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What was the 1982 Lebanon war all about? What was Ariel Sharon's role?

In 1970, after a bitter battle with the Jordanian military, the PLO moved its headquarters from Jordan to Lebanon. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians followed, and the existing camps in Lebanon were soon crowded with refugees. Lebanon played a regional role, and was soon a key focal point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

With hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees living in Beirut and southern Lebanon, much of the governing, from schools and hospitals to licensing and legal systems, was taken over by the PLO. From 1975 Lebanon was stuck in a bloody civil war, pitting sectarian and religious factions against each other. Palestinian guerrillas and Israeli troops also continued to trade rocket fire across the Israeli-Lebanese border. In 1978, Israel took over a strip of southern Lebanon, and continued to occupy it in defiance of UN Resolution 425 which called for Israel to immediately and unconditionally withdraw. Instead of withdrawing, Israel sponsored an anti-Palestinian Christian-led militia, called the South Lebanon Army, by arming, paying, training and supporting them in the occupied zone.

Israel's real goal was to destroy the PLO infrastructure—social as well as military—in Lebanon, and to put in place a compliant, pro-Israeli regime in Beirut. In 1982, when it appeared that Lebanon's civil war could drag on forever without those goals being achieved, Israel decided to move on its own. But first Tel Aviv needed to be sure its allies in Washington would approve.

It was a little bit tricky. After all, the U.S.-brokered ceasefire between Israel and the PLO in south Lebanon and across Israel's northern border had held for almost a year. There wasn't an obvious provocation on which to claim that a direct Israeli invasion was "necessary for self-defense." In May 1982, Israel's Defense Minister Ariel Sharon went to Washington, to meet with President Reagan's Secretary of State Alexander Haig. Former President Jimmy Carter said after a national security briefing that "the word I got from very knowledgeable people in Israel is that 'we have a green light from Washington'."

Then a new provocation was created. On June 3, a renegade, anti-PLO Palestinian faction attempted to assassinate Israel's ambassador in London. The British police immediately identified Abu Nidal's forces as responsible, and revealed that PLO leaders themselves were among the names on the would-be assassins' hit list. The PLO had nothing to do with the London attack. But Israel claimed the attack (the ambassador remained unhurt) was a justification for war. Three days later, on June 6, 1982 the Israeli army invaded Lebanon in operation "Peace for Galilee," crossing the Litani River and moving as far north as Beirut, destroying the feeble resistance from local villagers and from United Nations peacekeeping troops swept aside in the assault. Israel remained in virtually uncontested control of the air, and had overwhelming military superiority on land and sea. Beirut was besieged and subjected to merciless bombing for two months. Casualties were enormous, totalling more than 17,000 Lebanese and palestinians, mostly civilians. Hospitals were hit, the Palestinian refugee camps were levelled in massive bombardment.

Israel relied overwhelmingly on U.S.-supplied planes, bombs and other military equipment. But despite existing laws mandating that U.S. military supplies be used only for defensive purposes, no one in Washington complained. The New York Times said "American weapons were justly used to break the PLO." The Reagan administration and Congress both tried to outdo the other in calls to raise U.S. aid to Israel. Throughout June and July the siege of Beirut continued, with everyone in the city deprived of most food, water, electricity and safety. The bombing increased in early August, leading to a day of eleven solid hours of bombing on August 12. Condemnation poured in from around the world, and even the U.S. issued a mild criticism of the bombing. A ceasefire was soon achieved.

The U.S. brokered its terms, which centered on the PLO leaving Beirut—its guerrillas, its doctors, its civilian infrastructure, its officials—everyone and everything would board ship heading for Tunis, almost as far from Palestine as you could get and still be in the Arab world. The U.S. agreed to serve as guarantor of Israel's promises, as protector of the Palestinian civilians, primarily women, children and old man, left behind. U.S. Marines were deployed as the centerpiece of an international force with a 30-day mandate to guard Beirut during the withdrawal of the PLO fighters.