “outskirts of Beirut,” cutting the Beirut-Damascus highway and linking up with the Phalange forces. (Sharon hoped that the Christians would take over Beirut itself.) Begin must have been informed about what had transpired in Beirut.

A woman showing Lebanese helmets after the Sabra and Chatila massacre in Beirut, September 1982. Credit: AP

Gemayel “was unenthusiastic” about Sharon’s proposal that IDF forces land in Jounieh, north of Beirut, deep in Maronite territory (Operation Pri-Hadar), to close the ring around the Lebanese capital. As for the Syrians, Sharon said he hoped that the planned operations would lead to the ejection from Lebanon of the Syrian forces “through diplomatic means,” and that the IDF would attack them only if they interfered with its operations against the PLO.

Against the backdrop of increasing PLO-Israeli clashes along the border, Sharon at the May 13 cabinet meeting spoke at length about “the Syrians problem.” He said the aim of the prospective operation would be to bring about “a certain withdrawal” of the Syrians from the areas north of Metula where PLO terrorists, along with their cannons and rocket launchers, operated under a protective Syrian umbrella. IDF advances northward west of the Bekaa, up to the Beirut-Damascus highway, would force the Syrians to withdraw northward as they would be threatened from the flank or even with encirclement. Sharon added that in the central and western axes of advance, the IDF would reach the gates of Beirut (well beyond the supposed 40-kilometer limit).

But at the next cabinet meeting, on May 16, after realizing that the ministers had deep reservations, Sharon presented a less ambitious plan, in effect Oranim Katan, whose name was then officially changed to Operation Peace for the Galilee. Its only aim was to push back the terrorist forces to a line 40 kilometers from the border (although in response to questions he said this could constitute only a first stage in a campaign with broader aims). At that meeting, the chief of staff, with a pointer, delineated an arc – “at the [outer] range of the improved [PLO] Katyushas” – which would include Sidon in the west and the area south of Lake Karaoun in the east as the limit of the IDF’s advance.

The crucial Israeli cabinet meeting took place on June 5 after Arab terrorists tried to assassinate Israel’s ambassador to London, Shlomo Argov (he sustained a serious head injury), and the IAF bombing in response of terrorist targets in Beirut, which triggered a Katyusha barrage against Israeli communities in the Galilee. It had been clear to the ministers that bombing the terrorists in Beirut would result in the rocketing of the Galilee, which, of necessity, would lead to an IDF invasion of Lebanon.

Sharon and Begin told their fellow ministers that the operation's aim was to push back the terrorists 40 kilometers from the border, and that Beirut was outside the picture. “If it becomes necessary to occupy it,” said Begin, “the cabinet will decide on that” in a future session. It was decided not to attack the Syrians unless they first attacked the IDF – but no one explained what would happen if the Syrians didn’t voluntarily withdraw from the area between Metula and Lake Karaoun.

According to the IDF’s plan, the objective – reaching 40 kilometers from the border – would be achieved within “48 hours” and the units would be ready, at “stage 4,” for “the destruction of the Syrian army in Bekaa up to the Beirut-Damascus highway” and “to link up with the Christians in the Beirut area,” to be followed by “the occupation of Beirut.” Sharon believed – but didn’t tell the cabinet meeting prior to the operation or during its first days – that the Syrians would attack the IDF columns pushing northward, whether out of fear they would be surrounded in the Bekaa or out of fear the IDF would reach the Beirut-Damascus highway. He believed that Syria would see the IDF’s arrival at the highway as a prelude to an offensive eastward, toward Damascus itself.

On the night of June 6-7, at a meeting at Northern Command, Sharon explained that the IDF had to reach and cut the Beirut-Damascus highway before the great powers imposed a cease-fire. He hoped that the IDF would do it by sunset June 7 (but in fact the IDF reached the highway and cut it five days later). Sharon added that the operation had to include the destruction of the Syrian SAMs in the central Bekaa Valley (and on the Syrian side of the border).

As Golan notes, Sharon refrained from telling the cabinet that it was essential both to cut the highway and destroy the SAM network before the operation ended.

Meanwhile, at 5 P.M. on June 7, Begin explained to Philip Habib, the American special envoy who arrived in Jerusalem, that “Sidon is [i.e., would be] the northernmost point” of the operation. Habib responded that there were already IDF forces north of Sidon (apparently he was referring to the landing in the Awali estuary two to three kilometers north of the city). Begin replied: “That’s to encircle Sidon.”

But Golan sums up that day by writing: “Already on the first night of the campaign the defense minister instructed the IDF to plan to attack the Syrian missiles in the Bekaa on June 8, to destroy the Syrian tanks and to ‘link up with the Christians,’ and gave an order that the Beirut-Damascus highway should be cut, at Dahr al-Baidar, on June 7.” It’s hard to believe that Begin was unaware of Sharon’s instructions.

An IDF armored personnel carrier drives by a tractor in southern Lebanon, July 1983.Credit: Nati Harnik / AP

Taking advantage of the ministers’ ignorance

Several ministers expressed reservations, both on the “kilometers” and Syrian issues. Prominent among the recalcitrant was Armored Corps veteran Brig. Gen. (res.) Mordechai Tzipori. Golan, while occasionally citing their words, consistently refrains from naming the cabinet dissenters. They certainly annoyed Sharon, whom Golan at one point (June 8) quotes as asking the ministers “to stop walking around with a ruler and measuring the kilometers all day long.” “It’s impossible to wage war with tweezers,” he added.

In general, Sharon belittled his cabinet colleagues’ military understanding (while he took advantage of their military ignorance). He said: “The political leaders don’t know right from left. They have no idea where Jezzine is; they don’t know where Dahr al-Baidar is.”

Sharon also believed that senior officers were leaking news about developments on the ground to ministers and Knesset members, and this served as the basis for their occasional dissidence or skepticism. Concerning the initial hostilities between the IDF and the Syrians on June 8 near Jezzine, Golan does something unusual in the book – he directly criticizes (in a special footnote) Sharon. He writes that the defense minister was not “precise” in his reporting to the ministers about the incident, or series of incidents, that led to the all-out IDF assault on the Syrian 1st Division in the Bekaa.

On the morning of June 9, Sharon asked the cabinet to sanction the attack on the Syrian SAM network before the “Northern Corps,” commanded by Maj. Gen. Avigdor Ben-Gal, pushed northward into the Bekaa. The cabinet approved the strike. The assault on the air-defense system also facilitated the 162nd Division’s further advance along the central axis toward the Beirut-Damascus highway. The two pushes needed the IAF’s ground-support missions, which had been greatly hampered by the SAM network. As well, Sharon feared that if the network wasn’t destroyed, the Syrians would send in their 3rd Division, with its modern T-72 tanks, undercover of the missile umbrella.

Due to the doggedness of the Syrian soldiers (who continued to fight while seriously outnumbered and without air cover), the mountainous terrain and paucity of roads, and because the Northern Corps in effect began its advance northward only on the war’s fourth day (only after the Syrians had provided the “excuse” for the Israeli offensive and the destruction of the SAM network), the IDF was unable to reach the Beirut-Damascus highway in the 48 to 72 hours allotted. Indeed, the IDF failed to reach the road before the UN-imposed cease-fire took effect in the afternoon of June 11.

Regarding the conclusion of the war, or the conclusion of what turned out to be its first stage (the “war” officially dragged on until the final IDF withdrawal to the border-hugging Security Zone in 1985), Sharon said the Americans were doing what they had done in the Yom Kippur War – when they prevented a decisive Israeli victory in the hope of winning Egypt over to the American side in their Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union. At the cabinet meeting on June 10, Sharon claimed that Washington was trying to prevent a Syrian defeat, and that the United States was pressing for a cease-fire before the Syrians were defeated.

The cease-fire that began on June 11 related to the Israeli and Syrian armies, but failed to encompass the IDF-PLO confrontation on the western axes. There, just south and southwest of Beirut, the two sides continued fighting. There, east of the capital, the IDF slowly advanced on the Beirut-Damascus highway. The Israelis at last cut the highway on the afternoon of June 12, and the following morning the paratroops linked up with the Phalange militiamen at Basaba. Thereafter, Beirut was under siege, a siege that lasted until the PLO forces and Syrian 85th Brigade evacuated the city in the second half of August.

In the central sector, starting on 22 June, the IDF – violating the cease-fire (as the Syrians probably also did here and there) – began a slow crawl toward the Beirut-Damascus highway at Bhamdoun. But as Golan notes, Sharon did not inform the cabinet “that he had specifically instructed the IDF to advance in order to attain this control [on an additional section of the vital highway].” On the contrary, Sharon presented the battle as “a result of the Syrian attempts to push the IDF [southward] away from the highway.”

The ministers’ sense that Sharon was showing them disrespect and ordering the IDF to pursue objectives that they had not sanctioned (especially as the IDF tightened the siege of West Beirut, which included intensified aerial bombardment) led the cabinet on August 12 “to deny the defense minister the authority to activate the air force.”

Warnings of a bloodbath

Golan doesn’t provide much new information about the massacre by Christian militiamen in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila on the outskirts of Beirut on September 16-18. He says simply that Israeli intelligence believed that the PLO, after evacuating the city, had left behind 2,000 to 3,000 terrorists in West Beirut (though Golan provides no documentary proof for this assessment).

In any event, Sharon seems to have accepted this assessment and determined that the refugee camps therefore had to be “cleansed.” The Lebanese army refused to carry this out. Following the assassination of Gemayel by Syrian intelligence agents on September 14 and the blitz-like IDF takeover of much of West Beirut the next day, Sharon ordered-allowed the Phalange to move in and do the job.

Golan maintains that on the morning of September 16 “the firing at IDF forces from various weapons – by tanks, anti-tank artillery, heavy machine guns, mortars and even Katyushas – intensified. It was clear that the terrorists had weapons in the areas of Fekhani, Sabra and Chatila.”

It’s not clear on what Golan bases this assertion-description; he cites no source. What we do know, on the contrary, is that the IDF suffered minimal losses during the takeover of West Beirut (there was practically no resistance), and that the Phalange militiamen who within hours entered Sabra and Chatila also met with almost no resistance. (There is mention of only two Phalange dead during the two days of the massacre that followed.) All of this seems to indicate that there weren’t “2,000-3,000” terrorists in West Beirut and its refugee camps at the time.

Concerning the massacre, Golan says that there were officers who warned of it. He quotes Arieh Schifman (Ramot), the assistant head of the General Staff Operations Department: “Ooh ah, what’s going to happen there – a bloodbath!” And, just after the Phalange entered the camps on the evening of September 16, Eitan spoke of a possibility of “an unparalleled outburst of revenge.” He mentioned that at Gemayel's funeral, the slain president's brother Amin had used the word “revenge.”

That same evening – according to the report by the Kahan Commission that investigated Israel’s role in the massacre in which 500 to 1,000 (mostly Palestinian) civilians died – cabinet minister David Levy said: “I know what they mean by revenge, some kind of massacre – and we will be blamed.” The Kahan investigation led to Sharon’s resignation from the Defense Ministry (he was held indirectly to blame for the massacre).

Even before the war, in May 1982, Military Intelligence chief Yehoshua Sagi had warned: “We will be held to account for whatever is done there in our territory [i.e., the part of Lebanon we will occupy]. Nobody will care who [actually] massacred the children in the pit – whether it was the IDF or [the Christians].” But those were isolated voices in the wilderness. For reasons that are still incomprehensible, nobody heeded the warnings.

According to Golan, after the massacre Northern Command claimed that “only on the morning of September 18 did we learn about the massacre perpetrated by the Phalange forces.” But Golan rules that this “doesn’t accord with the facts.” He cites several IDF intelligence reports from the night of September 16-17 and September 17 stating that a massacre was taking place. Maj. Amos Gilad, a military intelligence analyst, said during a discussion at Northern Command at 9 P.M. on September 16 that there would be not a “cleansing of the camps of terrorists – but a massacre,” and informed his commanders that between 120 and 300 people had already been “hit” in the camps.

Golan’s manuscript was apparently shelved for years in the History Department; Sharon and various censors opposed publication. Some of the passages cited here explain why. Golan’s book offers a great deal of information about what took place in Lebanon between June 6 and September 18, 1982. But it does not tell the story of the war; it is not a narrative history. Rather, it is a collection of summaries of documents and official meetings and discussions. It will serve as an important reference book for those who attempt to write a history of that war.

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