Analysis |

Israel's Lebanon War Keeps on Buoying Hezbollah

Israel invaded Lebanon 40 years ago to establish a friendly regime in a crumbling country, but helped spawn an organization that now has its imitators as far away as Iraq and Yemen

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Yasser Arafat inspecting damage in west Beirut following a heavy bombardment by Israel, August 1982.
Yasser Arafat inspecting damage in west Beirut following a heavy bombardment by Israel, August 1982.Credit: Mourad Raouf/AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

When Vladimir Putin unveiled his invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation,” he insisted he didn't plan to conquer Ukraine but rather supported the Ukrainian people’s right to self-determination. Some 40 years earlier, Israel launched its own “operation,” Operation Peace for the Galilee. This effort turned into the 18-year first Lebanon war, Israel’s longest war.

The Russian and Israeli rationales are similar. Putin seeks to conquer Ukraine and install a new regime. Ehud Barak, the head of the IDF Planning Directorate at the time, wrote in an internal document that the 1982 war aimed for “a lasting change in Lebanon’s regime structure.”

Between Barak’s plan, which developed into a full-blown occupation of Lebanon, and Putin’s still-burning ambition to take over Ukraine, others believed with all their heart that regime change in hostile countries isn't only possible but desirable.

Thus, short-term reasoning dictated the United States' onslaughts on Afghanistan and Iraq – avenging Al-Qaida's terror attacks and preventing Iraq from obtaining weapons of mass destruction. In both cases, so-called operations developed into long, bloody, pointless occupations that ended in retreat.

Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein may have been eliminated, but the aspiration to create sympathetic regimes led to 20 more years of fighting. The reconstruction of both devastated countries will take many more years, and the conquerors’ hoped-for diplomatic gains never materialized.

Lebanon was far riper for conquest than Afghanistan or Iraq. It had no national army and a practically nonexistent leadership. It was mired in deep sectarian violence that included the PLO and Palestinian refugees. This presented Israel with a tempting opportunity to take whatever it wanted.

A helicopter landing supplies for the Israeli army near the road between Beirut and Damascus, 1982.Credit: Yoel Kantor/GPO

The Syrian battalions that arrived in Lebanon in May 1976, by “invitation” of the Lebanese government, seemed to pose a deterrent, but it was quickly clear that Syria had no stomach for a confrontation with Israel. Syrian forces weren't deployed in southern Lebanon to defend the Palestinians.

It turned out that Hafez Assad’s strategy differed from that of the Palestinians. He based his control of Lebanon on exploiting sectarian rivalries and Lebanese hostility toward the Palestinians. Later, and no less importantly, he aimed to block Hezbollah as a force that could eat into Syria’s monopoly.

Syria also sought American legitimacy for its takeover of Lebanon. It worked for the release of American prisoners abducted by Hezbollah to demonstrate its control of Lebanon and portray itself as the only force that could maintain peace and stability while preventing terror attacks against American forces.

The paradigm that Syria and Iran are sister countries with identical interests in Lebanon was in doubt already in 1982. Syria relied on Shi’ite group Amal as a political power base, while Iran fostered Hezbollah. Syria sought to establish a secular state in Lebanon based on the Baath Party’s ideology.

In contrast, three years after the revolution at home and early in the war with Iraq, Iran saw Lebanon as the spearhead of a global Islamic revolution. The new regime sought to turn southern Lebanon into a launching pad for attacks on Israel; so did Syria, but it feared that a strong Hezbollah in the south could draw it into a war with Israel.

Israeli soldiers firing a mortar shell near Beirut in 1982.Credit: GPO

Such differences didn’t undermine Iranian-Syrian relations, but they had a chance to provide a basis for unofficial understandings between Syria and Israel, at least regarding Lebanon. Another binary approach being tested back then was depicting Lebanon's Shi’ite community as a strictly pro-Iranian, anti-Israeli force.

Israel had good relations with Amal and worked well with it at the beginning of the war. Israel’s decision to link up with the Christians got Amal doing an about-face, especially after the Christian militias started arresting Amal members and Israel turned a blind eye.

Iran and Hezbollah also had different ideas about the West, the United States in particular, than everyday Shi’ites did. In 1989, 75 percent of Shi’ite university students polled by Lebanese researcher Hilal Khashan wanted good relations with the West. Only 27 percent blamed Israel for the civil war; a similar percentage blamed Syria. Ninety-one percent opposed kidnapping foreigners, as Hezbollah and other groups had been doing since 1982.

“I can identify with the kidnappers’ motives but not with the means they use, because many Americans they kidnap are involved in cultural, medical and social institutions in Lebanon, and they shouldn’t be held responsible for their government’s actions,” ruled Grand Ayaytollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, Hezbollah’s spiritual leader in 1985.

Fadlallah was speaking after the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings that killed 241 U.S. Marines, sailors and soldiers, and the U.S. Embassy bombing that killed 63 people, including 17 U.S. citizens.

But little attention was paid to Fadlallah’s ruling, Khashan’s poll and other academic articles distinguishing between Shi’ites as a community and faith and Shi’ites as a symbol of resistance, violence, religious fanaticism and anti-West sentiment. The banal use of the term “Shi’ite suicide bombers” and the Iran-Hezbollah connection as evidence of religious solidarity generating political identification served decision-makers in Israel and the United States, and of course the media.

This Shi’ite stereotype features Hezbollah as the sole representative of Lebanese Shi’ites, Iran’s clear allies.

Hezbollah has been able to forge a balance of deterrence against Israel and thus serve as both Iran's and Syria’s envoy, mainly under Hassan Nasrallah. It has controlled southern Lebanon and used arms to force the Lebanese government and the various communities to adopt the muqawama doctrine of resistance as a unifying national idea.

These developments all grew out of its campaign that resulted in Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000.

Israeli tanks heading back south in Lebanon in 1982.Credit: Nati Harnik/GPO

No less important was the war’s contribution to Hezbollah’s exporting of the image of Shi’ite solidarity throughout the Arab world. In the West, this has spawned the term “the Shi’ite crescent” to describe an Iranian axis of evil that includes the Shi’ites of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.

Westerners say this axis rests on religious and ideological ties, not the Western countries' Middle East policy. In other words, this hostility is built into the Shi’ite character. This approach ignores religious differences between Iranian Shi’ites and Syrian Alawites, between the Zaydi Shi’ite faith of Yemenite Houthis, considered heretics, and Lebanese Shi’ites, and between secular Shi’ites in Iraq and the radical religious streams.

Hezbollah can take more credit than Iran for the blurring of these boundaries. Hezbollah’s control of Lebanon has inspired a resistance consciousness based on Shi’ite identity, even in places of dubious Shi’ite identity.

Not that a Shi'ite Islamic Revolution is at play in places like Syria, Lebanon or Yemen. Supported by Iran, Bashar Assad quashes any religious movement liable to threaten his regime, just as his father did. Lebanon’s religious structure won’t abide by a Shi’ite religious state, as Fadlallah explained at the time.

The Houthis, meanwhile, seek not religious rule but a fair distribution of resources. In Shi’ite-majority Iraq, the regime relies on a coalition of Sunnis and mostly-Sunni Kurds. The top Shi’ite leader in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is a fierce opponent of Iran-style rule and a major brake on Tehran's attempts to market the revolution in his country. Hezbollah helps rule Lebanon but is only a contractor in other countries.

The first Lebanon war started seven years before the civil war ended with the 1989 Taif Accords. The aspiration to replace the regime with a government friendly to Israel was doomed from the start.

The war also significantly helped change Lebanon's structure of political power, so Iran, Syria and Hezbollah owe it some gratitude. The rise of Hezbollah, its participation in Lebanese politics through its military struggle against Israel, as well as Iranian and Syrian backing have enabled it to control Lebanese politics.

More significantly, it has gained the destructive power that, together with the corruption of the traditional elites, has sent Lebanon into its worst economic and political crisis.

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