Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July/August 1994, Page 73
Middle East History: It Happened in August
By Donald Neff
It was 12 years ago when Prime Minister Menachem Begin admitted in public that Israel had fought three wars in which it had a "choice," meaning Israel started the wars. Begin's admission came in a speech delivered on Aug. 8, 1982, before the Israeli National Defense College. His purpose was to defuse mounting criticism of Israel's invasion of Lebanon, which had begun two months earlier on June 5 and was clearly one of Israel's wars of "choice." The others were in 1956 and 1967.
At the time of Begin's speech, the Israeli siege of Muslim West Beirut was already five weeks old. Israeli U.S.-made aircraft were launching daily air strikes and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians throughout the country were being killed, wounded, starved, terrorized and uprooted from their homes, most of them by munitions made in America. On July 29, the United Nations Security Council demanded that Israel lift its siege. Only the United States abstained in the 14-0 vote.1 When Israel refused, the council voted again on Aug. 4 to censure Israel with a vote of 14-0, with the U.S. again abstaining.2 On Aug. 6, the United States exercised its veto to block a council resolution condemning Israel's occupation practices, the sixth time in 1982 the Reagan administration had used the veto to shield Israel from international criticism.3
Despite the Reagan administration's lonely support of Israel, there was increasing disillusionment within Israel itself at the terrible toll being inflicted on Lebanese civilians. An estimated 10,000 Israelis had already staged a protest rally in Tel Aviv as early as June 26.4 Another hundred thousand Israelis demonstrated against Begin's government on July 3 under the banner of Peace Now. Other antiwar groups—Yesh Givul (There is a Limit), Soldiers Against Silence, Parents Against Silence—soon sprang up as the siege continued.5
The anti-war mood increased when Israeli Colonel Eli Geva, head of an elite armored brigade involved in Israel's invasion of Lebanon, resigned his commission in July to protest the siege of Beirut. It was the first time that a senior Israeli officer had ever resigned in protest during any of Israel's wars .6 When Prime Minister Begin asked Geva why he had refused to continue in the siege, the tankman replied that he could see children when he looked through his binoculars into Beirut. "Did you receive an order to kill children?" snapped Begin. No, said Geva. "Then what are you complaining about?" demanded the prime minister. 7 Yesh Givul became the strongest of the groups, with 2,000 reservists eventually signing a petition not to serve in Lebanon; 150 of them were court martialed.8
In his speech to Israeli security experts on Aug. 8, the prime minister sought to counter these growing anti-war protests by enlisting the military's support. His method was to link the unpopular war in Lebanon with Israel's triumphant victories in 1956 and 1967, which he was careful to point out were also wars of "choice." Now, Begin said, Israel was involved in another war of choice that would finally bring victorious peace.
Excerpts from Begin's speech:
"The Second World War, which broke out on Sept. 1, 1939, actually began on March 7, 1936. If only France, without Britain (which had some excellent combat divisions), had attacked the aggressor, there would have remained no trace of Nazi German power and a war which, in three years, changed the whole of human history, would have been prevented. This, therefore, is the international example that explains what is war without choice, or a war of one's choosing.
"Let us turn from the international example to ourselves. Operation Peace for Galilee [the Israeli name for the invasion of Lebanon] is not a military operation resulting from the lack of an alternative. The terrorists did not threaten the existence of the state of Israel; they 'only' threatened the lives of Israel's citizens and members of the Jewish people. There are those who find fault with the second part of that sentence. If there was no danger to the existence of the state, why did you go to war?
"I will explain why: We had three wars which we fought without an alternative. The first, the war of independence, which began on Nov. 30, 1947 and lasted until January 1949. What happened in that war, which we went off to fight with no alternative? Six thousand of our fighters were killed. We were then 650,000 Jews in Eretz Israel, and the number fallen amounted to about 1 percent of the Jewish population.
"The second war of no alternative was the Yom Kippur War and the war of attrition that preceded it. Our total casualties in that war of no alternative were 2,297 killed, 6,067 wounded. Together with the war of attrition—which was also a war of no alternative—2,659 killed, 7,251 wounded. The terrible total: almost 10,000 casualties.
"Our other wars were not without an alternative. In November 1956 we had a choice. The reason for going to war then was the need to destroy the fedayeen, who did not represent a danger to the existence of the state. Thus we went off to the Sinai campaign. At that time we conquered most of the Sinai Peninsula and reached Sharm el Sheikh. Actually, we accepted and submitted to an American dictate, mainly regarding the Gaza Strip (which Ben-Gurion called 'the liberated portion of the homeland'). John Foster Dulles, the then-secretary of state, promised Ben-Gurion that an Egyptian army would not return to Gaza. The Egyptian army did enter Gaza .... After 1957, Israel had to wait 10 full years for its flag to fly again over that liberated portion of the homeland.
"In June 1967, we again had a choice. The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him. This was a war of self-defense in the noblest sense of the term. The Government of National Unity then established decided unanimously: we will take the initiative and attack the enemy, drive him back, and thus assure the security of Israel and the future of the nation.
"As for the Operation Peace for Galilee [the invasion of Lebanon], it does not really belong to the category of wars of no alternative. We could have gone on seeing our civilians injured in Metulla or Qiryat Shimona or Nahariya. We could have gone on countering those killed by explosive charges left in a Jerusalem supermarket, or a Petah Tikvah bus stop. All the orders to carry out these acts of murder and sabotage came from Beirut .... True, such actions were not a threat to the existence of the state. But they did threaten the lives of civilians. whose numbers we cannot estimate, day after day, week after week, month after month....
"I—we—can already look beyond the fighting. It will soon be over, we hope, and then I believe, indeed I know, we will have a long period of peace. There is no other country around us that is capable of attacking us."9
In reality, it took nearly three more years before Israel was able to disengage its forces. On the third anniversary of the invasion, after suffering 610 dead, Israel withdrew most of its forces from Lebanon, leaving a residual team of about 2,000 combat troops to retain control of a "security belt" in southern Lebanon. The occupied land amounted to nine percent of Lebanon's territory, adding yet several hundred square miles more to the list of Arab land Israel had expanded on since 1948.10
Donald Neff is author of the Warriors trilogy on U.S. Middle East Handbook, a chronological data bank of significant events affecting U.S. policy and the Middle East on which this article is based. His books are available through the AET Book Club.
Flapan, Simha, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities, New York, Pantheon Books, 1987.
Glubb Pasha (Sir John Bagot Glubb), A Soldier with the Arabs, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1957.
Hirst, David, The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East, New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
Khalidi, Walid, From Haven to Conquest: Readings in Zionism and the Palestine Problem until 1948, Washington, DC, Institute for Palestine Studies, 1987.
Morris, Benny, The Birth of the Palestine Refugee Problem, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Nakhleh, Issa, Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem (2 vols), New York, Intercontinental Books, 1991.
Palumbo, Michael, The Palestinian Catastrophe: The 1948 Expulsion of a People From their Homeland, Boston, Faber and Faber, 1987.
Quigley, John, Palestine and Israel: A Challenge to Justice, Durham, Duke University Press, 1990.
Said, Edward W. and Christopher Hitchens, Blaming the Victims, New York, Verso, 1988.
Segev, Tom, 1949: The First Israelis, New York, The Free Press, 1986.
1Childers, "The Other Exodus," in Khalidi, From Haven to Conquest, p. 800.
2Palumbo, The Palestinian Catastrophe, p. 126.
3 Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, p. 206; Palumbo, The Palestinian Catastrophe, p. 127.
4Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, p. 207.
5 Glubb, A Soldier with the Arabs, p. 162.
6Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, p. 210.
7Palumbo, The Palestinian Catastrophe, p. 129.
8Ibid., pp. 129-30.
9Flapan, The Birth of Israel, p. 100.
10Quigley, Palestine and Israel, p. I 11.
11Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, p. 211.
12 It was later published by both The New York Times, 10123ng, and Newsweek, 11/9/79, and in a book by Rabin's English translator, Peretz Kidron; see Kidron, "Truth Whereby Nations Live:' in Said & Hitchens (eds.), Blaming the Victims.
13Time, "Untimely Story," 2/2On8.
14Palumbo, The Palestinian Catastrophe, p. 131. Also see Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch, p. 280.