LEADING UP TO 25 MAY 2000
25 May 2014
25 May 2014
Fourteen years ago I was travelling, and I was in my hotel room watching the news with a friend (Scottish) when to my surprise I saw the Israeli troops retreating from Lebanon. The (Western) commentary was saying that positions vacated by the Israelis were soon taken over by Hezbollah. My Scottish friend said: “poor Lebanon, from one hand to another”.
I looked at my friend and said: “Do you know the real story behind this”. He said: “No”. Then endearingly I said: “Then shut up and hear it”.
Few people in the West, and indeed the Middle East, are aware what happened on that day and the monumental events that preceded it.
When the 1967 war broke out and Israel won huge areas of land from Egypt, Jordan and Syria, some Lebanese that Lebanon is out of the equation and that the West will always defend Lebanon’s neutrality.
This is a long saga that would take volumes to transcribe into words to every detail, let alone the emotions and pain that I personally had first-hand experience with. But from a “neutral” weak and most definitely a very small state, Lebanon was destined to become the hammer that broke Israel’s back.
Soon after the 1967 war, and more so after the event of “Black September” in Jordan in which the PLO was kicked out of Jordan, the PLO turned Lebanon into its base of logistics and operations. Israel did not take this lightly and Lebanon, especially South Lebanon, was punished heavily with regular air raids and shelling, and in most instances, totally unprovoked.
From 1968 till 1982, this nightmare went on and on relentlessly, and the inhabitants of South Lebanon had to flee from their homes on many occasions when the fighting escalated, and in many situations finding their homes in total ruins upon their return.
In March 1978 Israel launched a major offensive against South Lebanon and moved in by 40 kms to withdraw a few months later but not before it established a safety zone in order to keep Israeli territory beyond the firing range of the PLO’s missiles. For that purpose, Israel sponsored a renegade ex Lebanese Army officer, Major Saad Haddad to establish the “South Lebanon Army”, which was nothing more than an Israeli watchdog, doing Israel’s dirty work.
But that measure was not “effective” enough, and in June 1982, Israel decided to invade South Lebanon and to push the PLO totally out of Lebanon. By then, Lebanon was already suffering from seven years of Civil War. Its people were divided between supported of the Palestinians and their cause and supporters of Lebanese neutrality.
By that time, those who believed in restoring Lebanon’s neutrality realized that it was not going to be easy, and it had to be fought for. To them, neutrality meant to appease Israel and to go cahoots with the Israeli-US road map which had reached a new pinnacle with the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt.
By that time also, even some Lebanese supporters of the PLO were growing weary of their support, and they felt that their sacrifices were neither reciprocated nor appreciated. There was a growing disgruntlement with the PLO in South Lebanon to the extent that some towns received the Israeli troops with showering them with rice; a tradition used to welcome those who are dear and valued. An inhabitant of the town of Katermaya decided to welcome the Israeli troops with a round of bullets in the air, another Lebanese celebratory tradition. To his dismay and that of his town, his bullets were mistaken as enemy fire and were responded to by the Israelis by heavy shelling that left the town in ruins.
The ficticious honeymoon didn’t last long. Almost immediately Israeli troops started to terrorize the population making sweeping arrests, often having a hooded person identifying people (mainly young men) who had any association with the PLO, albeit an association with someone who is Palestinian. Tens of thousands were arrested and sent to the makeshift prison camp in a town called Ansar, without any charges and/or any trials. On the economic front, hundreds of trucks laden with Israeli goods forced their way daily into the local markets, and their goods which mainly included fresh produce and fish, had to be all sold first before Lebanese producers could sell theirs. The flooded the market with all sorts of goods, including Coca Colas can with Hebrew script.
This is not to forget the state of general despair. Israel entered Beirut itself. The Syrian Army in Lebanon was a peace-keeping force, not equipped to fight with Israel. And even at the best of times, Syria was not able to confront Israel on its own. Nonetheless, Syria sent fighter jets to confront Israel and lost over 80 of them in dogfights in which Israel had the upper hand. Needless to say that the staunchest Lebanese supporter of Israel, Bashir Gemayel, the Leader of the extremist right wing Lebanese Forces was elected president to the wish of his Israeli friends.
It was as if the Lebanese Civil War was not destructive and tragic enough. Lebanon looked as fragmented, more helpless and more hopeless than the Arabs were 17 years earlier when they lost the Six-Day War in 1967.
Even though Gemayel was assassinated before he took office, his brother Amin was elected as president and Ronald Reagan sent pieces of the Sixth Fleet and a few thousand Marines to peace watch. France and Italy sent some forces too. The PLO had already been driven out and moved its base to Tunisia and Arafat left Lebanon for the last time.
What followed the Gemayel’s assassination were the retributional infamous Sabra and Chatila massacres, in which the Lebanese Forces butchers hundreds of Palestinians women and children, who were left defenceless after the fighters were made to leave.
Lebanon seemed in a huge mess, one that it had no chance to get out of. The future of Lebanon and its sovereignty looked as bleak as that of Palestine and its people. Israel was there to either stay, or to impose a peace deal with Lebanon, a deal that secured its interests and security. In fact, a deal with the Lebanese government was reached on the 17th of May 1983, but president Amin Gemayel did not ratify it.
No one in Lebanon could see a glimmer of hope in the horizon, but that was to change soon, and in the most dramatic manner.
To Israel and the USA, the plot seemed to have worked. What they did not prepare themselves for, was a Syrian-sponsored resistance group that rose from the ashes of the defeat of 1967, the betrayal Sadat in 1973, the master plans of Kissinger that left Syria standing alone, and the plucking of the PLO out of Lebanon.
For before too long, the headquarters of the Israeli operations in Tyre was flattened by a huge explosion killing tens of Israeli troops. Sporadic clashes between local resistance fighters and Israeli occupiers erupted here and there. The resistance gained momentum very rapidly turning the life of Israeli troops in Lebanon into a nightmare. They would walk with their backs to the walls and their fingers on the trigger. They flattened many banana groves and other orchards to prevent fighters from hiding, but nothing was able to stop the surge of resistance.
Then on the 23rd of October 1983, a triple suicide attack on the US Marines headquarters as well as the French and Italians, killing 241 Marines and tens of French and Italians. This sent them packing and Lebanon was left with Israel to contend with.
It took this resistance group, Hezbollah and its supporters, 18 long years of struggle to finally score a victory that combined Arab state armies were not able to achieve for over five decades.
The potion that was most difficult for Israel to swallow was that they replaced the fragmented relatively ill-equipped unpopular PLO with a highly organized extremely popular formidable army with far-reaching missiles that can, and did penetrate “as far as Haifa and beyond”.
When negotiating with Sadat on Sinai, Israel’s main aim was to isolate Syria, and Sadat, the fool, thought that he was truly negotiating. Israel and the US kept the Palestinians out of the equation, refused to engage in a comprehensive peace deal, and for every inch of land they returned to Egypt, they scored more and more gains.
The Israelis were never used to being dictated to. They have been taught that they can dictate to the USA itself. After all, they coerced the feeble Carter to go their way in the Camp David negotiations, and made him pledge more and more financial and military aid.
For Israel to give up Arab land for no gain was totally unfathomable. And the South of Lebanon is not cheap real estate. It is rich in a very precious commodity that Israel has dire need for; water. But it had to give it all up and retreat with its tails between its legs. Israel referred to its defeat as a tactical pull-out. It was in fact the very first unconditional defeat and retreat of Israeli troops.
After more than thirty years of extreme duress and living under the mercy of Israel, having their crops burnt, their homes bombed and bulldozed, and their youths sent to jails….after more than thirty years of rolling funerals and displacements, the people of South Lebanon were finally free, and they owed their freedom to their own sacrifices, not to concessions and pleas from superpowers or the UN that would at best have given them empty promises and more and more subjugation.
That was the story I told my Scottish friend. The epic story had him riveted giving me his full attention. He could not believe that such a gallant victory was reported on Western media with such disdain and inaccuracy.
This is a day I will never forget.