- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 22, 2002

In 1968, after Fatah's survival at the battle of Karameh in Jordan, the burst of enthusiasm for the new Palestinian revolutionaries swept the militant groups into power in the by then semi-dormant Palestine Liberation Organization, which had been set up in 1964 by the Arab League at the behest of Egypt.

Yasser Arafat was named chairman, and the organization's charter was rewritten to declare that "armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine." The governments of a hitherto demoralized Arab world bestowed their patronage and largesse on the new heroes.

King Hussein of Jordan declared after Karameh, "We are all fedayyin [fighters]". But two years later, power began to slip from the monarch into the hands of the myriad Palestinian fighters who swaggered with their weapons through the streets of Amman, hung Marxist banners on mosques and began a campaign of hijackings and kidnappings. Palestinians spoke openly of taking over Jordan as part of Palestine.

The inevitable confrontation came in September 1970. King Hussein ordered his army to crush the Palestinians, and thousands of people died in the civil war that became known as "Black September." Syrian forces threatened to intervene on the side of the Palestinians, but they were stopped by Jordanian tanks while Israel mobilized its troops to warn Damascus off.

As the defeated Palestinians regrouped in Lebanon, they vented their fury on the whole world with a wave of international terrorism under the code name "Black September." Its first targets were King Hussein and those surrounding him, but the operations spread to include the hostage-taking of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

Israel and the Arab states were fully drawn into the Cold War after 1967. Israel rearmed with better and more plentiful weapons from the United States, while the Arabs quickly rebuilt their forces with the assistance of the Soviet Union.

Israel's new borders afforded greater strategic depth. An invader from the east would have to ford the Jordan River and climb some 3,000 feet in the mountains of the West Bank before reaching any population centers. In the north, the Syrians no longer overlooked Galilee. Instead, the Israelis were on the plain leading to Damascus. To the southwest was the Suez Canal, described by Gen. Moshe Dayan as one of the best anti-tank ditches available.

The Yom Kippur War

However, military incidents multiplied and escalated into a campaign of increasingly severe border clashes between Israel and Egypt called "The War of Attrition." By 1970, the fighting had reached such a scale that the superpowers acted to impose a cease-fire.

Gen. Gamal Abdel Nasser died in September 1970 and was succeeded by Anwar al-Sadat, who in 1972 expelled all Soviet advisers. The move put Israel at ease. In 1973 the Israel Defense Forces boasted that "our situation has never been better" and in September 1973 the army was studying proposals to cut national service.

But at 1400 hours on Oct. 6, Egypt and Syria unleashed a coordinated surprise attack on Israel as Jews marked Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. Israel had gradually reinforced its positions in response to the deployments on the other side, but it was reluctant to cripple its economy by ordering a full mobilization of reservists.

Israel had been trapped by the "concept" that the Arabs were not ready for war, and no amount of evidence on the ground including a secret warning from King Hussein could shake Israel out of its complacency. It did not understand that Mr. Sadat would consider launching a war to gain political advantage.

Israeli forces on the Suez Canal were outnumbered 10 to 1, and, by Oct. 7, all the Israeli fortresses had either fallen or were surrounded by the Egyptians swarming across the canal.

The Suez Canal front stabilized on Oct. 10 as the Egyptians dug in, to the fury of the Syrians and the relief of the Israelis, who could concentrate on holding the critical northern front. Here the Israelis were similarly outnumbered, and by the fourth day, Oct. 9, the situation had become desperate.

Nuclear threat reported

But the Syrians miraculously broke off the attack in a turnaround attributed in Israeli military lore to the heroic exploits of the last handful of Israeli tanks holding back Syria's armored divisions. It has also been reported in the American press that the Israelis, facing defeat, threatened nuclear retaliation.

By Oct. 11, the Israelis had regained their former positions on the Golan and pressed their attack. With the Syrians now appealing for help, the Egyptians on Oct. 14 undertook one of the largest armored battles in history, with some 2,000 tanks locked in fighting along the entire front.

This time the Israelis were better prepared and beat off the attack. The Egyptians were more exposed as they emerged from the cover of the anti-aircraft missiles.

The Israelis pressed the advantage the following night by crossing the canal through a "seam" between two Egyptian armies in an operation masterminded by Gen. Ariel Sharon. Sweeping around the rear of the Egyptians, the Israelis encircled the Egyptian 3rd Army, which was saved by a U.N. cease-fire that came into force on Oct. 22.

The Egyptians were left holding two major bridgeheads on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal, and the Israeli forces held a swath of territory on the western bank and a seemingly open road to Cairo.

Fighting did not stop until two days later, after the United States and Soviet Union, which both actively resupplied their clients, rattled their sabres at each other in the most serious superpower confrontation since the Cuban missile crisis.

Myth of invincibility dies

Israel's ability to snatch victory from the initial disaster was, arguably, a vindication of Israel's military prowess. But for the Israelis and Arabs alike, the significance of the war was that the myth of Israeli invincibility had been demolished.

In 1974, the Arabs recognized the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. In another political coup, Mr. Arafat was invited to address the U.N. General Assembly a month later.

Meanwhile in Israel, the euphoria of 1967 gave way to disenchantment. The Labor party was re-elected to power in December 1973 with a reduced majority, but the prime minister, Golda Meir, resigned in April 1974. She was replaced by Yitzhak Rabin, the former chief of staff, who was unsullied by the failures of war.

The Labor Party, in power for more than a quarter-century since the birth of Israel, had been mortally wounded. In 1977, social discontent, ethnic tensions, declining economic standards and disillusionment with the Labor establishment propelled to power the right-wing Likud party under Menachem Begin, the former leader of the Irgun underground movement.

The 1973 war proved to be the turning point in the search for peace. Israel realized, in the most painful way possible, that it could not live by the sword indefinitely. Egypt had overcome the humiliation of 1967.

The Camp David accords

In November 1977, Mr. Sadat struck out on his own by visiting Jerusalem to address the Knesset, a startling act that surprised Israel and outraged the Arab world.

After months of grinding U.S.-mediated negotiations, Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David accords in September 1978. The full Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was sealed in Washington in March 1979. Mr. Sadat was ostracized in the Arab world, and, like Jordan's King Abdallah before him, he was assassinated in 1981 for having dared to seek a deal with the Zionist enemy.

The peace treaty obliged Israel to withdraw gradually from the whole of Sinai, including its settlements close to the Gaza Strip. Full diplomatic relations and unimpeded passage by Israeli ships through the Suez Canal were assured. The two sides promised to make a good faith attempt to reach an agreement on Palestinian autonomy in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Israeli-Egyptian treaty soon turned into a "cold peace" formally correct but lacking any spirit of reconciliation. Egypt was isolated in the Arab world, and disillusioned by the autonomy talks that went nowhere.

Cabinet doves resigned in protest at Mr. Begin's intransigence over the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

On the night of June 3, 1982, Israel's ambassador to London, Shlomo Argov, walked out of the Dorchester Hotel. He was shot in the head and critically wounded by unknown assailants.

Israel's intelligence services quickly concluded the assassination attempt had been carried out by the dissident Palestinian group led by Abu Nidal, but the Israeli government decided to strike back instead at the mainstream PLO.

Lebanon falls apart

For months Gen. Ariel Sharon, by then defense minister, had worked to maneuver the Cabinet into approving military operation against the PLO, which had carved out a state-within-a-state in southern Lebanon and harassed northern Israeli settlements with rockets, artillery and infiltration.

Gen. Sharon's decision to wade into the quagmire of Lebanon's war was perhaps Israel's greatest military folly. The declared aim of Israel's invasion on June 6 was to push the PLO some 25 miles north of its border, putting Israeli communities beyond the range of Palestinian Katyusha rockets.

Whether by force of military circumstances (as Gen. Sharon claims), or by secret design (as others accuse him of doing), the Israelis eventually encircled Beirut. There they linked up with the embattled Christian Maronite militias, the Phalangists, with whom they had maintained secret relations.

Operation Peace for Galilee turned into an improbable attempt to redraw the political map of the Middle East. The idea was to install the sympathetic Phalangist leader, Bashir Gemayel, as president in Lebanon. He would sign a peace treaty with Israel, leading to the removal of Syrian forces in Lebanon. This, in turn, would bring Lebanon into the "free world" and establish a new balance of power in the region. This grand design, however, was to go horribly wrong.

After a two-month siege and sustained bombardment of Beirut, the Israelis finally forced the PLO and Syrian forces to evacuate the city. As he boarded his ship for exile, Mr. Arafat told his incredulous audience: "We are going to Jerusalem." (Mr. Arafat would return to Lebanon one last time to make a "last stand" in Tripoli the following year against Syrian-supported Fatah rebels before basing himself in Tunis).

Sabra and Shatila

Israeli forces moved to take over mainly Muslim West Beirut the following day, supposedly to maintain order, for the first time entering the capital of an Arab country.

Phalangist militias, although known to be thirsting for revenge, were sent into the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila to "mop up" PLO fighters on behalf of the Israelis. Once inside, the Phalangists carried out a three-day massacre of Palestinian civilians, including women and children.

Estimates for the number of dead range from 700 to 3,500. The Israelis were at the gates to the camps, and at one point even provided illumination for the Phalangists.

Mr. Begin was seemingly untroubled by the international outrage that led to the return of the multinational force. "Gentiles are killing Gentiles, and the world is trying to hang the Jews for the crime," he declared. But a large section of the Israeli public supportive at first of the operation, but increasingly discomfited by the rising casualties was shocked by the association of their army with the atrocity.

Up to 400,000 protesters poured into central Tel Aviv. The public consensus that the army had enjoyed in Israel was shattered.

To be continued next Wednesday.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide