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A Lebanese girl at a destroyed bridge in the village of Ferzoul in the Bekaa valley. Families are stocking up on food and emergency supplies. /Joseph Barrak, AFP/Getty

Israel's Lebanon Plunders, 1982-2006
Reagan’s “Outrage,” Bush’s Silence

The shelling began at 6 a.m., Beirut time. It was August 12, 1982. The Israeli air force would pound Beirut for the next 11 hours in what would prove to be the deadliest day of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon that year and the culmination of the siege of west Beirut, began in July. By mid-day the whole world knew that an assault of murderous proportions was taking place. The dead and wounded were overwhelmingly civilian, the bombing overwhelmingly indiscriminate. Even Ronald Reagan, who had tacitly supported the Israeli invasion but was now brokering for peace, could not take it. As the New York Times reported the next day, at 8 a.m. the morning of Aug. 12, Washington time, Reagan sent a message to the Israeli cabinet, let it be known that he was “outraged,” threatened to end the mission of Philippe Habib, his envoy then in Beirut, and described the bombing as resulting in “needless destruction and bloodshed.” Then, while the president of the United States placed call after call to try to reach Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister, Begin remained mysteriously out of reach. This went on from 8 to 11 a.m., New York time, or 2p.m. to 5 p.m., Beirut time. Reagan finally reached Begin at 5:10 p.m., Beirut time. They talked for 10 minutes. Begin called back at 5:40 p.m., Beirut time, to let the president know that a “complete cease-fire” had been ordered. But not before putting the White House, and any pretense of humanity, on hold so the air force and artillery barrage could finish its job. And we still ascribe laurels of morality to Israeli motives?

The 11-hour bombing killed “at least 128 people and wounded 400,” according to a New York Times story the next day. The actual toll was likely much higher. (A day earlier, incidentally, Israeli shells struck Beirut’s only synagogue, sending “dozens of Jewish families fleeing for safety,” according to an AP dispatch.) The point is that Ronald Reagan’s intervention finally stopped the bombing, which had been the work and craft of Ariel Sharon. The point is that President Bush isn’t even interested in sending a peace envoy, let alone intervene personally, let alone call Israel’s assaults, which have nothing to differentiate them from war crimes, an “outrage” and stand with other world leaders against them. Begin knew that he couldn’t alienate the United States, its biggest sponsor and arms supplier. Ehud Olmert only knows that Bush would never stand up to him, and if he did, with Iraq behind him, Bush would look like a fool anyway, his high roads pot-holed beyond recognition. So he sits back, munches on rolls and talks his tired language of liberation and self-defense while Lebanese civilians die by the hundreds, and the “Cedar Revolution” he hailed as one of his successes in the Middle East burns to a cinder.

Let’s not mythologize Reagan’s interventions, either. Even his phone call of “outrage” had come two months too late for 18,000 mostly Lebanese civilians killed in Israel’s campaign, launched June 6, 1982, supposedly to go no further than 40 kilometers north of the Israeli border to clear the zone of the PLO, but eventually ending up in the heart of west Beirut, with Sharon playing Patton to Lebanon’s destruction. The question isn’t to wonder what was achieved if Hezbollah simply replaced the PLO in south Lebanon. The question is how could Israel get its strategy so wrong—how could it imagine that it would be so easy as to go in, clear the land of PLO militants, and establish a (Christian) government friendly to Israel. The answer is in the pamphlet every Israeli soldier was handed on entering Lebanon that June and July, 1982: As Thomas Friedman writes in From Beirut to Jerusalem (p. 135), “The entire 14-page pamphlet, a condensed history of Lebanon, contained only two passing references to the Shiites, Lebanon’s single largest religious community in the 1980s. As for the political objectives of the invasion, the pamphlet said: ‘The main goal of the Israelis in Lebanon is to secure the existence of the Christians and to make possible a political arrangement that will enable Lebanon to recover its sovereignty.’” Nine days after the Aug. 12 bombardment, Arafat began evacuating his guerillas from Beirut. It took several days. “We are now on the even of achieving what we set forth to accomplish,” Reagan said on September 1, 1982, “an end to the bloodshed in Beirut.” Two weeks later, Israelis and Christian phalangists perpetrated the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

What will be different this time? The 1982 war got out of Israel’s control and presumptions faster than you can say Hezbollah. The 2006 war, which Israel calls “Operation Changing Direction” (ridiculously so, given the operation’s insistence on repeating past blunders and massacres), got out of control even faster. As I write, Israeli tanks are getting ready to invade for good and calling for the evacuation of south Lebanon, the Lebanese defense minister is threatening to throw the Lebanese army into the fight, against Israel, America’s neo-cons and Israel’s saber-rattlers are itching to take the fight to Syria, and Israel’s more idiotic amen corner is imagining “ with delight the varying degrees of solidarity with Israel’s war against Hezbollah that have been expressed by Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and even the Arab League,” and calling for the destruction of Hezbollah by way of bomb-messaging Iran. The situation is already beyond anybody’s reins, though the rattlers still hide behind allusions to “restoring” the Lebanese sovereignty and peace they are so willingly sacrificing in the same breath. The same opportunistic words were used so often in 1982: destroy the PLO so Lebanon can live (but kill Lebanon if necessary in the meanwhile). There was no objection to getting the PLO out of Lebanon then, as there is no objecting to ending Hezbollah’s rogue goons’ reign now. But then as now it was a matter of means and ends, and most of all, of victims: who would they be, who should they be? Only the jingos decide. And where, anywhere, at any time going back to the last century, have Israeli-American, or European designs of grand peace in the Middle East led to anything less than further mires, deeper conflicts, more murderous conflagrations? Still, they plan, they claim, they execute. And their collaterals die. Nothing is changing in those designs. Nothing is being learned.

Lebanon today under Israeli bombs, is no different than it was that summer of 1982 when, as Robert Fisk describes it in Pity the Nation, “Each evening, the dust and smoke from west Beirut would drift far over the Mediterranean. Even the crews of the American warships 20 miles beyond the horizon could smell it. In the city, the evenings arrived prematurely, the sun disappearing not into the sea but behind a growing crimson veil. More than a hundred miles away, in Haifa, the Israelis noticed the same unfamiliar effect upon the distant skyline, the creeping darkness that west Beirut’s destruction now placed across the setting sun. From Tripoli and the mountains of the ancient cedars to the land that was Palestine, the sky glowed hot and blood-red.”

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