Lebanon’s impact on Sacred Tears’ Sri Lanka

Israel Lebanon border

Israel crosses into Lebanon 1982
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On 6 June 1982, Israel launched Operation Peace for Galilee and sent its army across the northern border into Lebanon to put a stop to attacks on its border communities. The war quickly escalated and by 13 June, with the help of its Christian allies, the Israeli army had laid siege to west Beirut. As many as half a million civilians were estimated to be trapped in west Beirut at the time.

The city, once known as the Paris of the Middle East, was divided in two. One half was primarily Christian, the other Muslim. The Maronite Christians controlled east Beirut, collecting taxes and providing basic services with Lebanese Muslims and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) occupied west Beirut. The Green Line, a narrow stretch of trees, parks and earthworks running for roughly ten miles, separated the two.  Three crossing sites along the Green Line connected east and west Beirut.

The PLO turned west Beirut into a Palestinian capital in exile. Essentially, it was divided in two, with the Lebanese in the north and Shiites and Palestinians in the south. Although the north became home for many of the Palestinian bourgeoisie, some of whom had obtained Lebanese citizenship, the majority of the city’s Palestinians were poor. They lived in slum-like conditions in homes with only one or two rooms, concentrated in and around the three main Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra, Shatila and Burj al-Barajneh. In anticipation of an Israeli invasion, the PLO had prepared a number of secret emergency command posts, underground bunkers and tunnels where it stockpiled arms, fuel, food and medicine. The PLO headquarters in the Fakhani district consisted of three underground levels and the adjacent municipal sports stadium was converted into a major ammunition depot and a recruiting and training centre.

Israel hits war-torn Beirut

Siege of Beirut

Israel’s siege on top of civil war
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Beirut was in the seventh year of a vicious civil war but the scale of death and destruction intensified considerably as the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) ringed the city with hundreds of tanks and bombed it heavily from land, sea and air. Most of the targets were in west Beirut, where thousands of PLO guerrillas were holed up in and around the Palestinian refugee camps. The streets of west Beirut were lined with burnt-out cars and littered with smoking rubble. Many of the buildings had been bombed completely or were so badly damaged they had become empty ruins. In some areas entire streets had been levelled and transformed into a concrete jungle of devastation.

The streets, once alive with a sophisticated Lebanese population, were deserted. Only soldiers, militiamen, guerrillas and civilians carrying automatic weapons dared venture out. Many wandered aimlessly, brandishing their weapons in defiant gestures of hopelessness at the Israeli warplanes flying overhead. Electricity and telephone services were intermittent and garbage went uncollected. As the siege wore on, food, water and medicines became scarce and precious. The Palestinian forces in west Beirut fortified their positions by mining the southern approaches to the city. They dug trenches and built bunkers and booby-trapped street junctions with explosives placed in nearby buildings ready to be collapsed on advancing forces. Eventually an extensive system of defensive strong points and barricades guarded all possible avenues of entry into the city.

Beirut sniper Lebanon

Lebanese female sniper, Beirut
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The violence and danger in Beirut came mainly from Israeli bombing and the fire fights which erupted between various factions on the Palestinian side. But the danger posed by car bombs, random shootings, planned assassinations, snipers and unexploded shells created much more tension for the residents. The term ‘sniper’ in Beirut referred generally to ill-trained soldiers and militiamen who terrorised civilians by firing at them from high windows and rooftops. It was an effective psychological weapon with lethal consequences for civilians on both sides.

With the Israelis determined to force a military resolution, the blockade came to a head after seventy days, when a task force of Israeli infantry, paratroopers and tanks launched a concerted attack in the south and captured the (then named) Beirut International Airport. During the day, the IDF pounded west Beirut for fourteen straight hours with air, naval and artillery bombardment. Ground attacks from east Beirut cleared barricades and barriers set up in the streets. After vicious house-to-house fighting, the Israelis captured the national museum and hippodrome, but heavy Palestinian resistance prevented them advancing further.

The Israelis received widespread international condemnation for their continued saturation bombing of west Beirut and eventually on 21 August 1982 the siege was lifted with the evacuation of the PLO under the protection of the Multinational Force made up mainly of US, French and Italian troops. Over 8,000 people died in the siege, most of them civilians. Devastated by fifteen years of strife and conflict, Beirut endured even more years of unrest before relative peace came to the country in 1990.