On August 12, 1982, Israel launched a massive bombing campaign over Beirut that came to be known as "Black Thursday." In the conflagration's aftermath, over five hundred Lebanese and Palestinian civilians lay dead, countless were displaced, and widespread hunger and infestation took hold in the absence of running water and food.
Yet beyond the immediate human suffering, the biggest tragedy of that campaign was that it actually worked. On the heels of the bombing, Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) finally agreed to leave Lebanon. It seems Israel had learned an important lesson: that massive, indiscriminate bombardment can lead to the defeat of a non-state organization.
But what does "defeat" really mean? For the PLO, a foreign and largely unwelcome entity inside Lebanon, defeat meant packing up and finding someplace else to establish a headquarters; in its case, Tunisia. For the Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas, however, two groups that have faced the full wrath of Israeli warplanes, defeat of this kind has never been an option. As homegrown organizations that are fully entrenched within their constituencies, where could they possibly go?
During the July 2006 War, a 33-day bombing campaign launched in retaliation for Hezbollah's small-scale incursion into Israeli territory, Israel thought it could have an encore of 1982. Hezbollah's incursion ultimately resulted in five Israeli military fatalities, but the subsequent bombing and Hezbollah counter-strikes left over 1,000 Lebanese and over 40 Israeli civilians dead.
At the time, there was open talk of Israel destroying Hezbollah, an organization that is part militia, part political party and part country. But what exactly would it mean to destroy an ideology of people who keep assault rifles under their mattresses, women who teach their children to be prideful Shias and resist, and poverty-stricken men holding on to the only thing they have left on this Earth: their pride.
On a recent trip to Lebanon, I found that even secular-minded Sunnis and Christians had developed a soft spot for the Iranian-backed organization, if only because it had taught them that as Lebanese, and as Arabs, there was more glory in fighting Israel than in fighting one another.
The impact of Israel's current attack on the Gaza Strip may very well mirror what happened in Lebanon in 2006. In just three days, Israel has killed over 300 Palestinians, but at best the Jewish state can only hope that Hamas becomes so weak, and the current PLO so strong, so as to tilt the balance of power in Gaza toward more moderate forces.
At worst, the opposite will happen: the PLO will be unable to capitalize from the collective suffering in Gaza, and Hamas will benefit from the kind of Palestinian solidarity it has never enjoyed before.
(Yes, we are talking about the same "godless," Soviet-backed PLO that Israel countered in the 1980s by financially supporting Hamas: Israel's own mujahideen.)
There are many lessons that we should learn from history, and some, like Israel's bombing of Lebanon in 1982, that we should seek to forget. After all, massive, disproportionate military responses are bound to invite unintended, long-term consequences. And when accompanied by unrealistic ideas of victory and defeat, the tragedies are only destined to multiply.
Israel, torn in anger and exaggerated feelings of vulnerability, is unlikely to stop bombing until it realizes that is has once again shot itself in the foot. By then, the next big conflict will be looming on the horizon, and hundreds of innocents will have lost their lives for nothing.
Nathan Gonzalez is author of Engaging Iran (2007) and the upcoming The Sunni-Shia Conflict and the Iraq War: Understanding Sectarian Violence in the Middle East (2009)
Follow Nathan Gonzalez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/engagingiran