Lebanon is a microcosm of the peoples, cultures and religions found in the Middle East region as a whole. Under Ottoman rule from the 16th century until World War I, that province of mountainous eastern Syria known as Mt. Lebanon was home and refuge for various religious and ethnic communities. Lebanon has a long history of foreign intervention. In the 19th century, European powers established their trade and investment interests under the guise of “protecting” one or another group within Lebanon. The French adopted the Maronite Catholics and Russia the Orthodox Christians of Syria and Palestine, while the British favored the Druze. This insertion of foreign interests occurred in the course of a protracted shift of power in the Mt. Lebanon area from Druze to Maronites and contributed to the tensions among the various communities and ruling clans.

Under cover of a mandate from the League of Nations, France took control in 1920 of the Mt. Lebanon area, the coastal and northern plains, and the valley east of the mountains known as the Beqa‘ and separated it from the rest of Syria. This territory, with its sizeable Sunni and Shi‘i Muslim as well as Christian and Druze population, was then referred to as “Greater Lebanon,” to distinguish it from the mainly Maronite Mt. Lebanon area.

The French decreed a constitution and ruled Lebanon until 1943, when the country gained independence. The “national pact” of 1943, an unwritten agreement among Lebanon’s powerful Maronite and Sunni families, distributed positions of authority in government according to religious affiliation, based on the 1932 census. It gave Christians a 6-to-5 advantage in parliament and major government posts, including the officers corps. The president must be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni, the speaker of parliament a Shi‘a.

Immediately after independence, Lebanon’s internal political balance was further strained by the influx of 120,000 refugees from Palestine following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Thirty-seven years later the fate of the Palestinians, now half a million, remains unresolved.

The civil strife of the last 10 years is not rooted in religious beliefs but in access to political and economic power, the preservation or alteration of the status quo. The economy and political life of the country had been dominated by a few large landowning and merchant families, known as the “four percent class” after a 1961 government survey revealed that four percent of the Lebanese population received 32 percent of the country’s gross national product. This power, plus the “national pact” formula, entrenched the leading families within each of Lebanon’s religious sects.

Continued displacement of Palestinian Arabs is the key regional factor that draws Lebanon’s neighbors, Syria and Israel, into Lebanon’s internal struggles. Today, Damascus occupies and controls most of the eastern and northern sectors of the country. Israel has played an aggressive role in south Lebanon since the rise of the Palestinian resistance movement after the 1967 war. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978, and again in 1982, staying this time for three years. By indiscriminately attacking Palestinian refugees and southern Lebanese alike, Israel drove a wedge between the two communities and sparked an enmity now fueling the bitter fight in the refugee camps near Beirut and among the militias struggling for control of the south.

Still another layer of the conflict is the involvement of Iran, Iraq, Libya and others in the region. Intervention from outside the region includes the NATO countries, especially the US and France, and, to a lesser extent, the Eastern bloc nations. These countries have long exacerbated Lebanon’s conflicts by providing arms, military advisors and money to various Lebanese factions. This indirect intervention perpetuates the exploitation of people’s fears, accentuates militarization and sidetracks struggles for social and economic justice into sectarian conflict. The most important ingredient for the future of Lebanon is a resolution of the conflict over Palestine; The fate of Lebanon may determine the future of the peoples of the Middle East.


Who’s Who: Militias and Parties

Amal: founded in 1975 as the militia of Imam Musa al-Sadr’s Shi‘i movement. Today, the leading political force in the Shi‘i community.

Communist Party of Lebanon: active since the 1920s; oldest CP in the Arab world. Strong base in the Shi‘i community.

Free Army of Lebanon: established by Israel in the wake of 1978 invasion. Now the South Lebanon Army (SLA), still Israeli controlled and funded.

Guardians of the Cedars: emerged out of the Party of Lebanese Renewal in 1969; strategy summed up in their slogan: “No Palestinian will remain on Lebanese soil.”

Hizb Ullah (Party of God): radical Shi‘i tendency associated with Shaikh Muhammed Hussein Fadl-Allah.

Islamic Amal: militant split from Amal led by Hussein Musawi in 1982; based in the Beqa‘.

Lebanese Forces: military wing of the Lebanese Front, dominated by the Phalange party and militia. Ideological support of Maronite monks is significant for the Lebanese Forces.

Lebanese National Movement: broad progressive coalition formed in 1975; advocated deconfessionalization, political and economic reform. Now defunct.

Lebanese National Resistance Front: multi-organizational network leading armed resistance to Israeli occupation.

Murabitun: “independent Nasserist” militia. Represents a strong political current, especially among Sunnis, but now largely discredited. Main Nasserist organization in Tripoli is October 24 Movement; in Sidon it is the Popular Nasserist Organization.

National Liberal Party: primarily Maronite, led by former president Camille Chamoun. Its Tiger Militia was crushed by the Phalangists in 1980.

Organization of Communist Action in Lebanon: formed in the 1960s from factions of the CPL and the Arab Nationalist Movement.

Phalange Party: Pierre Gemayel modelled this rightwing party on European fascist groups of the mid-1980s; the eading Maronite party.

Progressive Socialist Party: founded in 1949 by Kamal Jumblatt, head of the most powerful Druze clan, a key nationalist leader in the 1956-58 civil war and head of the Lebanese National Movement. Jumblatt was assassinated in 1977, probably by Syria. His son, Walid, is now PSP leader.

Syrian National Socialist Party: mostly Sunni and Orthodox; strongly secular-nationalist ideology; leading force in the Lebanese National Movement and now the National Resistance Front.

Zghorta Liberation Army: militia of the Franjiyeh family in north Lebanon; close to Syria.


Lebanon: A First Reading

MERIP Reports
Student Protests and the Coming Crisis in Lebanon #19 (August 1973).
Lebanon Explodes #44 (February 1976).
Why Syria Invaded Lebanon #51 (October 1976).
Lebanese National Movement #61 (October 1977).
South Lebanon #66 (April 1978).
The Crisis of Lebanese Capitalism #73 (December 1978).
War in Lebanon #108-109 (Sept-Oct 1982).
Lebanon in Crisis #118 (October 83).

Other Works
Etel Adnan, Sitt Marie Rose [novel] (Sausalito, CA: Post-Apollo Press, 1978).
Noam Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians (Boston: South End Press, 1983).
Tony Clifton and Catherine Leroy, God Cried (London: Quartet Books, 1983).
Samih Farsoun and Walter Carroll, “The Civil War in Lebanon,” Monthly Review, June 1976.
Walid Khalidi, Conflict and Violence in Lebanon: Confrontation in the Middle East (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Center for International Affairs, 1979).
Jonathan Randal, Going All the Way: Christian Warlords, Israeli Adventurers, and the War of Lebanon (New York, NY: Viking Press, 1983).
Rosemary Sayigh, The Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries (London: Zed Press, 1979).
Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari, Israel’s Lebanon War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984).
Dov Yermiya, My War Diary: Lebanon, June 5-July 1, 1982 (Boston: South End Press, 1984).


Lebanon Chronology

1920 French seize control of Syria and Mt. Lebanon after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, establish “Greater Lebanon” by joining Mt. Lebanon with several other Syrian provinces.

1926 French decree Lebanese Republic and constitution.

1936 Pierre Gemayel founds Phalange Party (al-Kataib), a nationalist paramilitary organization, predominantly Maronite, modelled on European fascists.

1943 Independence. Distribution of government power based on religious affiliation, 1932 census.

1948 Some 120,000 Palestinians, displaced by the creation of the state of Israel, flee to Lebanon.

1956-1958 First Lebanese civil war. Status quo frozen by 1958 US military intervention.

1967 June 1967 war brings new refugees to Lebanon. PLO raids Israel from Lebanon.

1968 Israel attacks Beirut airport, destroys 13 airliners, in reprisal for Palestinian hijacking of El Al jet.

1969 Cairo Agreement, negotiated by Egypt’s President Nasser, defines parameters of PLO operations in Lebanon.

1970-1971 Jordanian army expels PLO. Most PLO offices move to Beirut.

1973 Israeli commando attack in Beirut kills three Palestinian leaders, scores of others.

1975 February: Fisherman’s strike in Sidon repressed by Lebanese Army, unrest spreads to Beirut.
April: Phalange attack on Palestinians sparks large-scale confrontations between militias on the right (mostly Maronite) and a leftist, mostly Muslim alliance.
August: Lebanese National Movement formed. Amal created as self-defense arm of Shi‘i movement.

1976 January: Syrian army enters Lebanon to prevent National Movement victory.
June-August: Phalangists form Lebanese Forces with other rightist militias to coordinate seizure of Tal al-Zaatar refugee camp; hundreds of Palestinians slaughtered when camp falls.
October: Riyad and Cairo summits order ceasefire; Arab Deterrent Force formed to legitimize Syrian presence.

1977 Kamal Jumblatt assassinated; Likud takes power in Israel; Bashir Gemayel allies Lebanese Forces more closely with Israel.

1978 February: Syrian and Lebanese Front forces clash.
March: Israel invades up to the Litani River, creates Sa‘d Haddad’s “Army of Free Lebanon” to control buffer zone.
August: Shi‘i leader Musa al-Sadr disappears in Libya.

1978-1982 Israel shifts military policy from retaliation to relentless disruption; accelerates migration of south Lebanese Shi’‘a to Beirut. Clashes between Amal and PLO/LNM joint forces.

1981 July: Israel bombs downtown Beirut. US negotiates Israeli-PLO ceasefire.
December: Israel annexes Syria’s Golan Heights.

1982 April 21: Israel breaks ceasefire, bombards southern Lebanon.
May 9: Israel bombs and strafes Lebanese villages. PLO responds with rockets and artillery into northern Israel.
June 4: Israel bombs Lebanese villages. PLO retaliates with artillery. Israel invades.
August: NATO troops (“Multinational Forces”) supervise withdrawal of PLO from Beirut. Bashir Gemayel elected president under Israeli guns.
September: Bashir Gemayel assassinated, Amin Gemayel elected. Israel encourages Phalangist massacre of Palestinians and Lebanese in Sabra and Shatila. NATO troops return.

1983 April: US Embassy in Beirut bombed.
May: Israeli-Lebanese withdrawal agreement brokered by US.
July: Amal and Lebanese Army clash in Beirut Shi‘i neighborhoods. PLO factions fight in Beqa‘.
August: Israel withdraws to Awali River. National Salvation Front formed to oppose Gemayel government.
September. Fighting in Shuf mountain area involves Druze militia (PSP), Lebanese Forces, Lebanese Army and US warships. US Congress imposes 18-month limit on US troops’ stay in Lebanon.
October: Fighting within PLO escalates. French and US military compounds bombed. “National reconciliation conference” in Geneva between Lebanese factions.
November: Geneva talks fail. Israeli military HQ in south Lebanon attacked; Israel seals off southern Lebanon from north.
December: Reagan and Gemayel refuse to modify May 17 agreement. US attacks Syrian positions. Arafat forces withdraw from Tripoli under UN auspices.

1984 January: Syrian President ‘Asad says Syria will not withdraw from Lebanon until US, other foreign troops out. ‘Asad releases captured American pilot to US presidential candidate Jesse Jackson.
February: Amal and the Progressive Socialst Party take control of west Beirut. US Marines withdrawn from Beirut; Washington steps up air and naval attacks in support of Gemayel.
March: Second Lebanese reconciliation conference in Lausanne fails.
April: “National Unity” government formed; Rashid Karami prime minister, cabinet includes Pierre Gemayel, Camille Chamoun, Nabih Birri, Walid Jumblatt.
July: Gemayel asks Israel to close its Beirut office.
August: Birri urges greater Lebanese resistance against Israeli occupation. Pierre Gemayel dies.
September: US vetoes UN resolution against Israeli restrictions in southern Lebanon. US Embassy annex in east Beirut attacked; Islamic Jihad claims responsibilty.
November: Israeli, Lebanese military begin talks on Israeli withdrawal.
December. General strike in south Lebanon to protest Israeli raids on Shi‘i villages. Lebanese Army 2nd Brigade deployed in Tripoli under terms of Syrian-backed truce.

1985 January: Syrian President ‘Asad says PLO no longer represents Palestinians, Syria will lead the Palestinian struggle. Israeli cabinet approves first part of three-stage withdrawal from Lebanon. Islamic Jihad claims responsibility for kidnapping five Americans in Beirut. Sidon bomb blast follows meeting of Lebanese resistance leaders; five dead and 30 wounded.
February: Phalange delegation holds talks with ‘Asad.
March: Israel initiates “iron fist” policy in southern Lebanon. Car bomb in Beirut kills over 92 and wounds 200 near home of Sheikh Fadl-Allah of Hizb Ullah. US CIA later implicated. US vetoes UN resolution against Israel’s “iron fist.” Samir Geagea rebels against Gemayel leadership of Lebanese Forces. Geagea shells Palestinian camps and Muslim neighborhoods in Sidon.
April: Over 1000 Lebanese prisoners moved from Ansar prison camp in Lebanon to Atlit, Israel, violating Fourth Geneva Convention. Israel announces plan to withdraw by early June 1985. Fighting in Sidon; Lebanese Forces pull out; counter-attacks displace Christians.
May: Lebanese Forces close office in Israel. Israel trades 1150 Palestinian prisoners for three Israeli solders held by PFLP-GC in Damascus. Amal militia attacks Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut.
June: Israel withdraws most units; hundreds remain to train, advise Southern Lebanon Army. American airliner hijacked; Americans held in Beirut in exchange for Lebanese held in Israel.

How to cite this article:

Tom Russell "A Lebanon Primer," Middle East Report 133 (June 1985).

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