All involved in the Israel-Hamas conflict should heed the warnings of 1982

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The writer is author of ‘Black Wave’ and distinguished fellow at Columbia University’s Institute of Global Politics

The siege of Gaza has started and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised “mighty vengeance”, vowing to “eliminate” Hamas after the horror its militants unleashed on Israel at the weekend. Hamas may be driven out from the impoverished Gaza Strip; Netanyahu claims his actions will “change the Middle East”.

There have been four wars between Israel and Hamas since the group violently took over the territory in 2007, each one ending with a return to the untenable status quo. But there are echoes of the summer of 1982, when then defence minister Ariel Sharon vowed to purge the Palestinian Liberation Organisation from southern Lebanon. He too wanted to change the Middle East.

With a nod and a wink from US secretary of state Alexander Haig, Sharon sent his troops all the way to Beirut, laying siege to the city for two months. Even though the PLO did end up leaving Lebanon, Israel’s first large-scale ground war against a non-state entity was one of its worst strategic blunders — and led to the massacre of Sabra and Shatila by Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies. We are still living with the consequences of Sharon’s hubris and Haig’s wink, including the birth of an axis of resistance from Damascus to Tehran.

Israel wanted not only to evict the PLO but also to help install a friendly government in Beirut with which to make peace, while bringing Syria to its knees, and perhaps to the table, by pummelling its armed forces in Lebanon. And all of this without making a single concession to the Palestinians. If Netanyahu thinks that this time he can bomb Gaza and then return to normalisation talks with the Saudis without offering anything substantive to the Palestinians, he would be gravely misreading Riyadh.

The lesson of the past four decades is also that every attempt to wipe out Palestinian armed groups has only produced more extreme iterations and worse conundrums. Two days after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, a planeload of Iranian Revolutionary Guards arrived in Damascus and headed to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley with Syrian president Hafez al-Assad’s blessing. Since Iran arrived in the Levant, it has never left. Hizbollah — Tehran’s most successful export since the 1979 Iranian revolution — was formed, and with Iran, vowed to evict America from Lebanon and the Middle East. In 1983, the US suffered a devastating blow when suicide trucks blew up first its embassy in Beirut and then the Marine contingent of a US-French multinational Force. President Ronald Reagan pulled out the Marines, briefly keeping US warships off the coast of Lebanon.

Syria bided its time while the Soviets replenished its arsenal, becoming the ultimate arsonist of American plans in the region while posing as a firefighter. Damascus fulfils a different role today as Iran, Hizbollah and Russia maintain a heavy presence on its soil.

With US citizens now among both the dead and the hostages from Hamas’s lightning attack, and a US carrier strike group on its way, America is now involved beyond simply being Israel’s ally — just as it was in Lebanon, minus the troops on the ground. Israel is seeking revenge, but the US should heed the wider warnings from 1982.

Back then, the Soviets were looking for ways to regain influence in the Middle East, where they had lost considerable ground after Egypt switched sides to become a US ally. The Soviet ambassador in Beirut, Alexander Soldatov, made clear that Moscow was opposed to any American success in the Middle East and worked to scupper the US-brokered deal between Lebanon and Israel. Soldatov also vowed to stop the US getting out of Lebanon safely while the Reagan administration was assisting the anti-Soviet Mujahedeen in Afghanistan.

There is no evidence that the Soviets had a hand in the devastating attack against the Marines in October 1983 but agendas aligned from Moscow to Tehran and Damascus. Similarly, there is no evidence that Russia provided any kind of support for the horror that unfolded in Israel on Saturday and Moscow maintains good ties with Tel Aviv — so far. But anti-American agendas still align, especially while Washington supports Ukraine and is pushing to normalise ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Iran has been supplying Moscow with drones. Hamas leaders have made several visits to Russia recently.

At its core, the current conflict is about the longest occupation in modern history, one that leaves the Palestinians dispossessed while Israel quests relentlessly for its security. But the bigger picture is one of regional shifts and global alliances reaching a critical juncture. The danger now is of more strategic blunders that will only perpetuate the violence for years to come.

Israel-Palestinian conflict


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