Analysis |

Lebanon War, 40 Years On: The Conflict That Changed Israel

The First Lebanon War was a conflict that has almost vanished from Israeli public discourse, but has affected every Israeli military conflict since: From internal political division, through political manipulation to a battle taking place in front of the cameras

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli forces in Sidon during the First Lebanon War in 1982.
Israeli forces in Sidon during the First Lebanon War in 1982.Credit: GPO
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Forty years after that devastating war, it appears that its memory has all but been erased from today’s national agenda. When the Israeli media speaks about Lebanon in the past tense, it tends to focus on other milestones: The Second Lebanon War of 2006 and the years of exhausting (and, as it turned out, unnecessary) fighting in the security zone. In spite of the sense of disappointment it left behind, the First Lebanon War has never entered the Israeli consciousness to the same degree as the Yom Kippur War. It seems it is now remembered as another way station, and a frustrating one, in a series of indecisive wars Israel has fought with its enemies since the great victory of 1967. (The problems that that war created will have to wait for another day.)

Even in terms of its cultural impact, the First Lebanon War – we can only hope that no one still calls it by its disingenuous official name, Operation Peace for the Galilee – has been relatively limited. There were a few years, at the start of the 2000s, when the veterans of that war began to address it artistically. “Waltz with Bashir,” directed by Ari Folman, is one of the best films to emerge from Israeli cinema. But interest in the war has long since waned. On the Israeli bookshelf, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, Lebanon 1 has surprisingly little to offer compared to Lebanon 2 and certainly compared to Yom Kippur.

Yet in many respects the war of June 1982 instilled ideas and concepts that echo in military debates in Israel till this day. It was the first war that aroused real political controversy in Israel even as the fighting raged. Already in its first phases, the lies that the country’s political leaders were feeding the public were exposed. Much more than the Six-Day or Yom Kippur wars, the First Lebanon War was conducted in full view of the cameras, which influenced the world’s reaction to and, to a degree, support for the war on the home front. The war illustrated to Israelis for the first time the difficulties of contending with terror organizations embedded in a civilian population. It exposed serious defects in the Israel Defense Forces’ high command, even after taking into account that its central aim (reaching the outskirts of Beirut within a week) was achieved in a way that today would bring joy to the General Staff.

All these milestones are connected with each other. The false promise Defense Minister Ariel Sharon made about limiting the army’s advance to a line 40 kilometers into Lebanon was directed more at the public and his cabinet colleagues in the Begin government than it was to the Palestine Liberation Organization’s leadership. His misleading of the public, as well as the huge gap between the speeches of the politicians and what soldiers reported when they came back home for a rest, gradually turned the public against the war. As happened to America during the Vietnam War more than a decade earlier, television images brought the war home to ordinary civilians much more quickly and in greater detail than had ever happened in the past. When TV journalist Dan Semama filmed a group of reservists singing a gallows-humor version of the Israeli children’s song “Land Over Here, Airplane,” the home front finally began to understand what was really happening in Lebanon.

One-time Likud prince Dan Meridor said the impact of the photo on the American president made it clear to him that an era of wars in the “public eye” had begun. What would have happened, Meridor asked, if during World War II “pictures of blue-eyed German children” killed in Allied bombing raids had been broadcast? “Lebanon demonstrated that this was the beginning of another world entirely and anyone who doesn’t understand that will lose the war,” he said.

Then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon (center) with then-IDF Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan in during the First Lebanon War.Credit: Israel Defense Ministry

Another matter that almost no one speaks of is the role of the IDF in the war. In the public consciousness, Sharon’s charades, Begin’s despair and the anger of the soldiers are well known, documented in the classic book by Zeev Schiff and Ehud Yaari, “War of Deception” (in English, “Israel’s Lebanon War”). But the government’s behavior doesn’t exempt the IDF from its role in the disappointing outcome. In his book “The Curse of Broken Vessels” (in English, “The Wald Report: The Decline Of Israeli National Security Since 1967”), written after the war to great controversy, Col. (res.) Emanuel Wald leveled severe criticism at the army, mainly the ground forces. The IDF, Wald contended in the public version of what had previously been a classified IDF document, had lost its flexibility. The headquarters and support staff had grown at the expense of the combat units. The direction taken by the General Staff had turned the IDF into a cumbersome body.

When Sharon confounded all predictions and became prime minister in 2001, it was the height of the second intifada. Interestingly, it turned out that many of his feelings about the army were the same as Wald’s. Sharon had seen what he regarded as the army’s slow-going progress during the first week of the war in 1982, contending that its poor performance and heavy losses had hampered his plans from being fully realized. From his experience in Lebanon, Sharon also concluded that a broad public consensus was needed about war aims (which explains why he waited about a year before approving Operation Defensive Shield).

An IDF soldier in Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002.Credit: AFP

But at the same time, the prime minister, who had been a platoon commander during the War of Independence, didn’t trust the IDF’s capabilities. At the start of his term, he often complained about the General Staff’s lack of initiative and the need to undertake offensive operations. When Defensive Shield got underway, it came to a large degree due to the pressure Sharon felt from brigade and battalion commanders in the field. By contrast, the majority of generals believed a broader operation was preferable, even if it led to more casualties, to stop Palestinian terror attacks.

‘Who lost the war? I did’

This week, following the death of television presenter and producer Modi Bar-On, my colleague Ofer Shelah wrote in Yedioth Aharonoth that Bar-On, like he, belonged to the generation molded by the inglorious First Lebanon War. After his death, social media networks were filled with sketches from the “Hahamishiya Hakamerit,” for which Bar-On was among the original writers. The program was first broadcast in the early days of Channel 2, a decade after the fighting in Beirut. Wars – the First Lebanon War in particular – occupied a central place in the world of the writers and actors, some of whom had served in it.

Here are the words of Bar-On, a veteran of the Nahal Brigade, spoken by Menashe Noy, who had been an officer in the Golani Brigade during the war, in a sketch that seeks to explain how we failed in Lebanon. “Once a year when there’s trouble with Lebanon, there’s always someone who says that bombing it isn’t enough, that we need to go in and restore order. The presenter asks him if he means like Israel did in ‘82 …. Everyone takes it as an axiom that we’ve tried this business of going deep into Lebanon, and it has failed. Every time someone says this, I cringe. Because it’s true. I know. I was a soldier in Peace for Galilee, so I know why we failed. They say that the concept was wrong, but that’s not true. The concept was excellent.”

Modi Bar-On in 2020.Credit: Hadas Parush

“So, why was Peace for Galilee a failure?” asks Noy, who is sitting in civilian clothes on a green leather sofa, the kind that had become associated with the show. Immediately he explains: “Because of me. Because I wasn’t good enough. Yes, for years I didn’t open my mouth. Initially, I was afraid of a commission of inquiry, … the embarrassment of my job being taken from me. But now the time has come to admit: The whole business was a screw-up because I wasn’t good enough. I kept myself warm doing push-ups, played whist during guard duty, was asleep during an ambush, on the Bar-Or [fitness] exam I did shit … Eventually, I smuggled a Walkman hidden in an APC.

“I wasn’t the only one, both with the Walkman and the soldiering. Fourteen years have passed and again Katyushas are falling on the Galilee, and again they’re saying there’s no reason to go in. When I look at our wonderful youth that went out into the streets after Rabin’s murder, who radiate so much care and true love, I say: In a little while they’ll be drafted. Give them a chance. Send them there. Maybe they’ll do better than I did.”

Apart from Bar-On’s wonderful writing, the sketch serves as an excellent reminder about the nature of war. Forty years after that war and 25 years after that sketch was aired, the Arabs remain the same Arabs and the sea remains the same sea. The dilemmas haven’t changed much, even if wars are no longer about liberating the Kotel or defending the Hermon, rather, in the main, involving slow, inglorious, indecisive wars of attrition. As the soldier Bar-On knew well, in war things tend to go wrong. The law of unexpected consequences works overtime.

There’s a wide gap between the stage-managed images in the media this week, in which the defense minister and chief of staff are seen observing a huge military exercise surrounded by officers with serious faces, and the reality of war, which is arbitrary, frightening and depressing. Bar-On and Noy’s description of soldiers who perform their guard duty carelessly, fall asleep and die is a lot closer to reality. Even if there are generals among us who have a gleam in their eyes when they recall the invasion of Beirut, we should do whatever we can to discourage this. Thousands of soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, most of them undiagnosed (because back then, who dealt with this?), would agree.

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