by Rebecca Bynum
Window to the Backyard: The History of Israel-Lebanon Relations - Facts and Illusions
by Yair Ravid
I would like to commend Colonel Yair Ravid’s new book, Window to the Backyard, to our readers. I first became interested in foreign policy in the early 1980’s when the Lebanese civil war was raging, political assassinations were rampant, and the Lebanese drama briefly flared up to obliterate the main action of the Cold War and to a lesser extent, the Iran-Iraq conflict.
Ravid, known as Abu Daoud, was an Israeli intelligence officer operating in Southern Lebanon during the time when Israel tried to establish a buffer zone between its borders and the main fighting there beginning in the early 1970’s. Ravid entertainingly recounts his interactions with many of the major players, from President Camille Nimer Chamoun’s partridge hunts on the border to his personal relationship with Pierre Gemayel and his sons, especially Bashir, who was assassinated shortly after being elected as President, and his relationship with legendary Israeli military leaders such as General Raphael “Raful” Eitan.
The Lebanese conflict was extremely complex, at least as viewed from the outside. It began after the PLO, having been ejected from Jordan, entered Lebanon and began attacking civilians in Beirut. The Israelis eventually hoped to use the Christians to help defeat and remove the PLO from the south. The Christian militias hoped to use the Israelis to push back the Syrians (who had also entered the conflict) and then pressure the Israelis to withdraw leaving them in control of their own destiny once more. Neither side got what it wanted, but the history of their interaction is a very interesting and we are fortunate to have this testimony from one of the most integral players on the Israeli side.
Ravid clearly sympathized with the Christian villagers who were being shelled by the PLO and massacred en masse in village after village. The Lebanese Phalangist militias eventually gave as good as they got, but the Sabra-Shatila massacre of Palestinians in 1982, carried out in retaliation for a massacre of Christians, was sensationalized in the press and used to blame Israel and force its wholesale withdrawal from south Lebanon. Despite the bitter and hysterical recriminations which flew in all directions following this terrible incident, Ravid’s intelligence arm remained active, providing the IDF with vital information and doing what he could to provide weapons to the Christians for their self-defense. Hezbollah was also born in this cauldron of strife and, with the support of Iran, has grown to become the most powerful force in Lebanon today. The former Christian stronghold, once protected by the French, has witnessed its Christian population become a relatively powerless minority whose leader, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, has openly allied with Hezbollah.
Colonel Ravid’s account is a personal story. Most interesting is his description of relationships with his various “assets,” who were most often a type of lovable rogue involved in various black market or other nefarious activities when not providing intelligence to Abu Daoud. The last section of the book is comprised of short character sketches of several of these men and what became of them in later life. Some died in service, but several brought their families to Israel and died in peaceful old age. Ravid’s affection for them is palpable and the book as a whole is filled with the kind of small cultural detail which gives insight missing in most historical analyses of that time. My one quibble is that the book could have used a better English language editor, but that is a minor issue. Overall, this book is a sensitive, insightful and often humorous personal account of that lamentable conflict. I would recommend it as an excellent supplement to general historical works on the period.