One striking feature of the film is how little context it gives to the events it describes. Its focus is on the experiences of the director and the other Israeli veterans of the war he talks to, not on the big picture of the conflict. I found this quite refreshing. If, like me. you are a bit over-engaged with the politics of the Middle East then the film is a useful corrective, a reminder that there are human stories and human tragedies behind the region's military and political conflicts. People who are not so familiar with the events the film describes may however have found themselves wondering about how they came to pass. As a service to such people, I will now briefly give some background to the film; this is all stuff you could find out yourself, but maybe you would rather I did it for you.
The Bashir of the film's title is one Bashir Gemayel, a Maronite Christian and leader of the Phalange militia. Gemayel's goals were to establish himself as the pre-eminent political leader of the Maronites, to maintain the political hegemony of the Maronites generally, and to crush the Palestinian fighters who had established a virtual state-within-a-state in Lebanon. He was successful in his first goal (largely by applying extreme violence to any other Maronite barons who dared stand against him), but in his wider goals he was less successful. Staring defeat in the face, Bashir appealed first to neighbouring Syria, which obliged by sending a peace-keeping force to contain the Palestinians and the Muslim militias. Before too long, however, Bashir found the Syrian embrace suffocating, and he began to court Israel, Lebanon's neighbour to the south.
The Israeli state had an obvious interest in Lebanon, as Palestinian groups were using it as a base for attacks against it. Israel had briefly invaded southern Lebanon in 1978, but Bashir Gemayel offered them the prospect of purging Lebanon of the Palestinian menace and turning the country into a friendly client state. By 1982, however, the Israel-Lebanon border was relatively quiet. The Syrians were anxious to prevent the Palestinians from stirring up trouble with Israel, and Yassir Arafats' PLO was observing a truce along the border.
Bizarrely, events in London triggered the events depicted in Waltz with Bashir. Palestinian gunmen attempted to assassinate Israel's ambassador outside the Dorchester hotel. Although the fringe group who carried out the attack was based in Iraq, the Israelis retaliated by bombing Palestinian targets in Lebanon. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the PLO responded by firing rockets over the border, and the Israelis launched a full-scale invasion of Lebanon.
At the time, Ariel Sharon was Israel's defence minister. Other members of the Israeli government have said that he promised them that the invasion would be brief, and that conflict with the Syrians would be avoided. However, the Israeli army pushed north towards Beirut and seems to have actively sought conflict with Syrian forces. While the Palestinians and Syrians did fight back, Israel's near total command of the air meant that the fighting was a bit one-sided (though the Israeli air force made sporting attempts to even the odds by occasionally bombing Israeli troops). Once the Israelis reached Beirut, however, they stopped. Moving into Muslim West Beirut, where the PLO was based, was likely to involve unacceptable levels of casualties, given the Palestinians skill at urban warfare. Instead, the Israelis intensively bombed West Beirut, while blockading it from land and sea.
The siege was broken by the USA and other leading western countries. They persuaded the Israelis to allow the evacuation to Tunisia of Palestinian fighters (but not civilians). With this, the war seemed over. The Lebanese parliament met to elect a new president for the country, and chose Bashir Gemayel. His election was assisted by the Israeli army, which prevented MPs who did not support his candidacy from attending.
However, before he could take office, Bashir Gemayel was killed in a car bomb attack. His murder is usually attributed to Syrian military intelligence (like many other car bombs that have killed politicians who have opposed Syrian interests), though Bashir had a lot of enemies, all of whom have been accused of his murder (as indeed have the Israelis, who were reputedly finding him less pliant than had been hoped). At the time, though, his Phalangist militia blamed the Palestinians for his death, and their blood was up for revenge.
The Israeli army moved into West Beirut, surrounding the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Chatila. The Phalange was allowed into the camps to search for and eliminate terrorists. To assist them in their work, the Israelis prevented Palestinians from leaving the camps; at night, they fired flares over the camps so that the Phalange could continue their work around the clock. The Phalangists were only pulled back when the international media started reporting that they were massacring Palestinian civilians. By that stage, hundreds, or a couple of thousand, Palestinians had been exterminated.
As far as I know, no one has ever been punished judicially for their role in the massacres. A public backlash in Israel forced the resignation of the country's prime minister, and the political career of Arial Sharon was temporarily suspended. None of the Phalangists who carried out the murders ever faced legal justice, while the commander who led the massacres subsequently became a semi-respectable politician (before himself dying in a mysterious car bomb explosion).