In March 1978 a posse of Palestinian terrorists quietly rafted their way around the border from South Lebanon, landed on Israeli soil, hijacked a bus and massacred 38 Israelis, among them 13 children.
The Lebanese government claimed, falsely, that it had nothing to do with the raid. It hadn’t armed the men or urged them on. But it might as well have. Nine years earlier, Lebanon had signed the Cairo Accord with the PLO’s Yasser Arafat, allowing him to weaponize Palestinian refugee camps and turn Lebanon into a launching pad against Israel–and against Lebanon itself. Lebanon had signed its own death warrant. It had sacrificed its sovereignty to the “Palestinian struggle.”
Jordan wasn’t so dumb. When Arafat’s fedaiyin–Arabic for “freedom fighters,” French for my ass–attempted a coup there in 1973, King Hussein, learning from Israeli disproportion next door, crushed them mercilessly. It came to be known as Black September. Hussein did his savagery one better: he sent the other savages packing to Lebanon, to do from there what they had been doing in Jordan. Arab brotherhood has no bounds.
The Palestinians took full advantage. They built a state within Lebanon, repeatedly attacking not only Israel, but warring with the Lebanese army, and when the army disintegrated, with Lebanese militias. By the time of the bus massacre in Israel, Lebanon was three years into its own 15-year civil war that would finish it off as a country, with Palestinians responsible for most of the destruction up until that point. (That war started with a bus massacre of its own, perpetrated by Christian militias.) It was easy–if not necessary–for us Christians to despise them, since they threatened our existence. It was just as easy to ignore our militias’ atrocities against Palestinians. We’d lost count of the retaliatory score, and anyway, better them than us.
I remember in the late summer of 1976, not long after my father had died, my mother–what the hell was she thinking?–taking me and my brothers to “visit” the ruins of the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp on the promontory outskirts of Christian East Beirut. The Palestinians had used it to bomb the hell out of us. They’d carried out a near-total massacre of the Christian town of Damour on the coast, south of Beirut. Our Christian militias were itching for revenge.
Our militias were made up mostly of the vaguely fascist Phalangists, the forces of the National Liberal Party and slaughterers called Guardians of the Cedars. All “Christians.” They had laid siege to the refugee camp (population: 20,000) for half a year, then assaulted, then massacred about 1,500 Palestinians, as always most of them civilians. Weeks later you could just drive in there, as we did, walk around exploded sandbags and skeletal rebar, walk into bunkers with crude concrete walls a foot thick, as my older brother did (as I did not). I remembered thinking: bunkers? I’d been a fan of World War II picture books. I hadn’t expected to see pillboxes a short drive from home.
I remember seeing bloody rags, the redness still oddly scarlet, and thinking–hoping–somebody must have died here. I remember thinking, with that preadolescent casualness of vengeful, clueless sadism: good riddance. I was not yet 12.
After the bus massacre, Israel made its latest vow to wipe out the PLO from Lebanon–it had launched military assaults more than 50 times since 1968), invading three days later, killing some 2,000 Lebanese and Palestinians and establishing a bogus “independent” Christian state along its border, under the command of the Christian general Saad Haddad (no relation).
Of course the invasion didn’t wipe out the PLO. It emboldened it. I escaped four months later, not long after the Syrian army invaded–cynically, briefly, on the side of the Christians, supposedly to keep the PLO from a take-over, just as it had in Jordan in 1973, but really to get its own share of the dismembered country it never recognized as separate from its own. Before long Syrian guns had turned on the Christian enclave, which it failed to conquer. Israeli and American weaponry played no small part in sustaining the Christian militias.
The PLO kept growing. In mi-1982 its gunmen attempted to assassinate the Israeli ambassador to Britain. Menahem Begin, a terrorist turned prime minister (President Carter called him, rather kindly, a “psycho”), vowed to wipe out the PLO and launched another invasion of Lebanon, this one all the way to Beirut and resulting in close to 50,000 Lebanese and Palestinian killed and wounded, of course most of them civilians. Israeli slaughtering got so bad in August that even Ronald Reagan, that happy warmonger, lost his cool and ordered Begin to desist. Begin ignored him but for the usual request for more free weaponry. Reagan complied.
The Israelis installed Bashir Gemayel–my mom’s old boss at his radio station and one of the most blood-soaked warlords of the age, his mama’s boy cherubic face notwithstanding–as the Christian president who’d supposedly reunify the country. He was assassinated within days. His militias retaliated with the massacre of the Sabra and Chatila Palestinian camps on the southern outskirts of Beirut, with the Israeli army providing logistics and night flares so the slaughtering could go on at night. An Israeli commission found Ariel Sharon, the invasion’s commander, personally responsible for “not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed.” Obviously, he’d soon become prime minister in turn.
American, French and Italian troops landed to separate the barbarians and broker a deal that would supposedly disperse 6,000 PLO militants to other Arab countries, Jordan-style. Begin thought it was mission accomplished. All he’d done is seed the rise of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed, Lebanese Shiite militia that replaced the PLO in South Lebanon with more disciplined and crueler fighters, because they’re also religious zealots, and with the added advantage of being indigenous to the South. Hezbollah introduced itself first by wiping out the American embassy in the April 1983 suicide bombing, killing 63 (including a slew of CIA agents’ eyes and ears on the region), then with the twin bombings of the Marines and French troops’ Beirut barracks six months later, killing 299 soldiers and six civilians. Those CIA agents out of the way, Hezbollah set to work taking American hostages and trading for their release with Oliver North by way of their patrons in Tehran.
Israel had a new enemy on its hands. Naturally, it would go on to vow to destroy Hezbollah, with a low-grade war either directly or by proxy through its “South Lebanon Army” for 15 years, when it occupied a part of the south, then in the major assault of 1996 and the re-invasion of 2006, with incessant smaller clashes in between, none of which achieved Israeli objectives, all of which reinforced Hezbollah and gave it a form of legitimacy the Lebanese themselves wouldn’t give them.
This is where we are now in South Lebanon, with Hezbollah and Israel on a trigger. Neither can defeat the other. Neither wants a war, knowing the outcome. Neither would hesitate to have a war, despite the known outcome. The only losers have always been and will always be civilians.
The dictionary definition of terrorism is the “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” Looking back at Lebanon’s miserable history since 1969, none of those involved–not the PLO, not Hezbollah, not the Chritian militias or their innumerable Muslim counterparts over the years, not Syria, and certainly not Israel–can escape the branding of terrorism, if that devalued and propagandized word means anything anymore. Not if you’re a civilian who’s experienced the terror, at least those of us lucky to have survived. About 200,000 did not.
I tell this partly personal story as context to what once was my limitless hatred of Palestinians, who drove me out of and ruined the home I grew up in on Damascus Road in Beirut, and my limitless blindness to atrocities committed by those militias who’d once protected me and my family, the way Palestinians and Hezbollah and Israelis now claim they are protecting theirs.
The atrocities are undeniable and are morbidly familiar. But for the tallies, there’s nothing different about this new war between Israel and Hamas. Israel accurately brands the slaughter of Oct. 7 as the worst against Jews since the Holocaust. There is nothing–no history, no “Palestinian struggle,” no rationale–that can justify it. It was a terrorist attack, a massacre, a crime against humanity.
But Israel has been inflicting these “worst-against-since” slaughters on Lebanese and Palestinian civilians since before 1978 (I started then only because of my personal memories), and on an unmatchable scale, because Israeli disproportion has no equal, and because American disproportion in its support of Israel has no equal either, regardless of the war crimes unfolding before our eyes.
There is nothing legitimate about Hamas. It is a regressive, unelected, despotic, death-cult-drenched terrorist organization that, like Khmers with green rather than red turbans, massacres its own in the name of the unattainable and denies Israel’s right to exist. But Israel does exist, and misleading histories aside, has never been in danger of not existing since 1948, as Israeli historians are first to tell you. It’s Israel’s denial of the right of Palestinians and Palestine to exist that has been more successful, down to the current prime minister’s official rejection of a two-state solution.
Of course Arafat and other Palestinians made an art of tripping over peace initiatives, as with that near-miss of a two-state resolution in 2000, though even that summit, lacking any written documentation of what was offered or rejected, still lends itself to opportunistic myth-making, depending on which ministry of truth is telling the story. Let’s just not conflate the eternally debatable machinations of warlords and diplomats and what-should-have-beens with what we can see today, with what civilians live with, and die from.
Israel’s occupation and colonization of the West Bank, likely headed for annexation, has reduced Palestinians there to a diaspora of overpopulated and fragmented enclaves rimmed by illegal “settlers,” an inaccurate euphemism the American press has been parroting as if it were a biblical truth, when it is only a flouting of international law. The occupation of the West Bank is a violation of UN resolutions and international law. It would be unacceptable to American norms if it were happening anywhere else in the world. (See under: Ukraine.) But it’s Israel’s doing, and Israel benefits from America’s world bank of double-standards.
Then there’s Gaza. I almost laughed the laugh of the dead when I read headlines last week about Israel imposing a blockade on Gaza in retaliation for the bloodletting, ahead of its invasion. Newspaper after newspaper blasted headlines of the “siege,” as if it were news. As if the last 18 years of siege were a night of slumber in Rip Van Winkle’s newsroom.
But that collective of disinformation, of press and public metabolizing whatever fabricated narrative Israel disseminates, has always been the premise of Israeli coverage in this country, preempting dissent with the branding of anti-Semitism the moment criticism is levied at the country’s policies. Conflating the two–criticism and anti-Semitism–is one of the great, muzzling successes of the campaign, a trait unique to an American press otherwise so dogmatic about twelling “both sides of the story.” The Israeli press is not so hampered and not anywhere so dishonest: if you want to know what’s happening to Palestinians, follow Israeli media. (Then again, maybe not as much this time.)
To be clear: Gaza has been blockaded since Israel withdrew from there in 2005–Gaza, a strip about as lengthy as the Flagler County shoreline, plus seven miles: 25 miles long, and no wider at its widest than the distance between the Flagler Beach pier and the county courthouse in Bunnell. In there are stuffed 2 million Palestinians. From within there Israel has ordered 1 million Palestinians in the northern half to displace themselves to the southern part–a displacement that under international law is a war crime.
A siege within a siege–and not just by Israel: Egypt, that lazy tyranny benefiting from $45 billion in American aid since 1987, is a partner in the crime as it keeps its Gaza border closed. All Arab countries have been partners. To them Palestinians are somewhere between useful idiots, pawns and prisoners, depending on the circumstances. No Arab country with Palestinian refugees, Lebanon included, treats Palestinians as human beings, seeing them as my 12-year-old self once did.
But Arab countries are not the standard. Hamas isn’t the standard. Islamic Jihad isn’t the standard. Just because Arabs treat Palestinians like animals and Hamas launches 9/11-style massacres doesn’t mean Israel is entitled to retaliate in kind, though we did nothing less in retaliation for 9/11: Afghanistan and Iraq were needless, disproportionate responses that resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians, the destabilization of the region, and the transformation of Iran into the region’s superpower, while American prestige, moral standing and strategic advantage collapsed.
Israel’s retaliation is following the same pattern. War crimes aside, it’s revenge at the expense of strategy, slaughter at the expense of moral standing. Because nothing will be achieved beyond the added massacres of civilians by the thousands–over 3,400 Palestinian civilians as of this morning, including 1,400 children.
We know this. It’s already happening. We also know that Israel is vowing the impossible: Hamas cannot be eradicated any more than the PLO or Hezbollah could be eradicated from Lebanon (where Palestinian militants have long since resumed making their camps into fortresses). Israel is doing exactly what Hamas wants, just as the United States did exactly what al-Qaeda wanted when we invaded Afghanistan: getting sucked into an unwinnable war (where’s the Taliban now?), and giving Iran’s mullahs yet one more lifeline. Making Dresden of Gaza, as the United Nations reports happening in Gaza’s northern quarter, would be yet another war crime.
Israel isn’t without alternatives. From the killing of every individual responsible for the Munich massacre in 1972 to the Entebe rescue to an endless list of targeted assassinations, Israel can take out whoever it pleases. It was Team Six’s Abbottabad assassination of bin Laden, long overdue, not the two trillion-dollar wars and mass killings there, that did the job.
But assassinations don’t satisfy the lust for revenge as wars do. Israel hasn’t won a war since 1967, and even that proved to be the untenable occupation and low-grade war it has faced for decades. It’s not about to win against Hamas, no matter how high Israel runs the kill ratio–even if Hamas were to disappear. It’ll just get replaced, the way Hezbollah replaced the PLO, the way Hamas replaced Arafat. Hamas knows this. Israel knows it. Civilians are paying. Civilians alone will lose most.
The only winner, if there is one, is sloganeering, always the cruder purchase order of gravestones.
Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. A version of this piece aired on WNZF.