Reverberations of ‘82

In Beirut and Tel Aviv, the two American ambassadors watched the war unfold: Israel’s pilots hammering Lebanon, its tanks smashing across the line, its leaders bent on neutralizing an Arab guerrilla threat to the north.

That was long ago. But Samuel L. Lewis, watching today’s war escalate on TV screens, hears echoes from that summer of 1982.

“I suspect what we’re going to see is going to look increasingly like what happened in ‘82,” said the retired diplomat, U.S. envoy to Israel from 1977 to 1985.

His counterpart in Lebanon during those trying days, Robert S. Dillon, sees a clear historical parallel in Israel’s intent, then and now — “the idea that you can, with force, establish a favorable situation for yourself in Lebanon. I doubt that’s true.”

Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon did succeed in scattering the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) — its leaders, its rank and file, its guns — to distant corners of the Arab world.

But along the way Israel’s occupation spawned a new Lebanese enemy, Hezbollah, and it’s these Shi’ite Muslim militants who are being targeted in Israel’s current offensive.

“That’s how it’s been throughout Israel’s history,” Mr. Lewis said. “Things settle down for a while, and then the problem re-emerges in a more threatening form.”

Mr. Dillon said Lebanon’s foreign minister at the time, Elie Salem, seemed to foretell 2006 a generation ago as the Shi’ites of the Lebanese south, rid of the PLO, asserted their own power.

“Salem told me, ‘The Israelis have let the Shia genie out of the bottle and will live to regret it,’” Mr. Dillon recalled.

The ambassador personally felt the pain of that emerging power. He was among the wounded when his embassy in Beirut was destroyed by a truck bomb in 1983, an attack that killed 63 persons, 17 of them Americans, and was blamed on the Iranian-supported Hezbollah.

Not only did a new adversary rise up on Israel’s northern border in the 1980s, but Palestinian terrorism eventually arose anew in a bloodier, suicidal form in the Israeli-occupied territories.

Looking back, Mr. Dillon said, “I’m sure lots of Israelis don’t think the 1982 operation was worth it.”

There are clear contrasts between the 1982 and 2006 offensives.

Back then, the Israelis clashed not only with PLO forces but also with Syria’s occupation troops in Lebanon, and Israel had fighting allies among Lebanon’s Christians. That doesn’t hold today. In 1982 it was a long-planned “war of choice,” launched by Israel without immediate provocation, while the current offensive was prompted by Hezbollah’s cross-border killing and seizure of Israeli soldiers.

The starkest contrast, however, lies in the extent and ferocity of the Israeli attack. By this point in 1982, Lebanese police estimated 10,000 people had been killed in Israel’s air and ground assaults, compared with official tolls today of at least 380 Lebanese and 36 Israelis. Israeli armored columns reached all the way to Beirut in 1982.

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