The remarkable disappearing act of Israel’s car-bombing campaign in Lebanon or: What we (do not) talk about when we talk about ‘terrorism’

“With Sharon’s backing, terrible things were done. I am no vegetarian, and I supported and even participated in some of the assassination operations Israel carried out. But we are speaking….

“With Sharon’s backing, terrible things were done. I am no vegetarian, and I supported and even participated in some of the assassination operations Israel carried out. But we are speaking here about mass killing for killing’s sake, to sow chaos and alarm, among civilians, too. Since when do we send donkeys carrying bombs to blow up in marketplaces?”

– Mossad officer, quoted in Ronen Bergman’s Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations

On August 29, 1982, Ariel Sharon took to the opinion pages of the New York Times to argue that Israel’s “most immediate achievement” following its invasion of Lebanon had been the “crushing defeat” of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). As a result, the Israeli Defense Minister explained, Katyusha rockets had stopped raining down on Israeli villages “from terrorist sanctuaries in Lebanon.” The “kingdom of terror” established by Yasser Arafat’s organization on Lebanese soil was “no more,” and Israeli troops had been “greeted as liberators for driving out the terrorists who had raped and pillaged and plundered.” This had been the case, Sharon insisted, “despite the casualties that were the inevitable result of fighting against P.L.O. terrorists who used civilians as human shields and who deliberately placed their weapons and ammunition in the midst of apartment houses, schools, refugee camps and hospitals.”

Indeed, “No army in the history of modern warfare ever took such pains to prevent civilian casualties as did the Israel Defense Forces.” A Hebrew expression, “tohar haneshek,” perfectly expressed this notion, the Defense Minister added. It means “the moral conduct of war” and all Israelis were “proud our soldiers followed this Jewish doctrine scrupulously.” They had warned civilians that they were coming in spite of the “heavy costs” to themselves, had attacked “only predetermined P.L.O. positions” and bombed or shelled “buildings only when they served as P.L.O. strongholds.” “This policy,” Sharon concluded, stood in “vivid contrast to the P.L.O.’s practice of attacking only civilian targets.”

1979-1984: Israeli Officials Launch a Massive Public Relations Campaign Condemning the Evil of “Terrorism” …

Ariel Sharon’s OpEd came out as Israel was conducting a deliberate and ultimately remarkably successful public relations offensive aimed at influencing the emerging American discourse on “terrorism” in ways that would coincide with its own interests.

In July 1979 in Jerusalem, a major conference on “international terrorism” had been organized by the Jonathan Institute, a group with intimate ties to the Israeli government and named after Jonathan Netanyahu, who had lost his life during a famous raid by Israeli special forces at Entebbe.

Benzion Netanyahu, a historian of Judaism and Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s former personal secretary, was a major force behind the institute and gave the conference’s opening statement. This event, he explained, announced the beginning of “a new process – the process of rallying the democracies of the world to a struggle against terrorism and the dangers it represents.” “Against the international front of terrorism,” the father of Jonathan and Benjamin argued, “we must build an international front of freedom – that of organized public opinion which will move governments to act.”

Speakers at the 1979 Jerusalem conference represented a veritable who’s who of conservative political leaders, academics and commentators, mostly from Israel and the United States. One after the other, they insisted that taking a strong stance against “terrorism” was about demonstrating “moral clarity,” and “moral clarity” required clarity in language. The term “terrorism” had therefore to be precisely defined, and efforts made to prevent the “terrorists” from “distorting language” by claiming to fight for freedom.

Benzion Netanyahu thus condemned the “easy moral relativism of “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”” and insisted that it was “important to establish at the outset the fact that a clear definitional framework exists, regardless of political view.” “Terrorism,” he explained, “is the deliberate and systematic killing of civilians so as to inspire fear.” It is, “beyond all nuance and quibble, a moral evil,” one that “infects not only those who commit such crimes, but those who, out of malice, ignorance or simple refusal to think, countenance them.” He then went one step further, and insisted that the means and ends of the “terrorists” were “indissolubly linked, and both point to a single direction: an abhorrence of freedom and a determination to destroy the democratic way of life.”

For his part, Prime Menachem Begin claimed that the PLO was “the basest armed organization since the days of the Nazis.” The seriousness of the “terrorist” threat posed by the Palestinians and their Arab allies was such, he argued, that it justified the pre-emptive use of military force. “What should we do?” Begin asked. “Use only so-called retaliation, wait between attacks upon the civilian Jewish population in our country, in other words, condemn an unknown number of our citizens to die?” No, he answered: “We hit them and this is the most sublime, most legitimate national self-defense.”

The Institute organized a second conference in Washington DC in June 1984. Its proceedings were later edited by Benjamin Netanyahu and published under the title Terrorism: How the West Can Win. The book garnered rave reviews from major American newspapers, was famously read with great interest by President Reagan himself and became a remarkable publishing success. As Netanyahu explained, the 1979 conference had represented “a turning point in the understanding of international terrorism” and “helped focus the attention of influential circles in the West on the real nature of the terrorist threat.” This was “not enough” however, since a “coherent and united international response” was still nowhere to be found. “To advocate such a unified policy and to suggest what it might consist of,” Netanyahu concluded, had been “the principal objective of the Jonathan Institute’s second international gathering.”

Like his father a few years earlier, the Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations insisted that “terrorism is always unjustifiable, regardless of its professed or real goals” then went on to add that “the real goals of terrorists are in practice related to their methods.” “History has repeatedly given us advance warning,” he explained. People who “deliberately butcher women and children do not have liberation in mind,” he confidently stated, before adding: “It is not only that the ends of terrorists do not justify the means they choose. It is that the choice of means indicates what the true ends are. Far from being fighters for freedom, terrorists are forerunners of tyranny.”

By the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term, American elected officials had come to accept and adopt the main claims and assumptions that had, for years, been at the heart of the Israeli discourse on “terrorism.” The “terrorist” is the non-Western “other.” “He” uses evil, immoral means, in the service of evil, immoral ends. In that sense, “the terrorist” belongs to the pre-, non-civilized world. By contrast, “we” oppose, condemn and reject “all terrorism.” “We” stand for moral clarity, and have a profound respect for the sanctity of innocent, civilian life. “Our” ends, as our means, are pure. “Our” uses of force are legitimate, and always defensive. They come in response to or self-defense against the “terrorist threat,” and always aim to limit the loss of civilian lives.

Ariel Sharon’s Opinion piece represents one of the clearest illustrations of the extent to which such a discourse is pure, unmitigated ideology.

… While Several of its Most Senior Officials Are Busy Directing a Massive “Terrorist” Campaign of Car-Bombings in Lebanon

Indeed, from 1979 to 1983, that is to say precisely the period between the Jerusalem and Washington conferences, very senior Israeli officials conducted a large-scale campaign of car-bombings that killed hundreds of Palestinians and Lebanese, most of them civilians. In fact, by the time his New York Times OpEd was published Sharon had been personally directing this “terrorist” operation for a full year. Even more remarkably, one of the objectives of this covert operation was precisely to goad the PLO into resorting to “terrorism” so as to provide Israel with a justification to invade Lebanon.

These claims are not the product of a feverish, conspiratorial mind. A barebones description of this secret operation was published by Ronen Bergman, a well respected Israeli journalist in the New York Times Magazine on January 23, 2018. This article was adapted from Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations, where a much more detailed account of the operation, entirely based on interviews with Israeli officials involved in or aware of the operation at the time, is provided.

As Richard Jackson explains in Writing the War on Terrorism, a political discourse is a way of speaking that attempts to give meaning to events and experiences from a particular perspective. Analyzing the discourse on “terrorism,” Jackson argues, involves “appreciating the rules guiding what can and cannot be said and knowing what has been left out as well as what has been included.” “The silences of a text,” he adds, “are often as important as its inclusions.”

The secret car-bombing operation Israeli officials conducted in Lebanon in the early 1980s represents a remarkable historical example of such “silences,” and of the “rules” that underlie the discourse on “terrorism” and ensure that certain things simply “cannot be said,” certain facts simply aren’t ever mentioned. Rise and Kill First has received the highest praise from reviewers in the American press. Over the last three months, its author has participated in countless media interviews and given high profile public talks around the country. And yet, in these reviews, interviews and public talks this secret operation has not been mentioned a single time. In fact, the public discussion that has surrounded the publication of Rise and Kill First has taken place as if the revelations contained in that book had never been published.

“Our” opposition to “terrorism” is principled and absolute. “We” by definition do not resort to “terrorism.” If and when evidence to the contrary is presented, the reaction is: silence.

The New York Time Magazine: Israel’s Secret Operation in Lebanon and the Creation of the Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners

In the New York Times Magazine, Ronen Bergman, a senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, describes how, on April 22, 1979, a “terror squad” from the Palestine Liberation Front landed on the beach at Naharyia, an Israeli city a few miles south of the border with Lebanon. They broke into a house and, by the time the hostage situation was over, a father and two of his daughters, aged four and two, had been brutality murdered.

“In the wake of the Nahariya atrocity,” the author explains, General Rafael Eitan “gave the regional commander Avigdor Ben-Gal a simple order: “Kill them all,” meaning all members of the P.L.O. and anyone connected to the organization in Lebanon.” With Eitan’s approval, Ben-Gal picked Meir Dagan, the IDF’s “top expert in special ops” and, the author writes, “the three of them set up the Front for the Liberation of Lebanon From Foreigners.” Bergman then goes on to quote David Agmon, head of the Northern Command Staff of the IDF and one of the few men to have been aware of the operation, as explaining its objective as follows: “The aim was to cause chaos among the Palestinians and Syrians in Lebanon, without leaving an Israeli fingerprint, to give them the feeling that they were constantly under attack and to instill them with a sense of insecurity.” To do so, Eitan, Ben-Gal and Dagan “recruited Lebanese locals: Druze, Christians and Shiite Muslims who resented the Palestinians and wanted them out of Lebanon.” Between 1979 and 1983, “the Front killed hundreds of people.”

In this article, Bergman does not go into the details of the methods used during this secret operation. He is also rather vague as to the identity (“people”) of its victims.

To those knowledgeable about the conflict in Lebanon however, the reference to the Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners is extraordinarily significant, as this group was, in the early 1980s, (in)famous for claiming responsibility for dozens of extremely violent and destructive car-bombings targeting Palestinians and their Lebanese allies. These bombings were extensively covered in the US press at the time. Most often, American journalists described the FLLF as a “mysterious” or “elusive right-wing group.” On occasion, they noted that the Palestinians and their Lebanese allies were convinced that this group was purely fictitious, an invention of Israel in order to hide its hand in such activities.

When it comes to the book itself, no prior knowledge of the Lebanese conflict is required to understand the magnitude and significance of Bergman’s revelation.

Rise and Kill First: First-Hand Accounts of Israel’s Role in a Widespread Campaign of Car (and Bicycle and Donkey) Bombings in Lebanon

Early on, Bergman explains, the operation used mostly “explosives concealed in cans of oil or preserves” built in a metal shop of Kibbutz Mahanayim where Ben-Gal used to live. The explosives themselves came from the bomb disposal unit of the IDF so as to “greatly minimize the chance that any connection with Israel might be revealed if the explosive devices fell into enemy hands.” ““We’d come there at night,”” Ben-Gal told Bergman, “Meir [Dagan] and I and the rest of the guys, with the Northern Command’s chief engineer, who brought the explosives, and we’d fill those little drums and connect the fuses.”

These “little drums” were then “dispatched to couriers in large backpacks, or, if they were too big, on motorcycles, bicycles, or donkeys.” As Bergman tells it: “Soon the bombs began exploding at the homes of the PLO’s collaborators in southern Lebanon, killing everyone there, as well as in PLO positions and offices, mostly in Tyre, Sidon, and the Palestinian refugee camps around them, causing massive damages and casualties.”

The operation was run in complete secrecy, according to Bergman. It was never approved by the government itself, and there is “no way of knowing” to what extent Ezer Weizman, the Defense Minister when the operation was launched, knew about it.

In spite of their efforts, Eitan, Ben-Gal and Dagan were unable to keep their operation fully airtight, leading several senior officers from AMAN (the Hebrew acronym for the Intelligence Department of the Israel Defense Forces General Staff) to push back and strenously object.

The head of AMAN’s Research Division, Amos Gilboa, described to Bergman what he called a “constant struggle” between AMAN and the Northern Command. “Yanosh [Ben-Gal] lied to us all the time. We did not believe any of their reports,” Gilboa said. “This was one of the ugliest periods in the history of the country.” Later, AMAN learned “from its sources in Lebanon” about the “car and donkey bombings” but, writes Bergman, they eventually decided to drop the issue.

Pushback also came from within the government itself, as when Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Zippori learned of an attack that had taken place in April 1980 and during which women and children had been killed following the explosion of a car bomb in southern Lebanon. The aim had been, according to Bergman, to hit “PLO personnel.” In June, a meeting was convened in Begin’s office, with Zippori accusing Ben-Gal of “carrying out unauthorized actions in Lebanon” and that “in these activities, women and children have been killed.” The latter replied: “Not correct. Four or five terrorists were killed. Who drives around in Lebanon in a Mercedes at 2 a.m.? Only terrorists.”

Begin accepted Ben-Gal’s assurance that he had in fact received permission for the action and called an end to the meeting. According to Bergman, the extent of the Prime Minister’s knowledge about these activities is unclear. From that point on, however, “the top brass realized there was no point in asking the prime minister to rectify the situation.” The Tel Aviv meeting thus marked the end of any kind of internal pushback against the covert operation conducted by Eitan, Ben-Gal and Dagan, a fateful development as the operation was about to enter its second (and even more violent) stage following the appointment of a new Defense Minister.

On July 16, 1981, Palestinian Katyushah rockets had killed 3 Israeli civilians in the village of Kiryat Shmonah. The next day, the Israeli air force had responded with a massive bombing raid targeting the headquarters of the PLO in downtown Beirut as well as several bridges around Sidon, killing between 200 and 300 people, mostly Lebanese civilians, and wounding over 800.

Philip Habib, President Ronald Reagan’s special envoy in the region, mediated a ceasefire whereby the PLO was required to stop any attacks inside Israel. To Israeli leaders, such an agreement was unacceptable. The PLO was a “terrorist” organization, and the American decision to consider Arafat a partner in a ceasefire a veritable affront. As to the specifics of the accord, they argued that the PLO should stop all attacks against Israel and Israeli interests, including attacks that took place in the occupied territories or in places like Europe. As Bergman notes however, “the outside world saw things differently, and Habib made it clear to the Israelis that the United States would back a land incursion into Lebanon only in response to a gross provocation by the PLO.”

On August 5, 1981, Begin picked Ariel Sharon to replace him as Defense Minister. For the next 10 months or so, as Israeli historians like Zeev Schiff and Ehud Yaari, Benni Morris, Avi Shlaim or Zeev Maoz have long documented, Israel engaged in numerous military operations with the clear purpose of goading the Palestinians into some form of military response, which Israel would then be able to condemn as a “terrorist” attack that justified a major offensive into Lebanon.

August 1981: Ariel Sharon Becomes Defense Minister and Intensifies the FLLF Bombing Campaign to Goad the PLO into Resorting to “Terrorism”

Rise and Kill First represents a major contribution to our understanding of this historical moment, as it demonstrates, based on first-hand accounts from Israeli officers involved in the operation, that the car-bombing campaign that greatly intensified once Sharon became Defense Minister should be understood precisely as one element of this broader strategy of provocation.

Immediately after taking his new functions Sharon decided to “activate Dagan’s secret apparatus in the Northern Command.” He picked Eitan as a “personal emissary” who would “keep an eye on the clandestine activities in the north” and, Bergman explains, “by mid-September 1981, car bombs were exploding regularly in Palestinian neighborhoods of Beirut and other Lebanese cities.”

The author then specifically mentions bombings in Beirut and Sidon in early October, notes that “in December 1981 alone, eighteen bombs in cars or on motorcycles, bicycles, or donkeys blew up near PLO offices or Palestinian concentrations, causing many scores of deaths” and adds that “a new and unknown organization calling itself the Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners took responsibility for all of these incidents.” As Bergman writes: “Sharon hoped that these operations would provoke Arafat into attacking Israel, which could then respond by invading Lebanon, or at least make the PLO retaliate against the Phalange, whereupon Israel would be able to leap in great force to the defense of the Christians.”

The author goes on to add remarkable operational details. During that stage of the operation, the explosives were “packed in Ariel laundry powder bags” so as to look “like innocent goods” when going through roadblocks. Women were sometimes enlisted to drive “to reduce the likelihood of the cars being caught on the way to the target zone.” The cars themselves “were developed in the IDF’s Special Operations Executive (Maarach Ha-Mivtsaim Ha-Meyuchadim).” These operations involved an early generation of aerial drones, used to observe as Dagan’s agents drove and parked the cars, then to remotely set off the devices. The FLLF also “began attacking Syrian installations in Lebanon,” Bergman adds, and even “claimed responsibility for operations against IDF units.” According to Dagan the FLLF was never behind any such attacks but it “took responsibility in order to create credibility, as if it was operating against all of the foreign forces in Lebanon.”

The American Press and its Contemporary Coverage of the FLLF Car-Bombings

While providing remarkable details about the Israeli side of this secret operation, Bergman’s account remains very vague when it comes to the attacks themselves and, more importantly, their victims. Contemporary media accounts of the October 1981 Beirut and Sidon bombings, which he refers to specifically, give a clearer sense of the violence and destruction involved.

On October 1, a car “booby-trapped with 220 pounds of TNT and 20 gallons of gasoline” exploded near the offices of the PLO, in what a UPI journalist described as “a busy street in Moslem west Beirut packed with fruit and vegetable venders and housewives doing their morning shopping.” The bomb “tore the facade off buildings, destroyed 50 cars and left the street littered with debris and dismembered bodies.” Immediately following the blast a second bomb, weighing 330 pounds and which had been planted in another car parked on the same street, was found and dismantled by bomb disposal experts. Later that same day, “six other cars loaded with hundreds of pounds of explosives were found and defused in Beirut and Sidon in what was intended as a devastating blitz against Palestinians and leftist Lebanese militiamen by rightist terrorists.”

As Barbara Slavin and Milt Freudenheim reported in the pages of the New York Times, an “anonymous caller” for the FLLF had told “foreign news agencies that the attacks were directed against Palestinian and Syrian targets in Lebanon and would continue “until no foreigners are left.”” They went on to add that both Mahmoud Labadi, the spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Lebanese Prime Minister Chafik Wazzan “blamed Israel and its Christian allies in Lebanon for the car bomb” while “Israel attributed the bombing to internecine P.L.O. warfare.”

Olympia and Olympia 2: Two FLLF Operations That Were Not Implemented

Arafat saw through Israel’s strategy however, and made sure that PLO members did not respond. As Israeli historian Benni Morris writes in Righteous Victims, “the PLO took great pains not to violate the agreement of July 1981.” “Indeed,” he adds, “subsequent Israeli propaganda notwithstanding, the border between July 1981 and June 1982 enjoyed a state of calm unprecedented since 1968.”

Sharon was losing patience. As Bergman writes, “in the face of this Palestinian restraint, the leaders of the front decided to move up a level.” In 1974, the Mossad had decided to take Arafat off its wanted list, having concluded that he should be considered a political figure and should therefore not be assassinated. The Defense Minister returned the PLO chairman to the list and, with Ben-Gal and Eitan, started to plan Operation Olympia, which they hoped would “change the course of Middle East history.”

According to the plan, several trucks loaded with about two tons of explosives were to be stationed around a Beirut theater where the PLO leadership planned to have dinner in December. “One massive explosion would eliminate the entire PLO leadership,” Bergman writes. The idea was abandoned (Bergman gives no explanation as to why) and immediately replaced with an even more ambitious (and potentially destructive) scheme. Code-named Olympia 2, it would take place on January 1, 1982. The target: a Beirut stadium where the PLO planned to celebrate the anniversary of its founding.

Ten days prior to the attack, agents recruited by Dagan positioned large amounts of explosives under the VIP dais where the Palestinian leaders would be sitting, all of them “remotely controlled detonation device.” That was not all however. “At one of the unit’s bases three miles from the border,” Bergman explains, “three vehicles – a truck loaded with a ton and a half of explosives and two Mercedes sedans with 550 pounds each – had been prepared.” On the day of the celebration, “three Shiite members of the Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners” would drive these vehicles and park them outside the stadium. “They would be detonated by remote control about a minute after the explosives under the dais,” the author writes, “when the panic was at its height and the people who had survived were trying to get away,” before adding: “The death and destruction were expected to be “of unprecedented proportions, even in terms of Lebanon,” in the words of a very senior officer of the Northern Command.”

Sharon, Dagan and Eitan were unable to keep their operation fully covert. Word of the plan got to Zippori, and the Deputy Minister took the matter to Begin, who called an emergency meeting on December 31, one day before Olympia 2 was to be put in motion. Eitan and Dagan were asked to present their plan, and Zippori had an opportunity to put forth his objections. Begin was most troubled by the possibility that the Soviet Ambassador might attend the event. Dagan assured him that there was a “ very low probability that he or any other foreign diplomat will be there,” while Saguy insisted that the likelihood was high and that “If something happens to him we are liable to get into a very grave crisis with the USSR.”

Sharon, Dagan and Eitan tried to convince Begin that such an opportunity to destroy the leadership of the PLO might never present itself again but, Bergman writes, “the prime minister took the danger of a Russian threat seriously and ordered them to abort.” As Saguy would tell him years later: “My duty as head of AMAN was to take care of not only the operational-military aspects, but also the diplomatic aspect. I told Begin that it was impossible to kill a whole stadium just like that. And what would happen the next day after such a massacre? The whole world would pile on top of us. It would make no difference if we never admitted responsibility. Everyone would know who was behind it.”

“Abu Nidal, Abu Shmidal”: The Attempted Assassination of Shlomo Argov and Israel’s Invasion of Lebanon to Defeat “Terrorism”

On June 3, 1982, Shlomo Argov, Israel’s ambassador to England, was shot in the streets of London. He would survive his injuries, but Sharon and Begin finally had their pretext for invading Lebanon.

To Israel’s intelligence services, it was quickly obvious that the hit had been ordered by Abu Nidal, a sworn enemy of Arafat whose own goals, the destruction of the PLO, happened to coincide with Israel’s. The Israeli Cabinet met the next morning and, as several Israeli historians have documented, neither Begin nor Eitan showed much interest in the fact that the PLO was not responsible for the assassination attempt. When Gideon Machanaimi, Begin’s adviser on terrorism, started to elaborate on the nature of the Abu Nidal organization, his boss simply cut him off with: “They are all PLO!” A few minutes earlier, Eitan had reacted in a very similar manner when an intelligence officer had assured him that Abu Nidal’s men were clearly behind the attack: “Abu Nidal, Abu Shmidal,” he (in)famously replied, “we have to strike at the PLO!”

The Cabinet ordered a massive aerial bombardment of PLO positions in and around Beirut, killing 45. This time, Arafat did react, and Israeli communities along the northern border soon found themselves under heavy artillery fire. On June 5, Sharon presented his plan to the Cabinet, Operation Peace for Galilee, a name “designed,” as Bergman writes, “to give the impression this was an almost reluctant mission of self-protection.”

The following day, the United Nations Security Council convened to discuss Israel’s military operation.

The Israeli representative explained that if Lebanon was “either unwilling or unable to prevent the harboring, training and financing of PLO terrorists” who were “openly operating from Lebanese territory with a view to harassing Israel, Israelis and Jews world-wide,” then that country should be “prepared to face the risk of Israel’s taking the necessary countermeasures to stop such terrorist operations.”

Israel’s arguments were strongly rejected by the Security Council. As the representative for the United Kingdom explained, the assassination attempt against Ambassador Argov, “however despicable, does not in any way justify the massive attacks on Lebanese towns and villages by the Israeli air force, attacks which have already inflicted major loss of life, casualties and damage to property.”

The Security Council immediately adopted Resolution 509, which demanded that Israel withdraw its forces from Lebanon and called on all parties to cease hostilities.

Israeli forces kept advancing, and on June 8 the Security Council reconvened. A draft resolution condemning Israel for its failure to comply and reiterating the call on all parties to cease hostilities was promptly put to a vote. Fourteen member states voted in favor, but the resolution was vetoed by the United States. Israel troops continued their march towards Beirut.

The FLLF Car-Bombings and “Terrorism”

Contemporary news accounts of the bombings claimed by the FLLF between 1980 and 1983 suggest that such attacks fit most commonly accepted definitions of “terrorism,” as well as the one adopted at the Jerusalem conference in 1979: “Terrorism is the deliberate and systematic killing of civilians so as to inspire fear.”

A similar conclusion can be drawn from Bergman’s claim that countless Israeli bombs exploded in “refuge camps,” “Palestinian neighborhood” or “Palestinian concentrations,” suggesting purely civilian targets. In the text of Rise and Kill First, Bergman does not use the term “terrorism” when referring to this secret operation. However, in a footnote to his Prologue the author describes the FLLF as “a terrorist organization that Israel ran in Lebanon in the years 1980-83, and which on its own attacked many PLO members and Palestinian civilians.”

Still, it is quite likely that, were they still alive, Sharon, Ben-Gal, Dagan and Eitan would reject the idea that their operation amounted to “terrorism.”

Eitan passed away in 2004 and, as Bergman notes in his January 23 New York Times article, he did not talk to him about this operation. The author does write however that Ben-Gal and Dagan both “strongly denied that the front ever intended to harm civilians.” While Ben-Gal simply assured him that “the targets were always military targets,” Dagan argued that there was no alternative to using proxies and appeared to blame the latter for any attacks on civilians. “You can give him explosives and tell him to go blow up a PLO headquarters somewhere,” Dagan told the author, “but he has his own accounts, and now he’s also got a bomb to settle them. So sometimes it happened that it went off somewhere else.”

Needless to say, such an argument is hard to reconcile with Prime Minister Begin’s insistence, at the 1979 Jerusalem Conference, that “terrorism” was “beyond all nuance and quibble, a moral evil” that “infects not only those who commit such crimes, but those who, out of malice, ignorance or simple refusal to think, countenance them.”

It also completely contradicts the arguments Israeli officials have put forth since the 1960s whenever their country’s use of military force has been discussed at the Security Council and, specifically, those expressed by the Israeli representative on June 6, 1982. By their own logic, Dagan’s attempt to shirk responsibility for the actions of proxies he was not simply “unwilling” or “unable” to stop but rather actively used, trained and gave car-bombs to, is patently absurd.

Finally, as Bergman reports, Dagan remained convinced that the Olympia 2 operation should have been implemented. “In the end, of course, it turned out that I was right,” Dagan told the author, “and there was no Soviet ambassador or any other foreign diplomat there.” “But what could we do?” he lamented. “The PM said abort, so we abort. There was a very complicated business afterward, getting the explosives out.”

This operation would have been implemented by Israeli and FLLF operatives working together to detonate a timed bomb inside a crowded stadium as well as a truck and two cars packed with explosives placed outside in order to target survivors, creating death and destruction of “unprecedented proportions” even by Lebanese standards. Certainly, Dagan’s regrets that such an operation was ultimately canceled raise important questions as to the actual meaning of repeated Israeli claims to “tohar haneshek,” the “moral conduct of war” praised by Ariel Sharon (the mastermind behind Olympia 2) in his 1982 OpEd.

Statements made anonymously to Bergman by two Mossad officers also confirm that many FLLF bombings did indeed clearly amount to “terrorism.” The first one is quoted at the very beginning of this article. As to the second one, he explained to Bergman how he “saw from a distance one of the cars blowing up and demolishing an entire street,” adding: “We were teaching the Lebanese how effective a car bomb could be. Everything that we saw later with Hezbollah sprang from what they saw had happened after these operations.”

Even more obviously, it is difficult to imagine Israeli or American elected officials, political commentators or “terrorism experts” not labeling (and condemning) similar attacks as “terrorism” had they taken place in Israel (or the United States) and been perpetrated by Palestinians or other regional actors. After all, at the time car-bombing attacks against Israeli military forces stationed in Tyre and US Marines in Beirut were very clearly condemned as unconscionable acts of “terrorism” by these governments. Finally, eleven and fifteen attacks claimed by the Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners between 1980 and 1983 are included in the RAND and START databases respectively, two of the most prestigious and trusted “terrorism” databases.

Erasing the FLLF Car-Bombing Campaign and Constructing “Terrorism” in Lebanon: The Role Played by RAND and “Terrorism” Experts

In fact, the FLLF was mentioned at length in an April 1983 Note on “Recent Trends in International Terrorism” produced by RAND and that focused on attacks for the year 1980 and 1981.

In their introductory comments its authors, Brian Michael Jenkins and Gail Bass, noted that there had been 24 incidents with multiple fatalities in 1980 and 25 in 1981, that the number of fatalities had sharply increased, from 159 in 1980 to 295 in 1981, and added: “A series of bloody bombings in Beirut caused most of the fatalities.”

In a following section entitled “The Terrorists” Jenkins and Bass devoted two pages to “Palestinian Terrorists,” noting that they had “continued their attacks against Israel and Israeli targets abroad,” that “small bombings and grenade attacks, often deadly, comprised most of the terrorist activity inside Israel and the occupied territories” and that between 1980 and 1981 “16 persons died and 136 were wounded in 19 bombings, grenade attacks, and ambushes.”

The authors then devoted one page to the Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners, a “mysterious new group” that had “appeared in 1980 to claim credit for a series of bloody bombings in Lebanon.” They then described in detail the bombings that took place between September 17 and October 1, 1981, and which caused 122 fatalities and hundreds of wounded. These FLLF attacks alone thus accounted for over 40% of the all the deaths due to “terrorism” around the world for the whole year, and for 8 times more fatalities than all attacks by “Palestinian terrorists” for the previous two years.

However, the fact that several FLLF car-bombings are included in the RAND database and were discussed in that 1983 Note does not mean that these acts had any impact on how RAND researchers would, over the following years, write about “terrorism” in their reports about Lebanon or the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Indeed, since this April 1983 note, not a single report or analysis produced by RAND has ever mentioned the FLLF.

Furthermore, this “disappearing act” on the part of the FLLF’s car-bombing campaign coincided with the publication of reports and analyses that immediately described, in the mid-1980s, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the context of the broader fight that this country was waging against “international terrorism,” and clearly equated the “terrorist threat” in Lebanon and the region with the Palestinians and their Arab allies. The erasing of the FLLF thus coincided with the construction of a narrative that portrayed Israelis solely as victims (and never perpetrators) of “terrorism” and described the Palestinians (and their Arab allies) as exemplifying the very essence of the “terrorist” threat.

Similarly, the FLLF’s car-bombing campaign has never once been mentioned in articles published in the main “terrorism studies” journals, namely Terrorism (published from 1979 to 1992,) Studies in Conflict and Terrorism (during the period 1992-2018) and Terrorism and Political Violence (between 1997 and 2018.)

The Public Discussion about Rise and Kill First : The Continued Erasing of the FLLF and the Ongoing Construction of “Terrorism”

Following the publication of Rise and Kill First, Ronen Bergman gave major public talks, notably at the 92nd Street Y and at Fordham University’s Center on National Security (a talk broadcast live on C-Span.) He appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air and PBS’s Newshour, was interviewed on CBSN, MSNBC, CNN as well as in GQ Magazine and on STRATFOR’s podcast.

The author wrote an opinion piece in the National Review, a front page story for Newsweek. Foreign Policy magazine published a long article adapted from his book and interviewed him on its podcast. Finally, the book was reviewed by most major newspapers in the country, from the New York Times (twice, the second review accompanied by a podcast interview) to the Washington Post, Newsweek, the Washington Times, Bloomberg News or the New Yorker, and by Lawfare, a much celebrated law and international security blog. It was also mentioned and reviewed in the Guardian, the London Times, the Independent and on the BBC.

The public discussion around Rise and Kill First has focused on the history, efficacy, legality and morality of Israel’s so-called “targeted assassinations” or “targeted killings” program. This program, and all Israeli uses of force, have been discussed solely in the context of this country’s fight against “terrorism.” Remarkably, and quite revealingly, this discussion has proceeded, in its entirety and without a single exception, as if the FLLF bombing campaign had never happened, as if the Palestinians had never been the victims of a widespread campaign of “terrorism,” as if this campaign hadn’t been directed by some of the most senior Israeli leaders of the last decades, that is to say as if the revelations contained in Rise and Kill First had simply never been published.

In all these reviews, interviews and public talks, the secret operation set up by Eitan, Ben-Gal, Dagan and Sharon is not mentioned a single time. The idea that Israeli officials might have engaged in “terrorism” in the early 1980s has been treated as simply beyond the pale or, to use media scholar Daniel Hallin’s terminology, as a “deviant” idea that simply “does not belong” in the public discourse and must therefore be excluded from it.

These reviews, interviews and public talks do not once mention Israeli practices in Lebanon before and during the invasion. When the use of car-bombs is referred to, it is solely in the context of Israel’s use of such a tactic in order to kill a specific target, never to indiscriminate bombings against civilian targets.

References to “civilians” further highlight the narrow boundaries within which this public discussion has remained constrained. When Israeli uses of force are discussed and, at times, criticized, it is solely in the context of Israel’s response to the “terrorist threat.” When civilians are killed or wounded, it is always inadvertently, and Israeli officials are repeatedly described as struggling with the morality and ethics of such actions.

Indeed, repeated references are made to specific instances when Israeli officers did courageously stand up to their superiors and refuse to follow orders that would have jeopardized the lives of innocent civilians. For example, Air Force Commander David Ivri’s refusal to obey orders to shoot down an airplane Yasser Arafat was supposed to be aboard, or Uzi Dayan’s decision to modify intelligence reports to ensure that IDF air strikes over Beirut to kill Arafat would not go through when the risk to civilian lives was too high, have been discussed and described on numerous occasions since publication of Rise and Kill First.

These multiple, often extraordinarily detailed and textured accounts of operations ordered by Eitan or Sharon that could have killed many civilians but never did because of the bravery of other Israeli officers, have thus been presented in a context where a large-scale campaign of car-bombings directed by these very same Israeli officials and that did kill hundreds of civilians has been purely and simply erased from the record.

In their 1988 book on propaganda and the news media, Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky document how the press tends to cover “worthy” and “unworthy” victims in strikingly different manners. “Our hypothesis,” they write in the introduction, “is that worthy victims will be featured prominently and dramatically, that they will be humanized, and that their victimization will receive the detail and context in story construction that will generate reader interest and sympathetic emotion.” “In contrast,” they add, “unworthy victims will merit only slight detail, minimal humanization, and little context that will excite and enrage.”

The public discussion around Rise and Kill First perfectly follows such a script, with a twist. Palestinian civilians who were actual victims of Israel’s car-bombing campaign ordered by Sharon and others have been treated as “unworthy victims.” Their fate has been left completely unmentioned, while the very existence of the secret operation they fell victim to has been fully erased. Palestinians who could have been victims of specific operations ordered by Sharon and others but did not thanks to courageous and principled Israeli officers have been treated as “potential” or “would-be worthy victims.” Their survival has been mentioned and celebrated, the officers who “saved” them repeatedly praised as heroes, their efforts to ensure that such operations would not be implemented described in the greatest detail.

Finally, a non-scientific analysis of Twitter communications referencing Bergman’s book over the last few months shows that numerous prominent “terrorism experts” have praised Rise and Kill First while remaining fully silent about the revelations regarding the FLLF car-bombing campaign. For example Bruce Hoffman (who, in 1984 and 1985, authored RAND reports that fully erased the existence of the FLLF attacks while focusing on the extent to which Israel’s invasion “disrupted” the infrastructure of the Palestinian “terrorist organizations” in Lebanon) simply tweeted on February 19:

“Among the most important books written on terrorism/CT in years. I have spent almost the entire long, holiday weekend completely engrossed in this superb book. A must read.”

In a remarkable illustration of the process of inclusion (of acts that reflect positively on Israel’s policies towards civilians) and exclusion (of acts that do not) described above, Max Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and columnist for the Washington Post, posted a link to Bergman’s New York Times story, and wrote:

“This is a good news story for Israel. It shows how the IDF repeatedly resisted civilian pressure, esp from Ariel Sharon, to kill Arafat because of fears of civilian casualties. It shows IDF respects laws of war.”

Thomas Friedman, who at the time covered several bombings of the FLLF on the front page of the New York Times, still has to write a single word about Bergman’s revelations.

Erasing Alternative Narratives

Central to the complex, and fundamentally political, process through which “terrorism” came to acquire its very specific, narrowly bordered meaning, has been the erasing of a multiplicity of alternative narratives about “terrorism” and, specifically, about the identity of its perpetrators and victims. Over the years, indeed decades, the complete erasing of the FLLF’s car-bombing campaign has allowed for the construction of the Palestinians (and their Arab allies) solely as perpetrators, and never victims, of “terrorism.” Conversely, this silence has allowed for the construction of Israelis solely as victims, and never perpetrators, of “terrorism.”

Acts That Are Obviously “Terrorism” (Car Bombings!), Acts that Are Less Obviously So

In Terrorism and Humanitarian Law, international law professor Christopher Greenwood suggested that “terrorism” could be “divided into an inner core and an outer region.”

In the “inner core” are “any description of terrorism are acts of violence that are regarded as terrorist because of targets selected (such as civilians, nationals of States not directly involved or children) or because of the methods employed (such as the murder of prisoners, hostage-taking or the use of inherently indiscriminate weapons).” Such descriptions of “terrorism” all share an important characteristic: “they would involve violations of the laws of war if carried out by the armed forces of a State in time of armed conflict.” Such acts are, therefore, “inherently contrary to international law.”

The difficulty however, as he went on to explain, is that “few descriptions of terrorism stop short at this inner core.” “Many commentators and most politicians,” he wrote back in 1989, “go on to apply the label “terrorist” to a range of acts that would not be contrary to international law if they were carried out by the armed forces of a State engaged in an armed conflict,” for example attacks on military targets. When acts belonging to that category are called and denounced as “terrorism,” he continued, it is “not because of some inherent wrongfulness of the act itself but rather because of the identity of the perpetrator, the status of the group to which he belongs or the end he is seeking to achieve.” There is, unsurprisingly, “considerable disagreement over which acts in this outer category are correctly described as terrorist.”

The 1979 Nahariya attack mentioned in Bergman’s New York Times article was undoubtedly an act of “terrorism” that belongs to this “inner core,” as have countless other attacks against Israel over the decades. By contrast, the attacks against the Israeli headquarters in Tyre or the US Marines in Beirut would probably belong to the “outer core” and be more controversially described (and denounced) as “terrorism.”

Contrary to the claims repeatedly made by Israeli (and American) leaders at the time, there is nothing simple and obvious about “terrorism” in the context of a conflict as extraordinarily complex as the Lebanese conflict in the early 1980s. People on all sides could (and did) argue that they were the victims of acts that belonged to the “outer core” or the “inner core” described by Greenwood, that is to say the victims of “terrorism.”

To use one (in)famous example, Palestinians argue that the massacre committed at Sabra and Shatila by Christian Phalangists allied with Israel was a clear example of “terrorism.” If we take seriously Benzion Netanyahu’s definition of “terrorism” as “the deliberate and systematic killing of civilians so as to inspire fear,” it seems difficult to disagree with them. If we accept his logic about the “moral evil” of “terrorism” “infecting” not only those who commit such acts but also “those who, out of malice, ignorance or simple refusal to think, countenance them,” it is difficult to disagree with Palestinians who see Ariel Sharon (who, according to the Kahan Commission, bore “personal responsibility” for what happened in the camps) as responsible for this horrific act of “terrorism.”

The discussion about “terrorism” could of course be expanded even further to include indiscriminate shellings and air bombings by the Israeli military forces, practices that countless countries have repeatedly insisted, whenever such a topic was discussed at the United Nations, amounted to “terrorism” or “state terrorism.” Since 1972, it should be noted, the United States has repeatedly vetoed or threatened to veto any resolution that would use the terminology of “terrorism” to refer to and condemn uses of force by Israel.

This article has focused solely on the FLLF car-bombing campaign, however, precisely because indiscriminate car-bombings incontrovertibly belong to Greenwood’s “inner core,” that is to say to a specific kind of practices that everyone agrees amounts to “terrorism.” It is precisely for this reason, namely that it cannot be denied that such attacks were “terrorism,” that the absolute silence about Bergman’s revelations is so revealing and troubling.

The Construction of the “Essential Terrorist” and the Failed (and Extraordinarily Violent) War on “Terrorism”

In 1986, Edward Said penned a stinging review of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Terrorism: How the West Can Win, a piece that to this day remains one of the most powerful critiques of the newly emerging discourse on “terrorism.”

In this piece, entitled The Essential Terrorist, Said described how a central characteristic of this discourse, already, was “its selectivity”: ““We” are never terrorists no matter what we may have done,” he wrote. ““They” always are and always will be.” This discourse’s main objective, he claimed, was to “isolate your enemy from time, from causality, from prior action, and thereby to portray him or her as ontologically and gratuitously interested in wreaking havoc for its own sake.” Indeed, he added, “if you can show that Libyans, Moslems, Palestinians and Arabs, generally speaking, have no reality except that which tautologically confirms their terrorist essence as Libyans, Moslems, Palestinians and Arabs,” it becomes possible to “go on to attack them and their “terrorist” states generally, and avoid all questions about your own behavior or about your share in their present fate.”

Following the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington DC, President George W. Bush famously asked, “Why do they hate us?” and answered by arguing that “they” hate our democracy and freedoms. An important, indeed central, objective of the discourse on “terrorism” has been to exclude any alternative answers to this question, most notably answers that would point, at least in part, in the direction of “our” past and current policies.

As’ad Abu Khalil, a Lebanese-American who teaches at California State University, runs a blog called The Angry Arab News Service. His reaction to the publication of Bergman’s article in the New York Times was quoted on Mondoweiss. It represents, to this day, the sole reference to the FLLF to have been published anywhere since Rise and Kill First hit the stands. Born in Tyre and raised in Beirut, Abu Khalil experienced these bombings first hand. His words, and what they say about the reality of political violence in our world, are precisely those that, more than three decades later, continue to be systematically erased and concealed:

« The story says in passing that “hundred of people were killed” by [Israel’s “Front for the Liberation of Lebanon From Foreigners”]. But this is what they don’t tell you: this front specialized in car bombs in crowded neighborhoods. They would plant car bombs in West Beirut for purposes of sheer terror. I would estimate that the number of innocent victims killed by this group was in the thousands and not the hundreds. This is the record of Israel which many Lebanese and non-Lebanese Arabs won’t forget. These are part of the war crimes for which Arabs hold Israel responsible, in addition to the illegal occupation of Palestine – all of Palestine.»

In The Nation, Edward Said poignantly (and prophetically) asked: “Have we become so assured of the inconsequence of millions of Arab and Moslem lives that we assume it is a routine or unimportant matter when they die either at our hands or at those of our favored Judeo-Christian allies? Do we really believe that Arabs and Moslems have terrorism in their genes?” More than three decades later, the same extraordinarily violent policies in the so-called fight against “terrorism” have been implemented and have failed, miserably, over and over again. A serious, honest discussion about the reality of political violence in our world, past, present and to come, is more than overdue.