Israel and Lebanon: Why Israel Helps Both Its Friends and Enemies During Disasters

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We’re Curious…

Last week, a massive explosion rocked the Lebanese capital of Beirut, killing at least 100 people, wounding thousands and leaving large parts of the city in ruins. Hours after the blast, Israeli officials announced they had approached the Lebanese government through diplomatic and defense channels to offer the country humanitarian aid. Four Israeli hospitals — located just a short distance away from the site of the disaster — also offered to help treat Lebanon’s injured.

Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and consider each other enemy states. Israel has fought a number of wars in Lebanon in recent decades. Lebanon is also home to Hezbollah, which the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Arab League and Israel all consider a terrorist organization. 

Backed by Iran, Hezbollah openly calls for the destruction of the State of Israel and is part of the Lebanese government. So why would Israel offer humanitarian aid to Lebanon, which it considers its enemy? And why do experts say that Lebanon is unlikely to accept Israel’s offer to help — at a time when that help is needed the most?

The Start of Israel’s Relationship with Lebanon

While relations between Israel and Lebanon have been characterized in recent decades by bloodshed and war, there was a time when the outlook for this relationship was more promising. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, hoped to secure peace with a theoretical, independent Christian country in Lebanon and to create a coalition of religious minorities in the Sunni-Muslim-dominant Middle East. 

Lebanon has long been a religiously diverse country. Under an agreement established in 1943 between Lebanese Christians and Muslims, the president of Lebanon is always Christian, the prime minister Sunni Muslim, and the parliamentary speaker Shia Muslim. While there has not been an official census in Lebanon since 1932, the two largest groups are the Shia and Sunni Muslims, each comprising more than 25 percent of the population. After the Muslim population, the next largest religious group is Maronite Christians, an Eastern Catholic group. Lebanon also has a number of other Christian communities and a small but influential Druze community.

Ben-Gurion’s hopes for a Christian enclave in Lebanon never came to fruition, but relations between the two countries were relatively calm until the early 1970s. Notably, Lebanon did not take part in the 1967 Six-Day War. This relative state of calm changed after the war. Due to both the weakness of the Lebanese government and Lebanon’s proximity to Israel, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) identified Lebanon as the ideal place from which to launch attacks against the Jewish State. In 1970, then-PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and the PLO relocated its headquarters from Jordan to Southern Lebanon.

The First Lebanon War Against the PLO

During the 1970s, the PLO carried out hundreds of attacks into Israel from Lebanon. Meanwhile, the new wave of Palestinian fighters who were recruited to Lebanon by the PLO upset the balance between Muslims and Christians in the country; this led to a civil war there in 1975. Lebanese Christians looked to Israel for support in confronting the PLO’s growing presence and, ultimately, hoped to drive them out of the country. Israel, hoping to stop the terrorist attacks coming from the PLO, began backing the Christians in the Lebanese civil war. In 1982, Israel, under the leadership of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, invaded Lebanon, allying with the Christians against the Syrian-backed PLO. This began the 1982 Lebanon War, also known as the First Lebanon War or “Shalom HaGalil” (“Peace for the Galilee”) in Israel.

While Israeli forces successfully drove Arafat and the PLO out of Lebanon, in other ways the war was a disaster for Israel. Israel’s hopes of forging a peace treaty after the war with Bashir Gemayel, the leader of the Lebanese Christians, were dashed when he was assassinated by a Lebanese supporter of the Syrian regime. The next day, in an act of revenge, Christian militiamen killed hundreds of innocent Palestinians in the infamous massacre at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Although the IDF did not directly participate in the killing, they had given the Christian militiamen permission to enter the refugee camps. The acclaimed historian Anita Shapira writes: “The possibility that the IDF was even indirectly responsible because it stood aside and did not intervene during the [Christian] Phalangists’ action in the camps subverted the army’s image as moral in the eyes of soldiers and civilians alike.” 

As anger mounted inside Israel and much of the world condemned Israel over its role in the horrific events, an Israeli commission was set up to inquire into its own potential responsibility for the massacre. The Kahan Commission published a report in 1983 that leveled harsh criticism against Begin and recommended Ariel Sharon, the defense minister, be removed. Sharon resigned from his position, and Begin announced his own decision to resign from office a few months later.

While the 1982 Lebanon War may have officially lasted only a few months, the IDF remained in Lebanon for another 18 years. The journalist Matti Friedman called this period “The War With No Name,” the title of his recent documentary series about “how a haughty Israel attempted to remake the Land of the Cedars into something more to its liking, but instead ended up getting ‘sucked into the Lebanese mud,’” to quote the review by the Times of Israel. At first, Israel remained in southern Lebanon to fight Palestinian forces that remained and to prevent the PLO from re-establishing a presence there and once again threatening Israel’s northern communities. By 1993, however, Israel’s Palestinian enemies in Lebanon had largely been replaced by a new and different adversary: Hezbollah.

War With Hezbollah and the Second Lebanon War

Beginning in 1982, Hezbollah, a radical Shiite militia influenced by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, began carrying out attacks on IDF soldiers and headquarters. Anita Shapira writes that Hezbollah’s objective at this time “was not only to drive the IDF out of Lebanon but also, with Iranian support, to fight Israel incessantly.” Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps provided funds and training to the emerging militia. In its first manifesto, released in 1985, Hezbollah pledged allegiance to Iran’s supreme leader and called for the destruction of the state of Israel. In 1992, Israel assassinated the leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Abbas Musawi; he was succeeded by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s current leader. Nasrallah has said that Israel “is an aggressive, illegal, and illegitimate entity, which has no future in our land. Its destiny is manifested in our motto: ‘Death to Israel.’ ”

After Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah — funded by Syria and Iran — began building up its supply of rockets and arms. The Second Lebanon War began on July 12, 2006, when a group of Hezbollah militiamen crossed into Israel, killed eight Israeli soldiers, and kidnapped two others. In the 34-day war that followed, Israel carried out air strikes and a ground offensive that was aimed at destroying Hezbollah targets and removing Hezbollah terrorists from Southern Lebanon. Hezbollah launched thousands of rockets into densely populated areas of Israel, at a rate of 120 rockets per day, during this time. The Second Lebanon War ended on August 11 with a UN resolution that called for a ceasefire. Iran and Syria proclaimed a victory for Hezbollah, while then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert claimed that the war was a success for Israel.

How Israel Responded to the Crisis in Beirut

This brings us to the present moment. Tensions on Israel’s border with Lebanon have been high in recent years — and weeks. Last week, Israel said it thwarted an infiltration attempt by five Hezbollah gunmen; Hezbollah denies this. Israel has been anticipating an attack from Hezbollah since last month, when Hezbollah claimed that the Jewish state killed one of its men in an airstrike and pledged to retaliate. In the last several years, Israel has also uncovered and destroyed attack tunnels from Lebanon into Israel that were created by Hezbollah. 

It would seem that given Israel’s deeply hostile history with Lebanon and Hezbollah — which is a part of Lebanon’s government — Israel would not be so inclined to help out its northern neighbor. Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, frequently say that they hold the Lebanese government responsible for attacks carried out by Hezbollah against Israel.

However, the response of many Israeli politicians and healthcare workers to the recent disaster in Lebanon has proven otherwise. In a speech he gave at the Knesset last week, Netanyahu said: “We are ready to send humanitarian assistance to Lebanon as human beings to human beings.” Noting Israel’s previous offers of assistance to Syria during its civil war and to Iran after an earthquake — both states that Israel considers enemies — he added: “That’s our way. We distinguish between the regimes and the people.” 

Echoing this message of solidarity with the Lebanese people, Tel Aviv’s city hall last week lit up with an image of Lebanon’s flag. Announcing this symbolic gesture, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said on Twitter, “Humanity precedes any conflict, and our hearts go out to our Lebanese neighbors in light of the catastrophic event.”

Not all Israeli politicians supported offering aid to Lebanon — or the public display of the Lebanese flag on Tel Aviv’s city hall. Bezalel Smotrich, a Knesset Member from the right-wing Jewish Home party, said on Twitter, “Morally, we have no obligation or need to extend a helping hand to an outright enemy state.” Jerusalem Minister Rafi Peretz argued: “It is possible and necessary to provide humanitarian aid to civilians who were hurt in Lebanon, but waving an enemy flag in the heart of Tel Aviv is moral confusion.”

As hospitals in Lebanon have struggled to cope with the thousands injured, four hospitals in Israel have offered to treat victims. Dr. Anthony Luder, Director of the Pediatric Department at Ziv Medical Center in Safed, explained: “We feel a humanitarian imperative to offer our assistance. We’re stretched during coronavirus, but we’re still in a good position to offer assistance and, sadly, we have lots of experience in trauma and we’re happy to share it.”

Lebanon has not yet responded to Israel’s offers of financial and medical assistance. They are not expected to accept the help due to the long-standing enmity between the two countries and Hezbollah’s political influence in Lebanon. Israel regularly gives aid to foreign countries in times of crisis, but its offers of aid to enemy countries are usually turned down. Meanwhile, some cynically characterize Israel’s efforts to provide disaster relief as “rubble-washing” — the idea that Israel offers help in order to burnish its image and distract from human rights violations at home.

Why Israel Offers Humanitarian Aid to Both its Friends and Enemies

In truth, Israel offers humanitarian help to foreign countries — friends and foes alike — because this is a part of Israel’s identity, dating back to its founding leaders and visionaries. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, famously said, “By these will the State be judged: By the moral character it imparts to its citizens; by the human values determining its inner and outward relations; and by its fidelity, in thought and act, to the supreme behest: ‘And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Theodor Herzl, the founding father of modern political Zionism, said: “Whatever we attempt to accomplish there [in the Jewish state] for our welfare, will have its powerful effect, promoting the happiness and well-being of all Mankind.”

For these leaders and others like them, the purpose of the Jewish state is to not just be another state, but to be exceptional. This means that, for those who subscribe to this view, Israel has a responsibility to offer help to other people and countries, even as the Jewish State continues to have its own internal challenges to solve. It was this instinct that led Israel to set up a field hospital in Haiti in 2010 after a devastating hurricane. It is why Israel, as part of “Operation Good Neighbor,” treated thousands of Syrian civilians in need of medical attention in the wake of their country’s civil war. It is why Israeli aid organizations have helped bring children from Gaza, Iraq and Syria to Israel to receive life-saving medical care.

The Bottom Line

As Knesset Member Orit Farkash Hacohen recently explained, Israel offering aid to foreign civilians, including those in what it considers to be enemy countries like Lebanon, is normal. Israel’s record of offering aid to civilians anywhere can be traced to its founding ideals.