The Israeli -Syrian war 1982

On 6 June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon in what was intended as a limited operation to drive the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) away from Israel’s northern border. Tasked with carrying out the invasion, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) prepared detailed operational plans which were well conceived, based on good intelligence and very well executed. . Upon execution, Israeli units overran south Lebanon in a matter of days despite arduous terrain and in some places tough resistance, mostly by Syrian units as the Palestinians collapsed in most areas. The lead-in to the war is a sad story for all involved, and the end of this phase of the never-ending Israeli -Palestinian  war was even more unhappy.

general Ariel Sharon Hero of the 73 war goat of the war.

After and during the 67 war many Palestinian refugees  swarmed into into Lebanon. They  were put into a number of refugee camps , home of which later became notorious as death camps. The Lebanese, especially the Lebanese Christians, were not welcoming, and the Shi’a were not very happy either as the Sunni Muslim Palestinians were mostly located in the south–the Shi’a heartland. It was near impossible for a Palestinian to get Lebanese  citizenship, at one time requiring about 50, ooo $ US,  at least, in bakshish (bribes )to  get approval through the corrupt Lebanese bureaucracy. A few, mostly Christian Palestinians were able to do so. One of them was our family doctor, who hated the Lebanese and complained  that the Lebanese spit on him when he opened his mouth and the Lebanese recognized  his Palestinian accent.


There was no doubt that sooner of later a war would erupt. This was in 68-70 time frame. As the Palestinians organized under the Palestinian  Liberation Organization, they began to establish what was called Fatahland in the south. A clash occurred in 1968 between the Lebanese army and the Palestinians and the Lebanese prevailed, but  the Egyptian ambassador who was known as the  “procurator”  of Lebanon, as  the representative of the all powerful Nasser Egyptian regime , intervened. At a  Cairo  meeting under the glare of Abdul Nasser  and an Arab world berating the Lebanese for  being “UnArab” the Lebanese agreed to  awarding the” Arafat trail” to the PLO. It was access  to the Israeli border, enabling the Fedayeen to instigate cross border attacks, rocket attacks etc. unimpeded by Lebanese forces. As part of the agreement  the Palestinian fighters were supposed to stay out of the cities, but of course that was immediately violated and the Fedayeen in their camouflaged tiger suits with weapons began to appear in the streets of Beirut, and the Lebanese  rulers, in their usual fashion, temporized and did nothing.

The Palestinians set up a de facto autonomous state in south Lebanon, and acting as conquering victors, lording over the Shi’a villagers of the South. This was to have a significant effect in the war of 1982. The  Palestinian inclination toward hubris, a character trait of their society  as well as their usually higher level of education never endeared them to their hosts.  As the Shi’a said, when they left Palestine we invited them to take a room in our house  but then they wanted the whole.

massacre of Christian Lebanese by Libyan and Palestinian Muslims 1976

Meanwhile the Civil war in Jordan 1970-71 erupted between the West Bank  Palestinians and East Bank Jordanians. It was an ethnic struggle which  as the Military attache in Amman I  observed. The Palestinians  in Jordan adopted the same attitude as they had in Lebanon. They had established a dual government in Jordan, with separate customs, security responsibilities etc, and most of all looking down on the East Bank Bedouin soldiers, at times taunting them.  This, as anyone with eyes and ears knew, was not sustainable. In the ensuing war, the PLO in Jordan was crushed, and many more Palestinians arrived in Lebanon. Among them were about 2000 Jordanian soldiers of Palestinian origin who deserted the Jordanian army during the war.

Late Yasir Arafat leader of the PLO and its most powerful group, Fatah



They formed a separate Palestinian  unit in Lebanon  and were the best fighting materiel the Palestinians had. Their commander was a graduate of the American Command and General Staff School ,later killed by members of a rival Palestinian terror group. At the time the PLO was made up of 12 disparate organizations who seldom functioned in unity.  Some were under direct Arab government control, e.g., Al Saiqa under the Syrians, Arab Liberation Front under the Iraqis, etc. Moreover there are other groups like the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO)  who were not part of the PLO. The Palestinian Liberation Army (PLA) was originally the “conventional” force of the PLO having Soviet  artillery and armor but gradually disappeared under the constant rebranding and reforming of the various organizations.

IDF troops

So in June of 1982, by Israeli statistics, more than 290 terrorist incidents had taken place and the Israelis for some time had been trying to decide what to do… total invasion….limited invasion  …? The basic worry was what would Syria do? The Syrians had come into Lebanon in 1978 with the blessing of the great powers to stop the Lebanese civil war. First they turned against the Maronite  Christian militias and after subduing them,  took on the  Sunni  Muslim Palestinians who were  contesting the Alawite Syrian control of Lebanon.

As so often happens the invited guests, the Syrians, stayed well  beyond their welcome, but formed a tacit working  relationship with the  Palestinian factions who accepted their inferior status.   To the Syrian regime the Palestinian cause was officially  semi sacred but in reality, in Syria, as elsewhere in the Arab world, they were generally viewed as troublemakers and a problem. Useful at times for political reasons but internally always viewed with suspicion. In Syria, as elsewhere,.  they were confined to refugee camps and movements were strictly limited. Of course it has to be remembered that Syrian rulers had never accepted that Lebanon was independent of Syria.

With the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to London, in 1982, the Israelis had enough, and the the plans  for invasion were dusted off and revised  and an operational plan to developed to push back the fedayeen forces 25-40miles from the Israeli border. At the time it was considered the minimum amount of distance to  prohibit Fedayeen artillery and rocket attacks on the northern towns of  the Galilee region of Israel.   There were three plans  contemplated. Two consisted of the Israeli defense forces (IDF)  pushing the PLO back away from the border a certain distance. the third plan  ( AKA “the big plan”)was for the IDF  to destroy the PLO and eject them from Lebanon completely along with the Syrian forces. This  was Sharon’s  plan  and was favored by most of the commanders . They had learned their lesson from “Operation Litani” in 1978.

In that operation the Israelis had pushed into Lebanon to sweep the PLO back from the border, only to have international pressure applied  requiring them  to withdraw. Shortly thereafter the PLO moved back into the positions they held before. The UN, in its wisdom, established the UN peacekeeping organization, United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon ( UNIFIL).  Its purpose was to ensure the IDF departed from Lebanon and “assist the Lebanese army in regaining control of the south.” For all these years it has failed miserably.  The Lebanese army has never regained control of the south. After the PLO it became Hezbollahland. Most of the small nations who sent a battalion sized unit to Lebanon did it for the money, and many of the units were incompetent .  Some sold arms to the Palestinians. As of a few months ago there were over 10000  UNIFIL troops in south Lebanon.

1982 war was warmup for 2006 war but this time not the Palestinians but Syria, Iran and Hezbollah

In the end the Israeli PM Begin and the civilians decided on a less ambitious plan,  Sharon, the MINDEF, and his generals were overruled and an only a limited incursion was authorized.

In planning for the invasion, The Israeli government  tried very hard to alleviate Syrian fears that the Israeli  objective was to supplant Syria in Lebanon,  and  were encouraged  to step aside and not interfere with Israeli operations in Lebanon.  Initially they did so. They departed from the Lebanese coastal areas, but later, probably under Soviet pressure,  they ignored pleas of the  American  special envoy, Philip Habib, to not get involved. they moved additional armored, Special Forces,  and air defense units into Lebanon.

The ground attack kicked off on 6 June 1982 with the Israelis attacking on three axes. Within a day or so the  Palestinian forces had been overrun and many were fleeing back to Beirut.   If you want to read about the war day to day read the WIkistrat version.  (Operation Peace for Galilee) which by the way I consider somewhat biased favoring the Arab version. It reflects the trend which has only become more pronounced  as the years have gone by. The Western news media decided   that Israeli is no longer the little  beleaguered state battling hordes of Arab fanatics, but now the devil incarnate, using, disguised  in leftist rhetoric, every anti semitic theme from blood libel to the protocols of Zion to justify their new “woke” viewpoint.

According to conventional history that has been retold over and over again until it has been enshrined as truth, Sharon deliberately manipulated the reports going back to his superiors in Tel Aviv  to make it appear the Syrians were attacking his troops. this enabled him to unwisely enlarge the war.  Sharon tells a different story in his autobiography. Anyway after crunching the PLO the  IDF took on the Syrians in a number of pitch battles, stopping  at the Beirut airport,  with a concurrent  push into the Bi’qa valley   where  they  engaged a Syrian armored division divisions. This was the real fighting that occurred in this war. The quick war that PM Begin has envisioned became a political nightmare as the IDF pounded Beirut, civilian casualties mounted, and the tragedy of the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps became known. The Christian militia, known as the Phalange, with their black shirted uniforms, were unable to do their part in the overall plan. I.E., take over Beirut and oust the Palestinians and Muslim allies. Their massacre of Palestinians in the two camps became the single most remembered event of the war. 1

In the end the Palestinian power in Lebanon was crushed, their leaders, protected byAmerican troops, left Lebanon bound for Tunisia  But on the con side, in the aftermath of the war,  and the Syrians were able to  secure even greater control of Lebanon, the IDF initially welcomed by the Shi’a villagers as saviors from their Palestinian overlords, overstayed their welcome  and the resistance morphed into  the Shi’a  Amal and Hezbollah. Much more dangerous than the Palestinians, they were soon interlocked with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, a fact facilitated by the ancestry of many Lebanese Shi’a to their original Iranian home.  The Christian population that the Israelis were hoping to take over the reins of power in Lebanon found themselves embroiled in ininternecine   warfare, and almost a million Christians, feeling hopeless, departed Lebanon ,probably never to return.

The IDF fought well, the plan was good and they destroyed  the  hagiographic Western  media  image of the of the   Palestinian PLO. Despite years of provocation and forays across the border, the Palestinians had never concocted a plan of defense against a full scale IDF assault. Moreover their training was poor, their leaders mediocre, and overall it was more of a political organization than a fighting outfit. Even Yusuf Sayigh,. a die hard Palestinian political  supporter, admitted their problems.( “Palestinian Military Performance in the 1982 War. “) Moreover the IDF pretty well destroyed the Syrian 2nd armored division,  and most of their air defense. In one of the celebrated AirPower debacles of the modern era, the Syrians had 89 aircraft shot  down by Israeli fighters without a single loss to the Israelis.  Part of the Syrian  problem was  of course the Russian training which directed that the  Syrian pilots fight according to directions from their ground controllers. The young Israelis pilots were able to use their own instincts and initiative against the WWII moribund  Russian tactics of the Syrians. One has to marvel at the courage of the Syrian pilots whom kept on flying into the maws of death.

Overall a tactical military win but a horrible political outcome.

I read  Sharon’s  book aptly entitled Warrior.  He is not the ogre the Western media likes to portray him. He is a George Patton type. You probably would not like to work for him but if you need a leader to win you would call him. I think he is the scapegoat for many of the political ills of the 1982 war.2  Western journalists covering the war and the historians who used their stories, are, in the famous words of David Hackworth,” unable to tell the difference between a turd and a tank.”

  1. The Shatila, Sabra story is a typical one for the tribal, clannish Middle East. The Christian Phalange (Kata’ib)  considered it payback for the Muslim massacre of Christians in the town of Damour.
  2. I consider Sharon to be a victim of  what I call the “princess Di effect.” Certain people, ideologies, movements , even nations, suddenly become, by virtue of a lock step, self reproducing  media,  all that is good without any rational reason to support it.  Sharon suffered from the reverse of this. The Kahan commission that placed blame on Sharon was a political witch hunt. And off course he had many jealous generals in the IDF. Always a toss up— who hates Sharon the most, The Palestinians  or the Israeli left?







About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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