Israel Invades Southern Lebanon

As Palestinians in 1971 were forced to give up cross-border havens, especially in Jordan, Lebanon became more vulnerable to guerrilla penetration, laying the groundwork for Israel’s retaliatory Operation Litani in 1978.

Summary of Event

Major clashes between the Jordanian military and militant factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Jordan’s Palestinian refugee camps in 1970 and 1971 resulted in the expulsion of Palestinian guerrillas from Jordan into Syria and Lebanon, among other places. The increased presence of Palestinian militants in Lebanon had the effect of increasing tensions between the Lebanese government and Palestinians, on one hand, and Lebanon and Israel, on the other. Israel;invasion of Lebanon
Lebanon;Israeli invasion
Operation Litani
Israeli-Palestinian conflict[Israeli Palestinian conflict]
Palestinian-Israeli conflict[Palestinian Israeli conflict]
[kw]Israel Invades Southern Lebanon (Mar. 14, 1978)
[kw]Invades Southern Lebanon, Israel (Mar. 14, 1978)
[kw]Southern Lebanon, Israel Invades (Mar. 14, 1978)
[kw]Lebanon, Israel Invades Southern (Mar. 14, 1978)
Israel;invasion of Lebanon
Lebanon;Israeli invasion
Operation Litani
Israeli-Palestinian conflict[Israeli Palestinian conflict]
Palestinian-Israeli conflict[Palestinian Israeli conflict]
[g]Middle East;Mar. 14, 1978: Israel Invades Southern Lebanon[03170]
[g]Lebanon;Mar. 14, 1978: Israel Invades Southern Lebanon[03170]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 14, 1978: Israel Invades Southern Lebanon[03170]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Mar. 14, 1978: Israel Invades Southern Lebanon[03170]
Arafat, Yasir
Waldheim, Kurt
Haddad, Saad

Even before, but particularly after the crises originating in Jordan, Israel suffered serious attacks launched by Palestinians crossing Lebanon’s southern border. In May, 1970, for example, a school bus from the town of Avivim was ambushed, resulting in the deaths of nine children and several adults. Mounting concern that the PLO would continue to shield and even organize such raiders contributed to Israel’s only major act of military retribution before a decision to launch a full-scale operation came in 1978. This was in April, 1973, when Israeli commandos penetrated PLO offices in Beirut and killed three main leaders.

Further actions by PLO splinter groups—including an April, 1974, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine raid on Kiryat Shmona and a month later, a bloody massacre in the border town of Ma’alot (carried out by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine)—made it clear that any town near Israel’s border with Lebanon could be the target of guerrilla attack.

Israel’s conviction that Lebanon was unable to control Palestinian operatives would be exacerbated by two major developments. First, early in 1975 even Tel Aviv experienced a brief PLO “reign of terror” when commandos used rubber boats launched in Lebanon to reach farther down the coast, terrorizing (and executing eight) hostages taken from the Savoy Hotel. The magnitude of potential danger soon shifted to a different level, one that would eventually convince Israel that it had no other option than an organized military campaign into Lebanon. This shift was a repercussion of unsettled conditions in southern Lebanon created by the Lebanese Civil War. Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990)

The state of open civil war in Lebanon in 1975 and 1976, although “quieted” by complex international diplomatic efforts, remained dangerously latent over the next two years. It would take a series of local-level confrontations in southern Lebanon, followed by a resumption of Palestinian militant cross-border actions, to create a situation that Israel would increasingly deem intolerable to its security. It was a surprise Palestinian attack on the Haifa-Tel Aviv highway on March 11, 1978, that precipitated the decision to launch Operation Litani four days later. As the operation’s name suggests, the original intention of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was to sweep through a broad area of southern Lebanon using tactics that would force Palestinian guerrillas northward across the Litani River, which flows from Baalbek into the Bekáa Valley.

As the IDF crossed the border, Lebanon launched an emergency complaint to the United Nations, appealing for international action to halt Israeli advances. Action by the U.N. Security Council was rapid. Resolution 425 ordered the creation of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), a force that was to maintain strict neutrality between local opposing forces. Its specific mission was defined as overseeing Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanese territory, establishing conditions of peace and security in southern Lebanon, and helping Lebanon’s government reassert its legitimate authority in the troubled area.

As the force moved toward achieving full military and administrative support strength, there would be more than five thousand troops supported by a specialized observer group, the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization United Nations;peacekeeping (UNTSO), as well as several hundred local and international civilian aides. Although there was no trace of a direct link between such rapid action by the United Nations and “higher” political considerations elsewhere in the Middle East, the fact that these events occurred only months before Egyptian-Israeli negotiations at Camp David (in September, 1978) Camp David Peace Accords (1978) and the subsequent Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty in March, 1979, Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty (1979)[Israel Egypt Peace Treaty] was a matter of foremost concern in Washington, and other capitals may have played some role.


UNIFIL’s extended task after 1978’s events was bound to be extremely controversial, since—in the event of a repetition of major armed hostilities in southern Lebanon—the multinational force lacked not only a clear mandate as to what military action it should take but also sufficient firepower to impose its authority physically. From a political point of view, however, the international community, represented by U.N. secretary-general Kurt Waldheim, committed itself several times over a more than twenty-year period to responding to Lebanon’s requests for extending UNIFIL’s mandate.

Nonetheless, tense circumstances in southern Lebanon would show—in terms making the relatively short-lived crisis of March, 1978, appear to be a minor one—that Israel would not hesitate to use its air force and army unilaterally in Lebanon. In June of 1982, Israel not only moved again into southern Lebanon after targets in Israel were hit by presumed PLO emplacements but also used military force to lay siege to Beirut itself. Overwhelmed by the intensity and speed of Israeli movement across the border, UNIFIL forces found themselves behind Israeli lines until a partial withdrawal agreement was reached in 1985.

During the long period from 1985 until Tel Aviv’s unilateral decision in 2000 to withdraw to positions on Israel’s side of the border, UNIFIL was essentially limited to providing humanitarian assistance to Lebanese towns affected by the Israeli penetration of southern Lebanon. Sporadic acts of violence by various local, self-assigned defenders of Lebanese sovereignty were overshadowed by the prevailing reality of the fifteen-year period: a so-called South Lebanon Army, which was clearly separate from Lebanon’s national army, cooperated with Israel (and gained reciprocal advantages) to keep order in the substantial area still occupied by the IDF after the 1985 partial withdrawal.

The pattern established in 1978 seemed destined to keep southern Lebanon in a state of vulnerability whenever signs of potential attack against Israeli territory arose. This was the case, although with different actors on the Lebanese side, when, in the summer of 2006, the militant Shia Islamic party Hezbollah Hezbollah (party of God) took the initiative earlier associated specifically with Palestinian guerrillas. When Hezbollah—presumably in support of the beleaguered cause of the Palestinian Hamas Hamas party in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza—took Israeli soldiers hostage, what began as an exploratory Israeli raid into Lebanon to root out guerrilla rocket-launching sites escalated quickly into an extensive air and land assault, the former paralyzing Beirut’s airport and major residential areas suspected of harboring Hezbollah groupings. Once again, as in 1978, the Lebanese government sought some form of international intervention to halt the destruction of towns, roads, and bridges.

Unlike 1978, quick action was not taken to stop repeated waves of air and land operations by Israel. An arrangement was eventually reached that called for an expanded international force to assist Lebanon in the task of reoccupying areas used by Hezbollah militants, but unlike the situation of 1978, the magnitude of the problem seemed overwhelming. Massive costs of reconstruction and repeated political calls for a complete reorganization of Lebanon’s government marked a nadir that could not have been imagined when Operation Litani struck Lebanon nearly three decades earlier. Israel;invasion of Lebanon
Lebanon;Israeli invasion
Operation Litani
Israeli-Palestinian conflict[Israeli Palestinian conflict]
Palestinian-Israeli conflict[Palestinian Israeli conflict]

Further Reading

  • Bregman, Ahron. Israel’s Wars: A History Since 1947. New York: Routledge, 2002. Places the events of 1978 in the broader context of all of the full-scale Arab-Israel military conflicts occurring up to 1973, pointing out conditions that led to the particular dilemma of southern Lebanon.
  • Fisk, Robert. Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002. Analysis of the complexity of Lebanon’s internal political dilemmas together with repercussions for Lebanese-Israeli relations.
  • Rothenberg, Gunther. The Anatomy of the Israeli Army, 1948-1978. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1979. Study of how Israel’s army evolved, enabling it to undertake the 1978 campaign with such tactical success.

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