40 years since Yasser Arafat left Beirut while Israel had him targeted

May Ben-Zeev

9 min read
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is seen during an interview in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1978.
AP PhotoPalestinian leader Yasser Arafat is seen during an interview in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1978.

Although Israel failed to kill Arafat, for the PLO, the evacuation from Beirut was a clear, painful loss

In August 1982, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was firmly rooted in Beirut, but under siege by Israeli forces.

The PLO had been entrenched in south Lebanon, abutting Israel's northern border, for years, launching cross-border attacks, and firing Katyusha missiles at northern Israel towns and villages. 

On June 6, Israeli troops crossed the border, ostensibly to push the PLO back 25 miles, so its missiles could not threaten Israel. But the IDF pushed north all the way to Beirut and had been attacking the city from the sea, air and land, cutting off food, water and power.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) secured several key locations overlooking the Lebanese capital, but still Beirut held out. 

AP Photo/Mourad Abdel Raouf
AP Photo/Mourad Abdel RaoufYasser Arafat, (L), Palestine Liberation Organization chairman, visits his troops in west Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday afternoon, July 10, 1982.

An agreement was finally reached on August 18, under which French troops would arrive in Beirut on August 21. They would be joined by US and Italian forces. 

Their mission - to ensure the PLO leaves Beirut. The evacuation got underway on August 21, when several hundred PLO fighters boarded a ship for Cyprus. 

In the following days, the evacuation picked up pace, and on August 30, it was the turn of PLO chieftain Yasser Arafat, wearing olive-green military fatigues and with his trade-mark black-and white checked keffiyeh headdress, to board a ship taking him from the city where the PLO had had its headquarters.

Some eight and a half thousand PLO members were sent to Tunisia. Another two and a half thousand ended up in other Arab states.

"I was a reporter for IDF Radio and we were about three people with plain clothes that morning," remembered veteran newsman Jacob Eilon, currently host of i24NEWS' Middle East Now. 

"When we came in, early in the morning, the IDF still controlled the port. But then the troops withdrew so the PLO people could board the ships. That was the deal brokered by the Americans. I was reporting live from a roof of a short building, and on the road just beneath, trucks loaded with PLO fighters start moving."

AP Photo/Mourad
AP Photo/MouradAn emotional Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO, gesticulates as he addresses his officers at a farewell gathering in west Beirut, on August 21, 1982, in the early hours of the morning.

Arafat had been in Israel's crosshairs for years. According to reports, an Israeli sniper even had him in his sights during the siege of Beirut, but was under orders not to fire. Now though, the US was acting as his protector.

"The Americans had made it very clear not to try to take out Arafat because he was really in the crosshairs of the snipers more than once," said Dr. Jacques Neriah, a former senior Israeli military intelligence officer who, attached to the Egyptian desk, was nonetheless sent to Beirut try and get leads on Israeli prisoners of war and missing in action.

Although Israel failed to kill Arafat, for the PLO, the evacuation from Beirut was a clear, painful loss. Among some Israeli officials, there was a feeling of triumph, but it was to be short-lived.

"We were at the height of our so-called victory. The PLO had been defeated," Neriah told i24NEWS. "It was in fact, the total success of the Mossad (Israel's intelligence agency) on the one hand and of the army on the other hand. We had cut the road between Beirut and Damascus and the Syrian army was also defeated in the area."

"The PLO was obviously defeated, but it tried to put the best face on it. They wore fresh uniforms. They had red kaffiyehs, all of them holding their rifles on these crowded trucks. And the trucks then slowly drove all these people to those huge cruise liners from Greece or Cyprus. Big, holiday, white cruise ships. And the PLO people boarded ship after ship after ship, and they were coming into the port on the way to Tunis," said Eilon. 

AP Photo/Hussein Malla
AP Photo/Hussein MallaA Palestinian boy carries a gas canister on a motorcycle as he passes portraits of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in the Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp, in Beirut, Lebanon, January 18, 2022.

"While on the roof, snipers were still shooting from west Beirut and Israeli intelligence people were there with huge telescopes taking pictures of each and every PLO person boarding the ships. That was going on for most of the day. And then the PLO moved to Tunis."

For Israel, the relocation of the PLO from Beirut meant the group was now vulnerable

"As far as Arafat is concerned, he's just arrived in Tunis and began operating. Now, the idea of the first Lebanese war was in fact to reach Beirut and cut the head of the snake, as it used to be called. And in this way we would be able to have light autonomy rather than an autonomy governed and influenced by Arafat, said Neriah.

The departure of Arafat from Beirut turned out to be the high watermark of Israel's Lebanon war. 

After Israel's ally, Christian leader and president-elect Bachir Gemayel was assassinated on September 14, Israel stood by as a Christian militia entered two Beirut refugee camps, Sabra and Shatilla, supposedly to clear them of stay-behind PLO fighters. 

But the Christian militia forces ran amuck, massacring hundreds upon hundreds of men, women and children.

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In Israel, news of the massacre galvanized the steadily-growing opposition to the war. Around 400,000 people attended an angry anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv, and prime minister Menachem Begin, at first defiant, agreed to a commission of inquiry to investigate massacre. The commission found that while the IDF did not carry out the massacre, Israel was "indirectly responsible."

Israel pulled out of west Beirut at the end of September, slowly withdrawing its forces south, until it only occupied a self-declared "security zone" in the south of the country, where it stayed for 18 years. On May 24, 2000, the last Israeli soldier left south Lebanon.  

Arafat, for his part, narrowly survived another Israeli assassination attempt three years after the Beirut exodus. The Israeli Air Force bombed his Tunis headquarters. Some 73 people were killed, but not Arafat, who was out jogging at the time.

And only nine years after that bombing, and 12 years after the PLO left Lebanon, Arafat was way back in Gaza and the West Bank, as a result of the Oslo Accords.

"The PLO and Yasser Arafat stayed in Tunis for about a decade. And then roughly about 10 years later, I found myself reporting live from Gaza when Yasser Arafat came back," said Eilon.

"We just expelled or deported Arafat from Beirut in order to receive him through the border with Egypt," notes Neriah. "We just threw him out the door and he came back through the window."

Arafat went on to lead the Palestinians in several rounds of failed negotiations with Israel.

He died age 75, again in exile – this time in France where he had been hospitalized with a rare blood disorder. French courts have dismissed several attempts to open an investigation into his death which his supporters blame on Israel.

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