Today is the anniversary of a raid you may not know about. If you do, the date likely doesn’t ring a bell. What you almost certainly do know is that members of the Black September faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization took members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and eventually killed all of them. This led to a massive and wide-ranging campaign of retaliation by Israel (Operation Wrath of God) targeting everyone directly involved in the attack as well as those who had ordered it. The initial Munich attack and the campaign of retaliation have subsequently been chronicled in various books and even big-budget Hollywood movies.
One of those attacks came on April 10, 1973, when members of Israel’s elite commando unit — known by an acronym, Sayeret Matkal — led a raid into Beirut. Some details of the raid are set forth in an AP article published today. The head of the unit and head of the raid was Ehud Barak, who would later become the head of the IDF, the first prime minister to drive Benjamin Netanyahu from office in 1999 and finally erstwhile defense minister in later Netanyahu governments.
Barak and other members of the team entered Lebanon on a small boat from the sea and met Mossad agents who drove them to the apartment building which housed their designated targets. As Barak would later recount, he and another member of the team were dressed as women to avoid arousing suspicion. Another participant in the operation was the unit’s deputy commander, Yonatan Netanyahu — the brother of Benjamin Netanyahu.
The raid itself was a huge success: it’s targets were killed and most of the commando team returned to Israel unharmed. It was a classic Israeli commando operation, mixing unmatched mastery and exquisitely targeted brutality.
In the mind of anniversaries, what is most striking is the chaotic but deeply interrelated sweep of historical events leading to this raid and rippling out from it.
First, why Lebanon? Why Beirut?
In 1967, several years before the raid, a coalition of Arab governments led by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser led a mounting series of military maneuvers and the encirclement of Israel. War was in the air and Israel, following a mix of doctrine and national character, decided to act first rather than wait to be attacked. That was the backdrop of the Six Day War in which Israel, far from being dismembered, made vast territorial gains from Egypt (Gaza and Sinai), Jordan (the West Bank of the Jordan River) and Syria (the Golan Heights). The occupation of the West Bank led the PLO and its main faction, Fatah, to relocate to Jordan, from which it was later expelled in 1970–71. It then moved its main base of operations to Beirut.
The 1973 raid and, more broadly, the PLO’s growing role within Lebanon were part of a chain of events setting the stage for the Lebanese Civil War, which broke out in 1975 and didn’t conclude until 1990. The Lebanese Civil War and the PLO’s use of Lebanon as its main staging area for attacks against northern Israel led to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and eventually the occupation of a buffer zone in the country’s South. Israel wouldn’t finally withdraw from that buffer zone in until 2000, under then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
For Arab nationalists, most Palestinians and other critics of Israel, this historic sweep shows how Israel is a chronic and inherently destabilizing force in the region. For Israel’s supporters, it’s part of an unfolding pattern of violence, chaos and destabilization of neighboring Arab states, and shows displaced Palestinians’ refusal to accept Israel’s existence. Both views gain their coherence from a foundational judgment about whether the people we now know as Israeli Jews had any right to be in the region or found a state there in the first place.
Another thing we see through the prism of this anniversary is just how small a society Israel was in its early decades and, in some respects, until today. This is true both in an absolute sense of population numbers but also in terms of the tightly knit elite first based in the socialist party factions that created the state and then, later and interrelatedly, in the elite of the IDF, the Israeli military.
Three years after this raid in Beirut came a far-better known operation, referred to in English as the Raid on Entebbe, or officially in Israel as Operation Yonatan. By 1975, Yonatan Netanyahu had succeeded Barak as commander of the Sayeret Matkal. On June 27, 1976, an Air France flight originating in Israel was hijacked by a group of Palestinian and German gunman and forced to fly to Entebbe, Uganda. The subsequent raid on Entebbe was an almost mythic success leading to the safe release of almost all the hostages. The only fatality among the commandos was the operation’s commander, Netanyahu himself. This led to something like the deification of the slain military hero whose posthumously published letters became a touchstone for vision of Israeli national character.
If you’re wondering how the operation had the same name as its commander, it’s no accident. After the rescue, the Israeli government took the unprecedented step of renaming the operation after its fallen leader. The decision had complicated roots in the lifelong rivalry between then-Defense Minister Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The decision was also part of the politics of the moment, in which the Labor-led government sought to strengthen itself in the face of deteriorating public support. A year later in 1977, what was then a coalition of parties under the banner “Likud” won power for the first time in Israel’s thirty year history. It was a defeat from which the ruling Labor party never truly recovered.
To this time, the younger Netanyahu had been the less-favored son and seemed set to make a career for himself as a businessman in the United States. The elder brother once referred to him as an immigrant to America — at the time a cutting insult. But that changed after Yonatan Netanyahu’s death. It was into these shoes and this legend that the younger brother stepped and without which his subsequent political ascent is hard to imagine.