Though it fell like a piece of ripe fruit into the hands of the Israelis, southern Lebanon rapidly became a quagmire for the most powerful armed forces in the Middle East. An armed resistance developed, which by early 1984 was carrying out two attacks daily. Popular mobilization did not diminish in spite of the occupier’s use of an intimidating arsenal of repression: prolonged arbitrary detention, collective punishment, harassment, repeated closure of the single road of access to the region. In fact, repression only fueled the mobilization.
The majority of the population had tolerated the occupation at first, seeing it as an end to a cycle of armed anarchy and daily acts of violence. But it soon became intolerable. A few months after the armed struggle began, popular demonstrations erupted in a number of villages in the region. People lost track of the incidents of Israeli blockades in such places as al-Hallusiyyah, Deir Qanunal-Nahr, Ma‘rakah, and al-‘Abbasiyyeh. The key moment in this development was what the Lebanese press and many politicians called the “southern upheaval” of March 1983. The entire village of Jibshit went on strike to demand the liberation of its imam, Shaikh Raghib Harb (who was later assassinated in early 1984). Jibshit was supported by neighboring villages and by a solidarity movement in other regions of the country. Then, in June 1983, to mark the first anniversary of the invasion, and to protest the Israeli-Lebanese Agreement of May 17th, there was a general strike throughout almost all of southern Lebanon.
The number of operations organized by the Lebanese National Resistance Front during its first two years easily exceeded a thousand. According to the weekly of the Organization for Communist Action (OCA), Beirut al-Massa, of June 4, 1984, the Front organized 1,000 attacks between September 16, 1982—the date of its creation during the Israeli occupation of Beirut—and May 27,1984. In August 1984 alone, 74 armed operations against the Israeli army or against its local auxiliary units were recorded. Liban en lutte, a newsletter reflecting the positions of the Lebanese Communist Party, declared in its September 1984 issue that the thousandth operation took place on August 14th. It was not a dramatic operation, according to the newsletter, but rather “an action like many others during the last two years—the result of systematic and methodical work.” The operation consisted of a skirmish with an Israeli position on the road between Sidon and Tyre, in the area of the small town of Akbieh.
The divergence in the tally of actions suggests something about the methods and the working conditions of the Front. Often, responsibility for attacks is not claimed because of communication problems between the command of the Front, apparently based in Beirut, and its combat units. There is yet another reason, involving the very nature of this clandestine organization: it is more a conglomeration of small, autonomous, partitioned groups than a monolithic movement. This structure, noticeable even when it was first formed, explains why the Israelis have not been able to dismantle the resistance movement in spite of their roundups after each attack, and in spite of the arrests of some partisans. In addition, few resistance fighters have been taken prisoner or killed in the skirmishes. The Front’s losses in its first two years were not more than 30.
But the evolution of the Front is not measurable solely in quantitative terms. While ambushes and road mining remained the most common operations, resistance units were eventually able to carry out more elaborate attacks, as they did in March 1984 at Sidon harbor: after firing on a patrol, the resisters drew back and then set off a mine on the path of a second patrol on its way to provide reinforcement. More than half an hour later, while the Israeli soldiers searched the surrounding alleyways, the resisters once again attacked Israeli armored cars. Such daring suggests the confidence developed by the fighters and shows how effectively the organization grew amidst the population.
Another measure of the development of the armed resistance was its extension into new areas. At first, it was mainly confined to the coastal road and the Tyre region. Beginning in the fall of 1983, it became active in Sidon. There, the intensification of resistance actions forced the Israelis to replace conscript units with the professional parachutists of the Golani division. This is one of the most prestigious divisions of the Israeli army, but the change was apparently not very successful. In the summer of 1984, attacks increased in the interior, especially in those areas which had been part of the frontier enclaves of Sa‘d Haddad before 1982—the districts of Marjayoun and Bint Jbeil.
Chain of Repression
Israeli repression was only partially a response to the intensification of the armed resistance. Ansar camp, cornerstone of the occupation system, got its share of Lebanese detainees even before the birth of the Front. Ansar was supposed to “hold” the south, to be the dreaded sword hanging over the heads of the inhabitants, encouraging them to integrate themselves into the new Israeli order. This method at first met with some success, as some Ansar prisoners joined the enemy. Among them was the most highly visible collaborator of Sidon, Abu Arida, who had spent ten months in detention. But the Israeli measures gradually lost their effectiveness. The prisoners asserted control over their lives while in detention, and cultivated there a spirit of resistance. This eventually rendered the camp almost inaccessible to the jailers themselves. In fact, after the exchange of prisoners between Israel and the PLO in November 1983, the Israelis often complained of how many of those freed had gone underground and were participating in the armed resistance.
Ansar did not stay empty long. According to the International Red Cross, by the beginning of August 1984 it held 850 prisoners, the majority of them Lebanese. Ansar was the intermediate level in the coercive occupation system, which one Western observer called a “three-speed detention system.” Interrogation centers occupied the first level: at Tyre, at Nabatiyyeh (where the center was installed in the buildings of the state tobacco company), at Sidon (one center at Kfar Falous and another one at Mar Elias, the latter probably maintained by local collaborators). The detention period was much shorter at these places than at Ansar, but arrests could be repeated indefinitely: there are large numbers of cases where people were arrested on one day, freed the next day or the day after, then arrested again a week later, and so forth. On the third level, finally, are the prisons inside Israel, especially those of Atlit and Meggido.
The repressive measures of the occupier were not limited to arbitrary imprisonment without legal rights. The entire south of Lebanon was effectively imprisoned after the withdrawal of the Israeli army from the Shuf in September 1983. A “defense” line was constructed to prevent infiltrations. But apparently it was not as hermetic as its constructors would have liked. Then the occupying authorities “regulated” traffic on the only access road, keeping the crossing at Batar-Jezzine closed more often than it was opened. Even when travellers carried the indispensable safe conduct passes, they had to wait entire days, in execrable conditions, for the opening of a road which was only negotiable on foot.
Commercial trucks also had to wait, and pay a tax of 500 Lebanese Pounds (LL) per day of waiting. This in turn increased the cost of transport sixfold, and raised the price of the products. After August 1984, the Israelis changed the rules. They then required a general transshipment of merchandise which had to be unloaded from the truck in the occupied zone and loaded into another truck in the free zone and vice versa.
Conditions at this internal “border” were very humiliating, and they provoked a number of incidents. On several occasions, the Israeli army shot into crowds of protesters or at people trying to ford the Zahrani river. The closure of the south was made even more perverse by the fact that the Israelis authorized Lebanese Christians to establish a transit by sea: boats traveled five times a week between Sidon and the harbors controlled by the Lebanese forces in the Christian zones north of Beirut.
Despite the shift in its Lebanese alliances when Moshe Arens became Defense Minister, Israel continued to support the Lebanese Forces in the Jezzine region, to the east of Sidon, and in the Iqlim al-Kharrub, the Sunni part of the Shuf, where the Israeli army had not withdrawn.
The main force bankrolled by the Israeli army remained the South Lebanese Army, the successor to the Free Lebanon Army after Sa‘d Haddad’s death in 1983. The command was given to General Antoine Lahad, a Lebanese reserve officer who, like Haddad, was supposedly close to Maronite leader Camille Chamoun. When Israel realized it was unable to create a “Shi‘i army,” due to the firm opposition of the Supreme Shi‘i Council and the Amal movement, it sought to unify the collaborationist movements inside the South Lebanese Army. This army is composed of men from all different religions, but Christians account for 60 percent of the force.
The SLA carried out security missions, mainly in Sidon. It erected roadblocks and levied tolls on the roads. At the Sidon harbor, it collected LL 20 per ton of merchandise loaded or unloaded and a LL 25 vehicle tax on each car and truck. It also collected five percent of the total transactions at the local annex of the finance ministry. And in the fall of 1984, General Lahad imposed a five percent income tax on local inhabitants. This was above and beyond the fees that people had to pay to the extortioners in the local “racket.”
In the minds of its promoters, the “South Lebanon Army” was to replace the Israeli army in the event of a partial Israeli withdrawal. However, it was clear quite early that it could not stand up to the resistance, given the difficulties encountered by the Israeli army itself. Nor is Sidon, whose 200,000 people make up almost half the population of south Lebanon, an ideal place from which to lead an effective counter-guerrilla campaign.
By pulling out of the Sunni town of Sidon, Israel found itself once again face to face with the Shi‘a. But it is not clear that they were concerned by such a prospect, since they have a history of stirring up religious feelings, even among hostile populations. The relentlessness of Israel’s acts against Shi‘i religious figures and its religious provocations (for example, bringing police dogs into mosques) can hardly be the result of ignorance, especially for a power as experienced with occupations as Israel.
The occupation of the south of Lebanon has increasingly taken the appearance of a Shi‘i matter. On the ground, religious figures support the popular resistance by issuing fatwas condemning collaboration with the enemy or legitimizing the liquidation of collaborators. In Beirut, Nabih Birri occupies the post of Minister of State for the Affairs of the South. In the fall of 1984, he decided to pay an allowance to the families of the 850 detainees of the Ansar camp. The state is paying, but the decision was taken by the leader of the Amal movement. It is as though the south had been given as a concession to the Amal movement, in the context of the tacit autonomy of the different communities ratified at the Lausanne conference in March of 1984.
Lebanon’s new balance consecrates the confessional partition without allowing a unifying hegemony other than Syria’s. Two of the principal communities, the Maronites and the Druze, have acquired almost complete autonomy, at least as far as their territory, their “army,” and their internal administration are concerned. The entire Sunni community suffered from the war, and also from the departure of the Palestinian resistance. Their territory was under the boot of the Israeli army in Sidon, is under the control of the Syrian army and its clients in Tripoli and is challenged by the Shi‘a in Beirut. But the Sunnis did not suffer a tremendous political loss, even if their autonomy is not nearly as great as the other groups. This is due to the major Sunni population in the big cities and the key Sunni economic role there; it is also due to the alliance with Syria of a major Sunni political leader, Prime Minister Rashid Karami.
The Shi‘i community, on the other hand, has finally managed to impose itself on the other communities as a full partner within the Lebanese system. It has become increasingly unified since the beginning of the 1980s, under the impetus of the Amal movement. It has reinforced its institutions. Only a territory is lacking. The southern suburbs of Beirut cannot meet this need. The south is now increasingly recognized as belonging to the Shi‘a. Yet, if the liberation of the south is only a Shi‘i concern, it cannot serve as an effective lever for the unification of the country.
Translated by Meredith Martin Rountree and Jim Paul.
Editor’s Note: This text first appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique, October 1984, pp. 1, 15.