Israel – Lebanon Wars: Memories from Operation Litani

 

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By Gideon

This article is dedicated to the memory of the innocent people who were killed by terrorists on March 11, 1978 and to the fallen Israeli soldiers of Operation Litani that followed it.

Above: Pictures of the  bus which was hijacked by PLO terrorists on March 11, 1978

On March 11, 1978, on the eve of Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s planned departure for the United States for peace discussions with Egypt, a raiding party of eleven Palestinian terrorists of the Fatah terrorist organization, part of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) embarked on one of the worst terrorist attacks in Israel’s history, the Coastal Road Massacre. They attacked civilians, hijacked a bus and a car, drove down to the outskirts of Tel Aviv, and battled Israeli forces. 

They came from Lebanon with Zoadic rubber commando dinghies. They evaded Israeli defenses and landed on the Israeli coast in broad daylight that afternoon. They landed at the beach of Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael. They killed an American photographer and a taxi driver and hijacked a bus, whose passengers, including many children, were on a day-trip to the north. The hijackers forced the driver to return to Tel Aviv. Driving on the coastal highway, the terrorists fired on passing cars from the bus.

When the bus approached a blockade set up by the police at an entrance to Tel Aviv, a shootout took place. The terrorists left the bus and fired missiles. The bus burst into flames and most of the passengers were either burned alive or killed by terrorist gunfire.  By day’s end 37 Israelis, most of them civilian, and the 9 Palestinian terrorists were dead.

Two days later, on the night of March 14, 1978, some 25,000 Israeli soldiers crossed the Lebanese border in Operation Litani, named for the Litani River that crosses South Lebanon, not 20 miles from the Israeli border. Israeli forces overran terrorist bases in the southern part Lebanon, pushing the terrorists away from the border. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) withdrew after two months, allowing United Nations forces to enter. But UN troops were unable to prevent terrorists from infiltrating the region and introducing new, more dangerous arms.

***

I was a young and inexperienced soldier, assigned to a motorized mortar platoon in 1978 when Operation Litani took place. Our unit entered southern Lebanon with the first wave. We entered enemy territory in the central sector in one long column of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and support vehicles. It was my first time in enemy territory. Not knowing what to expect, we were on the highest alert as soon as we crossed the border. Shortly after crossing the border the unit ahead of us was ambushed and suffered casualties. On that day, I saw a dead man for the first time; it was a young Israeli officer whom I worked with only two weeks earlier. He was one of the nicest people I ever met.The sight of the dead body had an immediate shocking effect on me; I sat on a rock, internalizing what I just saw, then, gradually regained my composure and resumed my job. At that moment I realized that this wasn’t just another training exercise; this was the real thing.

I was issued a Galil, an Israeli automatic assault weapon. It was a very reliable weapon. I trained with it under the most challenging conditions and I learned to trust it. I never had any problem with it before. However, on the second day in Lebanon, as I was riding in the rear of an APC (armored personnel carrier), aiming my weapon at the landscape and looking for terrorists who might be hiding behind rocks, the weapon’s rear sight fell off, probably due to the continues vibrations of the APC. Suddenly I felt naked and exposed. What good was it to have a weapon that your life depended on, but you couldn’t aim it properly? It took three additional days before we stopped at a military resupply station and the weapon was repaired.

I was part of an infantry unit, specialized in light mortars. it was our job to provide close artillery support to infantry and tank units while the column moved forward. It meant that every time the column was ambushed we pulled to the side, aimed our mortars and fired shells at the enemy positions, covering the movement of other infantry units and tanks, who closed the distance between us and the enemy. When the column reached its destination, we became an infantry unit again, spending most of the time marching on foot through endless orange groves, looking for terrorists.

It was still winter. It was cold and rainy.  After few days in Lebanon I developed a severe cold. One night, I was so sick that I couldn’t stand on my feet. I lied down inside the APC’s belly next to the mortar and all its shells. I slept the entire night, not knowing that we were mobilized. When I woke up the next morning, my squad talked about the action in the previous night. Apparently we had fired mortar flares all night long in support of an infantry attack on a cave where PLO terrorists found shelter. I didn’t hear a thing.

The PLO did not put up much of a fight. After the initial resistance, the terrorists fled the area just before we moved in. The coward PLO terrorists had no problem murdering innocent people in cold blood, but did not have the guts to face soldiers. They left in such a hurry that they left everything behind. Their weapons,their ID cards, and their equipment.  

After the initial attack, we spent three additional weeks in southern Lebanon, searching the area. However, all that we found were empty tents and signs of hasty evacuations. During my time in Lebanon I didn’t fire my personal weapon at anyone and didn’t see any terrorist in close proximity; most of the action that we saw was firing our mortars at a range of about quarter to half a mile, shelling enemy ambushes along the road.

***

Israeli strategists hoped to make a permanent change in southern Lebanon by driving out the PLO and establishing a security zone controlled by a friendlier Christian militia. This attempt had limited success. PLO terrorists who moved north beyond the Litani River and out of the reach of the Israeli army, stayed there until a cease fire agreement was signed and the Israeli army withdrew from Lebanon. Once the Israeli army withdrew, they returned to the south and continued their attacks on civilian Israelis.

Most people do not remember Operation Litani as it was followed by the more complex and more controversial war; the First Lebanon War. Operation Litani did not achieve its objective. It did not stop terrorist attacks against Israelis. It did, however, establish a pattern that would be repeated on a larger scale in 1982 (the First Lebanon War), and again on a smaller scale in 2006 (the Second Lebanon War).

There is no doubt that the people who suffered the most from Operation Litani were the Lebanese farmers who lived in the area; many of them fled the south and settled on the outskirts of Beirut, many of them in South Beirut—the Shiite stronghold that, within a few years, would incubate a then-unknown organization:  Hezbollah. According to unverifiable internet sources, 20 Israeli soldiers and 1,100 -2,000 PLO terrorists and Lebanese citizens were killed.

***

I was back in Lebanon three years later, during the Fist Lebanon War. The story pretty much repeated it self, except that this time we pushed further north, encircling Beirut. We did not leave the Beirut area and northern Lebanon until the PLO left the country. We hopped that this will end the attacks on Israeli population, but we were wrong; Hezbollah terrorists filled the void and continued the aggression, which led to the Second Lebanon War. Today,the border is quiet but tense. No one is naive enough to think that the Israeli-Lebanon war is over. 

 

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