Moments later, a suicide bomber slams a vehicle into the barracks of French paratroopers, a 9-storey building called the Drakkar elsewhere in Beirut. The blast kills 58 French soldiers. The building is wiped out. The crater in its place is 20 feet deep and 40 feet wide.
Speaking at the scene to the British reporter Robert Fisk, Thomas Friedman, who was the Beirut correspondent for The New York Times, called it “the most brilliant act of terrorism.” Recalling the remark in Pity the Nation, Fisk’s 1990 book about Lebanon’s civil war, Fisk wrote of how he stood “thinking about this expression, the cruel, accurate use of the word ‘brilliant’ and the implication of its truth: that this was the most professional massacre ever perpetrated in Lebanon.”
What had led to it, and why were American and French troops in Beirut in 1983, the mid-point of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war (1975-1990)?
Israel’s 1982 Invasion of Lebanon
On June 6, 1982, Israel, led by gen. Ariel Sharon, invaded Lebanon. The goal was to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization’s operation in Lebanon, where it had established itself as a full-fledged state-within-a-state: The PLO controlled most of West Beirut and most of South Lebanon.
Israel’s invasion was brutally, tactically efficient but strategically disastrous. In 18 weeks, according to the Red Cross, some 17,000 people, most of them Lebanese civilians, were killed in the invasion. The PLO was routed. But Israel created a power vacuum in its place. That vacuum was immediately filled by a new Shiite militia in South Lebanon receiving weapons and money from Syria and Iran, a group that called itself the Party of God, or Hezbollah.
Meanwhile the PLO agreed in August 1982 to exit Lebanon. To ensure a safe exit, the United States, France and Italy sent a multinational force to Beirut. By August 30, Yaser Arafat and the PLO were out of Beirut. Some 6,000 PLO fighters were evacuated, mostly to Tunisia. The Multinational force was gone by Sept. 10. Four days later, the U.S. and Israeli-backed Christian Phalangist leader and Lebanese President-Elect Bashir Gemayel is assassinated at his headquarters in East Beirut.
From Blunder to Massacre
On Sept. 15, Israeli troops invaded West Beirut, the first time an Israeli force enters an Arab capital, supposedly to maintain the peace. The invasion did the opposite. Israel bused dozens of Christian militiamen to the southern suburbs of West Beirut then unleashed the militiamen—many of them from villages that, several years earlier, had been the scene of massacres by Palestinians—into the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. The militiamen’s orders were to find remaining Palestinian militants hiding in the camps.
But there were no such laggards. Israel knew that the Christian militiamen would attack civilians. Which they did, for two days and nights, under Israeli supervision. To enable the killings at night, Israeli forces launched flares into the night sky.
The Multinational Force Is Asked to Return
In the wake of the massacre, the Lebanese government of Amin Gemayel, brother of Bashir, asks the multinational force to return to help ensure peace. The Marines, the French paratroopers and the Italians land in Beirut again on September 24.
At first the American forces acted as objective peacekeepers. But gradually, the Reagan administration gave in to pressure by the Gemayel government to take its side against Druze and Shiite Muslims in central and southern Lebanon. American troops, welcomed with rice and roses in the Shiite slums of Beirut, slowly became pariahs in Shiites’ eyes. Mistrust turned to outright belligerence once American forces used their firepower to shell Druze and Shiite positions in the mountains surrounding Beirut.
On April 18, 1983, a suicide bomber drove his car into the American Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans—and most of the CIA’s Middle East operatives, who were meeting that day at the embassy. That loss of human intelligence would cost the United States dearly in the months and years ahead.
The Barracks Attack
The United States did not change tactics in Lebanon. Instead, it amplified its ties to the Gemayel government, which had little legitimacy among most Lebanese, and escalated its attacks on Druze and Shiite positions.
On October 23, 1983, the suicide bombers attacked the American and French barracks.
The U.S.S. New Jersey, a World War II battleship with 16-inch guns and shells the size of Volkswagens, taken out of mothballs to support American troops in Vietnam, is called to duty in Beirut in December 1983, to shell Druze, Shiite and Syrian positions.