Forty years ago this summer, the attention of much of the world was focused on Beirut. Israel sought to finish with Palestinian terrorism from Lebanon once and for all and fatefully invaded, coming all the way up to the Lebanese capital. Israel had also hoped to facilitate the installation of a friendly Lebanese Christian government but their principal partner, charismatic Lebanese Forces Commander Bashir Gemayel, would be assassinated by Syrian intelligence shortly after being elected president of Lebanon and before he actually took office. Despite Israel's clear military superiority, it would utterly fail in its political goals.
When Israel besieged Beirut in June 1982 – it was actually Muslim majority West Beirut held by an alliance of Lebanese and Palestinian armed factions since the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 that was besieged – it would be one of PLO leader Yassir Arafat's signature moments. He predicted that Beirut, a foreign capital in a country that was not his own and which he had helped wreck, would be "the Hanoi and Stalingrad of the Israeli Army." By the end of August, Arafat left along with most of his fighters, in a deal brokered by the international community. PLO headquarters would move to Tunis. When asked where he was going, he would dramatically answer that he was "going to Palestine."
That "Stalingrad" phrase of Arafat's has always stuck with me since I read it 40 years ago. It says so much. Here is the Palestinian and Arab Left's then very fashionable interest in the imagery of Marxist Revolution, it is not Hittin (against the Crusaders) or Khaybar (against the Jews of Medina) or Al-Qadisiyah (against the pagan Iranians) to name just a few evocative Islamic and Arab battles, but North Vietnam against American imperialism and Soviet Russia against Nazism.
Of course, the city of Stalingrad was destroyed in the famous battle that bears its name. The symbolism for Beirut was not just about bloody military victory but a sense of heroic steadfastness and survival in the rubble of a fortress city despite the odds, an attitude immortalized by the verses of Palestinian revolutionary poet Ahmed Dahbour: "Oh World, Be Witness to us and to Beirut."
These factions were able to flourish to a certain extent, as parasites on a host, for years in Lebanon. Not only did the PLO (Arafat's Fatah) have its own "state within a state" in Lebanon, but so did the other principal Palestinian factions such as the PFLP and DFLP, funded by regimes like Qaddafi's Libya, have their own mini-entities with armies, propaganda outlets, and diplomatic offices. Israel failed to achieve its ambitious goals to remake Lebanon, but the PLO would mostly move on as part of a process that would in the end allow it to return to Palestinian territory as part of the Oslo Accords with Israel in 1993. The great return was not in spite of Israel; it was because of Israel.
There are still Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and, of course, Palestinian fighters in them, but summer 1982 would be the end of one phase and the beginning of another. After having been defeated by King Hussein in Jordan in Black September 1970, the PLO had recovered in Beirut and increasingly made it their own. Initially hesitant to get involved in internal Lebanese issues, such is the Palestinian narrative, that would change in time. In 1978 Arafat had reviewed his forces during a four-hour military parade held in Beirut's municipal sports stadium to celebrate the PLO's 13th anniversary. Beirut became the "Palestinian Hanoi" because Lebanon was weak and could not prevent it, according to PLO leader Shafiq Al-Hout. It should have been Damascus but the Assad regime was not going to give the Palestinians "the decision-making power of war and peace."
Arafat's departure from Beirut in August 1982 is a convenient segue from the Palestinian phase of Lebanon's conflicts to what would eventually become its Syrian/Iranian/Hezbollah phase. The date is more symbolic than anything else, Arafat attempted to re-establish himself in the Northern Lebanese city of Tripoli in 1983 and in 1984 pro-Syrian Shia militiamen fought against pro-Arafat PLO fighters in the brutal, so-called "War of the Camps." Unlike the 1982 siege of Beirut, these sordid sieges would not be romanticized.
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The PLO had provided safe haven for Iranian revolutionaries in Lebanon and trained some of the first Lebanese Shia fighters. One year after Arafat's departure, it would be a joint operation by Iranian and Syrian intelligence under the guise of "Islamic Jihad" that would strike at American and French peacekeepers in Beirut. The key figure in this organization – a cutout for what would become Hezbollah – and in the bombing of the U.S. Marines and French paratroopers was young Imad Mughniyeh, the Lebanese Shia who joined Arafat's Fatah as a teenager and served in Force 17, Arafat's own elite security force. Mughniyeh had also fought in the defense of West Beirut against the Israelis in 1982 and was behind the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983, among other notorious attacks.
The "Stalingrad of the Arabs" concept, the idea that anything is worth sacrificing for the sake of the Palestinian Revolution is a hardy perennial in Arab and Islamic politics. Not only was King Hussein's Jordan supposed to be sacrificed to the cause, so was Lebanon. The Paris of the East was to become the Arab Hanoi, the pulsing heart of a revolution. In the eyes of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Assad, Qaddafi, and the Palestinians, Beirut was eminently "expendable" for the great Arab Nationalist cause.
By 2016, with Syria experiencing its own Civil War, Omran Al-Zoubi, Information Minister in the Assad regime, would describe Syria itself as the "Stalingrad of the Arabs," supposedly fighting in the rubble against "Nazism, fascism and against the new Wahhabism of this age." Today, despite several Arab peace deals with Israel, there are several candidates for the next Arab Stalingrad against the Israelis, the next sacrificial victim to be offered up as legendary urban battlefields for the great Revolution. They are to be found in the so-called "Axis of Resistance": in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and, of course, in Gaza, all in conjunction with the Islamic Republic of Iran working through its proxies. The list of expendable places and people has grown.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.
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