Secret documents detail Arafat's departure from Beirut

Al Majalla begins its five-part series revealing never-before-shared details of Israel's 1982 siege of Beirut and exchanges between Hafez al-Assad and Yasser Arafat


Secret documents detail Arafat's departure from Beirut

In June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon for a second time after the attempted assassination of its ambassador in London. Following a three-pronged attack, Israel’s forces reached the Lebanese capital, Beirut, in a matter of days before laying siege to the city. Palestinian fighters had built a strong base there, operating autonomously, like a state-within-a-state.

By 1982, Syrian forces had been in Lebanon for several years, but Syrian planes were shot down easily by the Israelis, who also blocked the main route from Damascus to prevent Syria from sending reinforcements. As the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) guerrillas fled Lebanese cities like Tyre and Sidon to regroup in the capital, Syria’s calls for a ceasefire went unheeded.

Soon, Israel’s defence minister, Ariel Sharon, turned up in the Lebanese capital. For the Israelis, the PLO and its fighters—led by enigmatic chairman Yasser Arafat—had to be kicked out of Lebanon, which borders Israel to the north. Cue a flurry of shuttle diplomacy from US envoy Philip Habib. It was a pivotal moment in the history of the Middle East, and the conversations were frank.

Here, Al Majalla reveals previously unknown details of the diplomacy using first-hand documents, meeting notes, and archives from the centres of power at the time.

They cover the blockade of Beirut and the negotiations to end it, leading up to Arafat’s exit. It includes covert messages between Arafat and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, two men who had a famously uneasy relationship. Gathered from a selection of sources, the archives illustrate the stance of Lebanese factions prior to the end of the Palestinian military presence in Beirut and Arafat’s subsequent relocation to Tunisia in August 1982.

They also cover discussions with the United States, including Deputy National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane’s secret visit to Damascus on 17 July 1983, which reinforced Syria’s military foothold in Lebanon until its withdrawal in April 2005.

In a sequence of instalments over the coming days—part of a five-part series—Al Majalla will chart the back-channel communications, including those of American envoy Philip Habib aimed at facilitating the evacuation of Arafat and his fighters from the besieged city.

The Lebanese goal was to protect Beirut from complete destruction, given the statements of Israeli leaders, particularly Sharon and Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Arafat initially resolved to stay but was eventually compelled to leave on 29 August 1982 at the urging of Soviet advisors after negotiations between Syria and the US.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, surrounded by heavy security, receives an olive branch from a child as he leaves Israeli-occupied Beirut for Tunis on 30 August 1982.

Read more: Arafat's 1982 exile from Beirut: Will history repeat itself?

The documents feature secret handwritten correspondence between al-Assad and Arafat, a significant exchange given their well-documented rivalry. They reveal Arafat’s firm resistance to leaving Beirut via Damascus, instead preferring to go by sea.

It also includes rare messages of “reassurance” from Bachir Gemayel, the controversial Lebanese commander who was elected Lebanon’s president just months later. Years earlier, in 1969, he had been kidnapped and beaten by Palestinian fighters.

These messages were sent to al-Assad and passed on by Syrian Foreign Minister Abdul Halim Khaddam, who later became Syria’s vice president. Khaddam served al-Assad loyally until the president’s death in 2000, then served his son, Bashar, before becoming disillusioned and emigrating to France in 2005. With him, he took reams of paperwork (the ‘Khaddam Files’) from his time in office.

Sore point

Syria’s military presence in Lebanon was a sore point, and the Israelis wanted them out, but it would be decades before Damascus finally withdrew its soldiers. In the 1982 letters between Gemayel and al-Assad, the Lebanese stressed how critical Syria’s “fraternal” support was, urging them to “remain and continue”.

Seen as a traitor by some, Gemayel was elected president on 23 August but assassinated by a Syrian nationalist on 14 September before he could take office. A week later, his brother Amine became president.

Khaddam’s papers include confidential reports from the head of the Syrian intelligence in Lebanon in 1982, who recounts several stories (some of them funny) concerning the siege, including Sharon’s surprise arrival in the Lebanese capital. Khaddam, who died in 2020, travelled to Paris on a one-way ticket in 2005. His files shed light on a US-Syria agreement on the re-entry of Syrian forces into Beirut and their subsequent consolidation in Lebanon following Arafat’s exit.

Secret negotiations

Details of several meetings help fill in historical gaps. There is even information on meetings that weren’t held, including Habib travelling to Damascus on 23 November 1982, only for al-Assad to decline to attend. They also reveal a previously undisclosed secret visit by Deputy National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane to Damascus to meet al-Assad on 17 July 1983, two months after a visit by US Secretary of State George Shultz.

Al Majalla reveals previously unknown details of the Israeli blockade of Beirut and the negotiations to end it, leading up to Arafat's exit

At the time, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and both Syrian and Israeli forces were in Lebanon. McFarlane reveals what Reagan felt about "the synchronised withdrawal of all foreign troops from (Lebanese) territory". Al-Assad relayed how the Syrians "agree to withdraw from Lebanon only if Israel withdraws unconditionally and without any gains".

Khaddam kept reports by Ghazi Kanaan, head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, which were a wealth of information, as they included transcripts of meetings with US envoys stationed in Beirut, sourced directly from Lebanese authorities.

They offer a meticulous chronicle of the negotiations orchestrated by Habib, as he tirelessly "shuttled between the residence of the US ambassador and the presidential palace in Baabda" while Beirut was under Israeli siege and bombardment. These negotiations ultimately culminated in the departure of Arafat and some of his fighters to Tunisia in August 1982. Others dispersed to various destinations.

New PLO address

Al-Assad agreed to accommodate some of Arafat's fighters in Syria, but with a stern warning about "the paramount importance of security and discipline, emphasising his uncompromising stance on these issues," the note details.

"I am not President Sarkis, nor am I King Hussein," al-Assad said, in partial reference to the 'Black September' events in Jordan in 1970, when Jordan's king sent his troops into Jordanian towns with a PLO presence. This led to Arafat's expulsion in 1971. After Arafat refused to leave Beirut via Damascus, his relationship with al-Assad soured. Syria's president subsequently formed ties with Arafat's adversaries.

The Syrian military presence in Lebanon was negotiated as part of the Taif Agreement in 1989. Under this, they were due to leave two years later but stayed until April 2005, shortly after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The events of 1982 may have taken place more than 40 years ago, but as the Israelis wade into Rafah, the last remaining Palestinian-controlled town in Gaza, these events assume heightened significance since it is highly likely that Hamas leaders such as Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif will either be exiled or killed.

It evokes memories of Arafat's hold-out in Beirut. Yet unlike Arafat's international fighters, who arrived in Lebanon from Jordan in 1970, Hamas's fighters and leaders are nearly all from Gaza and deeply entrenched within the social fabric of the Strip.


Tomorrow: Episode 1 It is June 1982, and Beirut is surrounded by the Israelis. Defence Minister Ariel Sharon makes a surprise visit to the Lebanese presidential palace.

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