Skip to main content
patrick martin

Ariel Sharon, pictured in 1995, dominated the Israeli political landscape both in and out of office.Kevin Frayer/The Associated Press

Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon fought all his life to preserve the security of a Jewish state, but his single-mindedness in conquering Palestinians leaves Israel today facing its gravest existential threats: an empowered Iranian enemy and a traumatized Israeli population.

The settlement movement, whose development Mr. Sharon championed in the West Bank to tamp down the Arab population, now stands as the greatest obstacle to a peace agreement with Palestinians and costs the economy dearly at a time when Israelis would like a better life.

And the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Mr. Sharon's greatest legacy, not only proved to be a failure, but gave a boost to Iranian muscle in the process. It was meant to be the coup de grace against the Palestine Liberation Organization, but it only served to give rise to an Iranian-backed Islamist movement, Hezbollah, that is far more lethal.

As Israel prepares to bury Mr. Sharon Monday, after the former prime minister spent eight years in a coma, the nation now must confront this legacy.

On its northern frontier sits a Hezbollah that is tearing at the fabric of the Lebanese government, asserting its authority over a multi-confessional political arrangement. At the same time it also is coming to the aid of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, fighting against the same Sunni Muslim opposition.

Iran has made it clear that Hezbollah is its most important resource in the Levant, more important even than the Assad regime, and it will do what it has to in order to support the Shia militia, even in the face of recent Saudi support for Lebanon's national army. All of this keeps Israel on guard as it ponders its next moves.

From 1982, the 18-year occupation of parts of Lebanon sapped the strength and deflated the morale of Israelis.

The government of Menachem Begin approved the Lebanon operation, citing the shooting of Israel's ambassador to London as the last straw for the irrepressible Palestinians. But the scale of reprisal suggested premeditation. Three days after the attempted assassination, Defence Minister Sharon sent nearly 90,000 troops, 800 tanks and 1500 armoured personnel carriers into Lebanon to crush the PLO force of 15,000 undisciplined fighters. The seven divisions exceeded the size of the force used against Egypt in 1973.

While Mr. Begin had publicly declared the incursion was to venture no more than 40 kilometres inside Lebanon and was only to police the Palestinians and then quickly exit, Mr. Sharon directed his troops to push on to Beirut, where they laid siege to the city.

Stunned by developments, the invasion prompted enormous public protests in Israel. On June 26, just three weeks into the campaign, a record Peace Now demonstration of 200,000 people called for Israel to get out.

For the first time in war, Israel was not one nation. Soldiers refused to fight while others marched in the streets of Tel Aviv protesting the fighting. Parents of dead Israeli soldiers had doubts, not pride.

A subsequent protest in September, after the massacre of Palestinians in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, brought out 400,000 demonstrators and cost Mr. Sharon his job as defence minister while earning him contempt at home and abroad. On visits to the United States, he was snubbed by officials of the Reagan and Bush administrations.

But the cost of the lengthy Lebanese campaign was much greater than a tarnished reputation and poor public relations. Shiites in the South of Lebanon, initially pleased to be rid of the PLO warlords, grew quickly alarmed by Israel's continued occupation, especially after the PLO had sailed to Tunis thanks to a deal negotiated by the Americans.

Iran took advantage of the situation and dispatched units of its Revolutionary Guard to the Bekaa Valley to train Lebanese Shiites in the art of guerrilla warfare.

Among the earliest to be prepared was Imad Mughniyeh who had been a member of Yasser Arafat's elite Force 17 protection unit. In 1983, it was Mr. Mughniyeh who organized suicide bomb attacks on U.S. and French bases in Beirut, then proceeded to train an underground army that would, by 1985, come to be known as Hezbollah.

The intensity of this resistance army was remarkable. At a funeral of a Hezbollah fighter in 1995 in Jibchit, a town just north of the Israeli-controlled buffer zone, 200 fellow fighters bearing the body to the grave beat their chests with such ferocity that the ground shook.

It was in Jibchit that Israeli agents in 1984 murdered Ragheb Harb, the village imam who encouraged local resistance against the Israeli occupation forces. And it was there, also, that Israeli troops landed by helicopter in 1989 and abducted Abdul Karim Obeid, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah.

Israeli helicopters returned to Jibchit three years later to ambush Sheik Abbas Moussawi, the leader of Hezbollah. The armoured Mercedes bearing Sheik Moussawi, along with his wife and five-year-old son, was hit by an air-to-ground missile as the sheik left a memorial service for his predecessors.

The Hezbollah-linked Islamic jihad movement replied soon after, bombing Israel's embassy in Buenos Aires and killing 29 people.

Every act served to strengthen the movement that would outlive the Israeli occupation. By 2000, more than 1200 Israelis had been killed.

A confident Hezbollah, under Hassan Nasrallah even lured Israel into a new fight in 2006, and while 1500 Lebanese perished in the month-long conflict, it was Israel that limped off the battlefield having failed to smash its opponent.

The hard-hitting shock-and-awe campaign launched against Hamas in Gaza in 2008 was very much a result of that failure in Lebanon. Determined to regain its deterrence credibility, the Israeli administration of Ehud Olmert pulled out all the stops to show Hamas just who was boss after the Islamic militants and other Palestinian groups had fired hundreds of home-made rockets at Israel over the course of several weeks.

About 1,300 Gazans were killed making that point, while only 13 Israelis perished.

Books would be written about the Lebanon war; award-winning films made; almost all peeled away the veneer of military bravado and pilloried Mr. Begin and especially Mr. Sharon.

Looking back many years later, Efraim Halevy, a former Mossad chief, told U.S. author Patrick Tyler that the Lebanon debacle was the product of a terrible judgment. "We didn't realize that the future was not going to be with the Christians, but rather the Shiites."