A Victory for Whom? Lessons from the 1982 and 2006 Lebanon Wars

By Jessica “Zhanna” Malekos Smith 

Israeli troops in South Lebanon, June 1982 (Credit Image: P.mielen, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)


Historia (Inquiry); so that the actions of people will not fade with time.’[1] Herodotus


Although Israel achieved a tactical victory in the First Lebanon War, it was a ‘strategic mishap’ because it catalyzed Hezbollah’s formation, failed to produce a durable peace agreement with Lebanon and set in motion the Second Lebanon War of 2006. Here, the word tactical refers to the Israeli Defense Force’s military victory in forcing the Lebanese government to expel Yasser Arafat and purge Beirut of PLO members.[2] This essay evaluates the causes and outcome of the two Lebanon wars.


The Lebanon Civil War (1975-1990) 

First, applying Herodotus’ recommendation: A proper historia of these wars must feature Lebanon’s 1975 Civil War; for what use is a sail boat’s mast and boom if it is not attached to the mainsail?

Lebanon’s Civil War began in 1975[3] and for 15 years the nation was caught in a cycle of conflict and unstable political settlements.[4] Internally, the Lebanese government’s consociational democracy – a system of power sharing between diverse ethno-religious groups – had collapsed after becoming imbalanced with migration shifts.[5] Externally, Farid El Khazen cites competing strategic interests, for ‘throughout the war, external actors, particularly the regional actors that took an active part in the war, [Israel, Syria, Iran and the PLO], had as much at stake as the Lebanese parties themselves.’[6] His observation that conflict exists in internal and external dimensions deftly captures the spirit of the Lebanon Wars.[7]


The 1982 Lebanon War

For two decades after Israel’s founding, the state’s involvement in Lebanon had been kept to a minimum under a limited action policy.[8]  Stemming from Israel’s 1981 election and Syria’s increasing military presence in Lebanon, however, this policy was reversed by Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon.[9] Although personality politics did accelerate military action, it was not the sole factor.[10] Any victor of the 1981 election would have grappled with choosing between military action, or inaction, as Israel’s northern border was besieged.[11] Prime Minister Begin faced two decisions: If Israel took no action, ‘it would abandon a two-decade-old commitment to oppose Syrian involvement in Lebanon. On the other hand, if Israel moved to deter Syria from intervening on the side of the Christians, it would in fact save the PLO-Left coalition and abandon its own Christian allies.’[12] Thus, the 1982 war was caused by a combination of political, social and religious factors.

Israel’s strategic objectives were to (1) solidify an alliance with the Christian Maronites to eradicate the Lebanese-Palestinian terrorist network;[13] (2) remove Yasser Arafat from power; (3) protect Israel’s northern border; and (4) defeat the Syrians in Lebanon.[14] Begin and Sharon, however, held different visions of achieving this.[15] According to Hala Jaber, ‘Israel’s invasion was the brain-child of Ariel Sharon[.]’[16] While Begin held ‘narrower military objectives’ in leveraging the strength and power of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), Sharon envisioned a more aggressive campaign to eradicate the PLO.[17]

These competing visions were harmonized under the July 1981 ceasefire agreement.

Anver Yaniv and Robert J. Lieber explain, ‘Begin’s Cabinet needed a reasonably acceptable pretext for moving into Lebanon. . . . Israeli officials repeatedly presented the July 1981 cease-fire as a matter of linkage. Either the PLO respected the cease-fire on all fronts or the cease-fire was null and void.’[18]

Apart from the involvement of regional actors, the United States and USSR were also involved.[19]  In 1982 Sharon visited Washington DC to speak with US Secretary of State Alexander Haig, about the planned offensive.[20] Haig cautioned that there must be an internationally recognized provocation to justify an invasion.[21] Critical of the US’ discussions with Israel, Zeev Schiff writes ‘[a]lthough the Americans sounded circumlocutory warnings for public consumption, the American nay was so feeble that the Israelis regarded it merely as a diplomatic maneuver designed to exonerate the United States should the military operation go sour.’[22] According to Schiff, Israeli leaders opined that the US would support the operation if it undermined the USSR’s allies.[23]

On 3 June 1982, this provocation basis was met when the Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom, Shlomo Argov, was shot in the head by a Palestinian gunman.[24] Despite the Israeli intelligence forces’ knowledge that the gunman was not part of the PLO, but a dissident faction of Abu Nidal, Prime Minister Begin publicly declared it to be a violation of Israel’s cease-fire agreement with the PLO.[25] As a result, Israel commenced its invasion of Lebanon the following day. [26]  Israel mounted a successful aerial offensive and land campaign against Lebanon in Operation Peace for Galilee.[27] In the end, the war was a tactical victory for the IDF because it forced the Lebanese government to remove Arafat and purge Beirut of PLO members.[28]

Israel’s strategic objective to secure a durable peace with Lebanon, however, was a failed effort. Why? Hala Jaber explains ‘Sharon traumatized Lebanon, shocked the Israeli public and succeeded in creating a new enemy to harry Israel’s northern border: Hezbollah[.]’[29] Israel allowed the Phalange militia to enter the Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatilla, which led to the massacre of refugees, and galvanized the formation of the Lebanese National Resistance[30] and Hezbollah.[31] As Ahron Bregman of King’s College London War Studies notes in Israel’s Wars: A History Since 1947, the aftermath of the Palestinian refugee massacre resulted in Sharon’s removal from office and the resignation of senior military commander, Colonel Eli Geva, during the conflict.[32] By 1983, Hezbollah formed its first council (shoura), established a newspaper, Al-Ahed (The Pledge) in 1984, and by 1985 Hezbollah published its manifesto on Islamic Resistance.[33] Although a peace agreement was entered into by Israel and Lebanon, it was a short-lived gain because Syria coerced Lebanon’s leader, Amin Gemayel, to repeal it.[34] Overall, Israel’s conduct in 1982 unintentionally triggered the growth of the Islamic Resistance Movement and conditions leading to the 2006 war.[35]


The 2006 Lebanon War

This 34-day war was caused by a combination of unresolved political, social and religious grievances from the 1982 war. The primary actors were Israel, Iran and Hezbollah, and the fighting was concentrated in Lebanon and Israel.[36] Despite Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon in May 2000, hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah steadily escalated with fringe conflicts.[37] On 12 July 2006, Hezbollah initiated war when it crossed into Israel and killed and kidnapped several soldiers.[38] In retaliation, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) commenced Operation Specific Gravity against Hezbollah.[39] The IDF also mounted a ground campaign to combat Hezbollah’s Katyusha rocket attacks and dispersed guerilla network.[40] Both sides sustained high casualties. Israel was struck with 3,970 rockets as it sought to weed out guerilla fighters. [41] Schmuel Tzabag characterizes this conflict as an ‘asymmetrical confrontation between a sovereign state [Israel] and a guerrilla organization [Hezbollah] controlling part of a neighbouring state [Lebanon] and operating against its will by means of terrorism[.]’[42] On 14 August 2006, the UN intervened in brokering a ceasefire agreement.[43]

The war’s outcome, however, is shrouded in controversy. While it ended in a ceasefire, some scholars credit Israel’s military for deterring a future war with Hezbollah, whereas Hezbollah regards it as a victory for its resistance strategy.[44] Regardless, Israel initiated the Winograd Commission to investigate why its military reached a tactical impasse with Hezbollah.[45]  The Commission found that ‘Israeli military officers and Israel’s political leadership placed severe restraints on ground action because of the fear of repeating the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon and the war of attrition that followed Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982.’[46] For Matt M. Matthews, the IDF suffered a tactical defeat because it was ‘confused by its new doctrine, soldiers were deficient in training and command, and senior officers seemed woefully unprepared to fight a “real war.”’[47] Overall, Israel’s military and civilian leadership lacked a unified vision in 2006 for combatting this asymmetrical threat.[48]



Although Israel achieved a tactical victory in 1982, in terms of achieving its strategic objectives, history shows it was a strategic mishap. Not only was the peace agreement with Lebanon short-lived, but the handling of the conflict also served to precipitate the emergence of Hezbollah and conditions for the 2006 war.


 This article has been updated and republished on Strife Blog with the author’s permission. It was originally published on Small Wars Journal.



Jessica “Zhanna” Malekos Smith is a M.A. candidate with King’s College London, Department of War Studies. Previously, she served as a Captain in the US Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Prior to the military, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Jessica holds a J.D. from the University of California, Davis, and B.A. from Wellesley College, where she was a Fellow of the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute. Opinions expressed in her articles are those of the author’s and not those of the US Department of Defense or US Air Force.  



[1] ‘Herodotus Quotes’, The Famous People, https://quotes.thefamouspeople.com/herodotus-1626.php (May 2018).

[2] Farid El Khazen, ‘Ending Conflict in Wartime Lebanon’, Middle Eastern Studies, 40:1, (2004), p. 68.

[3] ‘Lebanon’, Globalsecurity.org, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/lebanon.htm (May 2018).

[4] El Khazen, ‘Conflict’, p. 66.

[5] Joel Krieger, ‘Consociational Democracy’, http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195117394.001.0001/acref-9780195117394-e-0156?rskey=ujOyS9&result=152 (May 2018).

[6] El Khazen, ‘Conflict’, p. 65.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Anver Yaniv and Robert J. Lieber ‘Personal Whim or Strategic Imperative?’, International Security, 8:2, (1983), p. 118.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. at p. 127.

[13] KCL WSO, ‘The Lebanon Wars’, (May 2018).

[14] ‘Lebanon’, Globalsecurity.org, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/lebanon.htm (May 2018).

[15] Yaniv, ‘Whim’, pp. 131-132.

[16] Hala Jaber, Hezbollah: Born with a Vengeance, (Columbia University Press, 1997), p. 7.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Yaniv, ‘Whim’, pp. 135.

[19] Ibid. at pp. 134-135.

[20] KCL WSO, ‘The Lebanon Wars’.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Zeev Schiff, ‘The Green Light’, Foreign Policy, 50, (1983), p. 73.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Yaniv, ‘Whim’, pp. 135.

[25] Shlomo Argov, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1422910/Shlomo-Argov.html (June 2018)

[26]  KCL WSO, ‘The Lebanon Wars’.

[27]  ‘Lebanon’, Globalsecurity.org, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/lebanon.htm (May 2018).

[28] El Khazen, ‘Conflict’, p. 68.

[29] Jaber, Hezbollah, pp. 7-8.

[30] Ibid. at p. 19.

[31] Ibid. at p. 220.

[32] Ahron Bregman, Israel’s Wars: A History Since 1947, (Routledge, 2010), p.  177.

[33] Jaber, Hezbollah, pp. 220-21.

[34] El Khazen, ‘Conflict’, p. 68.

[35] Jaber, Hezbollah, pp. 7-8.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Anthony Cordesman, et. al., Lessons of the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War, (CSIS Press, 2007), pp. 24-25.

[38] Ibid. at p. 4.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] KCL WSO, ‘The Lebanon Wars’.

[42] Schmuel Tzabag, ‘Ending the Second Lebanon War’, Israel Affairs, 19:4, (2013), p. 640.

[43] KCL WSO, ‘The Lebanon Wars’.

[44] Matt M. Matthews, We Were Caught Unprepared, (OP 26, 2008), pp. 1-2.

[45] Cordesman, ‘2006’, p. 6.

[46] Ibid. at p. 7.

[47] Matthews, Unprepared, p. 1.

[48] Cordesman, ‘2006’, p. 7.


Image Source: 





Ahron Bregman, Israel’s Wars: A History Since 1947, (Routledge, 2010).


Anthony Cordesman with George Sullivan and William D. Sullivan, Lessons of the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War, (CSIS Press, 2007).


Anver Yaniv and Robert J. Lieber ‘Personal Whim or Strategic Imperative? The Israeli Invasion of Lebanon’, International Security, 8:2, (1983).


Farid El Khazen, ‘Ending Conflict in Wartime Lebanon: Reform, Sovereignty and Power 1976–88’, Middle Eastern Studies, 40:1, (2004).


Hala Jaber, Hezbollah: Born with a Vengeance, (Columbia University Press, 1997).


‘Herodotus Quotes’, The Famous People, https://quotes.thefamouspeople.com/herodotus-1626.php (May 2018).


King’s College London War Studies Online: Unit 2, ‘The Lebanon Wars’, (May 2018).


‘Lebanon’, Globalsecurity.org, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/lebanon.htm (May 2018).


Matt M. Matthews, We Were Caught Unprepared: The 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli War, (OP 26, 2008).


Schmuel Tzabag, ‘Ending the Second Lebanon War: The Interface between the Political and Military Echelons in Israel’, Israel Affairs, 19:4, (2013).


Zeev Schiff, ‘The Green Light’, Foreign Policy, 50, (1983).


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