I am going to concentrate this blog on what was also a momentous and extremely bloody year in the Middle East. Lebanon had been wracked by a civil war since 1975. Israel, under the leadership of prime minister Menachem Begin, had embarked on an invasion of Lebanon in June of that year, an invasion which was presented as an attempt to push the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) (the main political and militant body of the Palestinians under the leadership of Yassar Arafat), back to prevent the use of southern Lebanon as a base to strike at Israeli military and civilian targets. This culminated in the genocidal act of the Lebanese Christian Phalangist forces’ massacre of Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra & Shatila on the outskirts of the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
Last week I touched upon how the tiny country of Lebanon had been through a lot since achieving independence from France in 1943. The elites of the myriad of sects who made up the territory set-up a unique confessional system of government which mandated positions of power, proportionally, for each of the religious sects in the country. From the Sunni Muslims, to the Shia to the Maronite Christians all were to be represented as to maintain a stable balance of power. The records released into the National Archives set a scene of an attempt to carve up Lebanon through its disparate groups by the interested parties, Israel and Syria.
The documents detail extensive diplomatic communication between the US, Europeans and Arab state representatives following the Israeli invasion in June 1982. Following a meeting with the Saudi Arabian foreign minister, Prince Saud, Margaret Thatcher sent a telegram to the US President, Ronald (who she referred to as Ron) Reagan the points raised by Prince Saud,
“The Israelis were going beyond a justifiable concern for their own security, and were using their military intervention to change the political structure of Lebanon and to achieve other political objectives such as the removal of the Syrian influence. This was a dangerous process and no one could tell where it might lead”. (p 185 of prem/19/824)
This is an accurate and prescient warning from the Saudi FM as within three months of this warning thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians were slaughtered in the Sabra & Shatila camps by Lebanese forces allied to and under the overall command of the Israel Defence Forces. The Kahan Commission in Israel found that Ariel Sharon, who was in command of the Israeli forces in control of the camps and surrounding area, made a grave mistake” by failing to order “appropriate measures for preventing or reducing the danger of massacre” at the camps.
In one dispatch, in reference to the information war between the Israelis, Lebanese and PLO the prime minister is referred to as stating
“we must try to counter the Israeli lobby and get the correct information to President Reagan quickly”. (p 219 of prem/19/824)
The Israeli lobby has entered the mainstream political lexicon since this time provoking much controversy in the US over the nomination of Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. The fact that the prime minister directly refereed to its existence, over thirty years ago, should help de-mystify it and open up an honest debate about its influence, which expands to all special interest groups.
The documents also illuminate how little influence or understanding the UK or US had on Israeli policy during the invasion. A dispatch from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office details this. On 9th June 1982,
We have no evidence to suggest that the Israelis intend to occupy Beirut. Nor have the Americans. They and others to whom we have spoken suggest that the IDF is most unlikely to move against Beirut itself. (p 259 of prem/19/824)
By 13th June Beirut had been surrounded by the IDF and the siege of Beirut had begun. Britain was in the midst of the final stages of the military action to retake the Falkland Islands during the first stages of the Israeli invasion, a victory in which American weapons, diplomatic and intelligence support had proved crucial. In a telegram which was never sent this is acknowledged.
I realise that we are under a heavy obligation to the Americans because of the Falklands. But the consequences of a British association with Haig’s (US Secretary of State) present line are likely to be severely damaging to our interests in the Middle East. (p 266 of prem/19/824)
Today Lebanon once again finds itself operating as a proxy for conflict between bigger powers. The civil war in Syria has spilled over the border, sending hun
dreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to Lebanon. The different factions in the country are providing support for both the Assad regime in the form of Hezbollah, and to the rebels from some of the Sunni groups in the country, although the extent of the involvement from both is disputed . Violence has also flared inside Lebanon between these factions.
These documents detail how even with a united Security Council, with resolutions calling for an end to the fighting and withdrawal of Israeli forces, these had little to know effect in ending the crisis. Today we find a divided Security Council unable to agree on even which violence in Syria is to be condemned. The lessons from 1982 seem to indicate that only an overwhelming military victory will end the death and killing.
The thirty year rule is being progressively replaced by the twenty year rule. This means that in 2023 documents will be released pertaining the 2003, another extremely bloody year in the Middle East centred around the invasion of Iraq. It will be interesting to read the dispatches between the US, UK and Arab states and to see if they shed any light on many of the dictators, now removed by their own people, and their views on the wests attempt to oust the Iraqi dictator.
Jonathan Woodrow Martin