Israel Launches the “Operation Litani” Invasion of Lebanon
Barely two days later, the night of March 14, 1978, some 25,000 Israeli soldiers crossed the Lebanese border in Operation Litani, named for the Litani River that crosses South Lebanon, not 20 miles from the Israeli border.
By so naming it, Israelis were informing Palestinians and Lebanese of their objective. They were also undermining their own claim, as was the force and violence of their invasion. Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman said the invasion was designed to “clean up once and for all terrorist concentrations in southern Lebanon.” But there were no such terrorist “concentrations.” There were bands of Palestinian gunmen and militants spread throughout Lebanon—the fault of the Lebanese government, which had allowed them to be armed.
2,000 Lebanese and Palestinian Civilians Killed in 3 Months
But almost all the 2,000 people the Israeli invasion killed were civilian—an astoundingly disproportionate response to the March 11 raid. In comparison, 23 Israeli soldiers were killed during the invasion. (Four Israeli soldiers were also killed while taking a prohibited tour of the region after the cease-fire, and seven were killed by military accidents.) Israel claimed that prior to the invasion of Lebanon, 108 Israelis had been killed by PLO attacks since 1973.
The 1978 Israeli invasion of Lebanon was, in fact, the biggest military action involving Israelis and Arab land since the October 1973 war. But it was also a characteristic response. This would be the model of other Israeli invasions of Lebanon to come. As strongly as Egypt had condemned the Palestinian raid in Israel, Egypt was now condemning the Israeli punishment of Lebanon as “organized genocide” and “a flagrant violation” of Lebanese sovereignty.
Protestations made no difference. Israel’s method was to brook no opposition, political or military. The invasion of 1978 set a pattern that would be repeated on a huge scale in 1982, and again in 2006, and on smaller scales many times in between, as Israeli governments pledged to eradicate “terrorism” while merely causing massive loss of civilian life and fostering new and powerful breeds of opposition in Lebanon without ever coming closer to resolving the problem of belligerence on its northern frontier. The same Israeli pattern was applied to the Palestinian territories, as Palestinian attacks were followed by massive, punitive retaliations that claimed mostly civilian lives in Gaza and the West Bank.
And all along, the word most often heard to justify the massacres was “terrorism.”
In 1978, Begin spoke about Israel’s determination to “root out the evil weed of the PLO.” Robert Fisk—the longest-serving western journalist in the Middle East—wrote in Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon (Atheneum, 1990), of how “This sort of metaphor became a constant refrain in Israel. Weeds had to be destroyed, torn out by their roots. The Palestinians—civilians as well as guerillas—were part of ‘a cancer,’ one of the invading soldiers would later tell us. Once he had retired, one of Israel’s senior army officers would compare the Palestinians to ‘cockroaches.’ Above all else, they were terrorists. Terrorists, terrorists, terrorists. The word was ubiquitous, obsessive, cancerous in its own special way. Terrorists were animals. Animals had to be put down. The PLO was a terrorist organization. Terrorists, terrorists, terrorists. Israel radio used the word in every broadcast, almost every sentence.”
Consequences of the Invasion
Pointless “terrorism” rhetoric aside, the Israeli invasion triggered a flood of refugees away from South Lebanon that totaled 285,000, according to the Lebanese government. Three-quarter of them were Lebanese, the rest were Palestinian. They settled on the outskirts of Beirut, many of them in South Beirut—the Shiite stronghold that, within a few years, would incubate a then-unknown organization: Hezbollah .
Within seven weeks of the attack Israel withdrew from two-thirds of the territory it had captured, occupying a strip of territory along the border with Lebanon that it euphemistically began to call a “security zone.” It would not give up that strip until 2000. A United Nations contingent of peacekeepers, the 6,000-strong United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon , took up posts in the territory between the Litani River and Israel’s occupation zone.
Legacy of the Invasion: A Precursor for More Bloodletting
Analyzing the situation for The New York Times in early May, William Farrell could not detect pluses so much as ambiguities and minuses. Israel claimed 10 of the Litani region’s 100 villages had been leveled. Farrell personally visited seven that had been made unlivable. Fisk, a more systematic reporter, saw heavier damage. But the physical damage told only part of the story of devastation. If for some Israel’s response to the Palestinian raid on March 11 was warranted, Farrell wrote, “for others the military response was an overreaction," while for still others, "there is a desire, perhaps a need, to see the bloody episode recede into memory.”
The “episode” did recede from memory. It is barely remembered 30 years later. But it set the stage for a pattern of bloodletting and ineffective reprisals that continues to this day.
Israel’s aim was to clear South Lebanon of Palestinian guerillas in hopes of ending Palestinian attacks on Israel. But the invasion merely moved the Israeli-Palestinian front 20 miles north—and laid the groundwork for the much bloodier, more extensive invasion to come four years later, in June 1982.
The worst for Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinians in Lebanon, however, was yet to come.