June 19,1985. In Beirut, TWA flight 847 stands desolate on the empty tarmac, a huge hulk of white metal shimmering in the heat, a picture off the cover of some bungled tourism brochure. Some 40 Americans are unwilling guests in the southern shantytowns known as the “suburbs” of Beirut. More than a hundred other passengers have been released. One, a young US Navy underwater construction expert, was beaten and executed. The two original hijackers are now said to be adherents of the Hizb Ullah (Party of God). After several flights between Beirut and Algiers, the Amal organization under Nabih Birri seems to be in control of the plane and the passengers, and has adopted the main demand of the hijackers for the release of more than 700 Lebanese men taken hostage by Israel to a prison near Haifa.

Adjacent to the airport, Red Cross workers finally are able to go into the sprawling refugee camp of Burj al-Barajneh to carry out the dead and wounded Palestinians following a month of heavy shelling from surrounding Amal militia and Lebanese army troops. Privation and suffering here and in the nearby camps of Sabra and Shatila have been extreme. “For every bucket of water,” says a survivor, Fatima Makkieh, “there were two buckets of blood.” ‘Abd ul-Latif Daib, another survivor, cries, “All there is above our heads now is fear.” In Burj al-Barajneh and nearby Shatila, Palestinian fighters still hold out, but the smaller camp of Sabra has been completely overrun and demolished. [1]

Elie Hobeika, the 27-year-old Israeli-trained Phalangist commander who directed the Sabra/Shatila massacre of September 1982, is now president of the executive committee of the rightwing Lebanese Forces militia, superceding chief-of-staff Samir Geagea. In March, Geagea’s troops fiercely shelled Palestinian camps and Muslim neighborhoods in Sidon and then withdrew. This, and the vengeful rampage of Palestinians and Lebanese into Christian villages in April, displaced tens of thousands, with hundreds of casualties on all sides. As Israeli troops withdraw to their “security zone” on the Lebanese side of the border, the communal homogenization of southern Lebanon seems practically irreversible. Where Geagea had scorned any Lebanese entente under Syrian tutelage, Hobeika proclaimed it time to “return to the Arab fold” and dismissed his alliance with Israel as “a passing cloud.” Druze leader Walid Jumblatt professed grief “for the fate of the Christians who find themselves between a Somoza and an Idi Amin.” [2]

In Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, a car bomb demolishes a four-storey building, including a candy store crowded with customers. Initial police reports put casualties at 31 dead, 50 wounded. Tripoli had been relatively quiet since December, when the Lebanese Army’s Second Brigade moved in as part of a Syrian-sponsored truce between warring militias.

Israeli troops and the Israeli-created South Lebanon Army (SLA) sweep through the southern village of al-Tiari, and seize 19 men, following a three-hour artillery duel near Shaqra and a rocket attack on an SLA position near Bint Jbeil. According to United Nations sources in the south, attacks on Israeli and SLA troops have been gaining momentum, rising from an average of one per day before the hijacking to four and five per day now.

Amal’s Emergence

Lebanon’s war, 10 years later, is far from over. This society has already been battered and shattered now to the point where it barely resembles the country of a decade earlier. Much of the north is under Syrian control, in alliance with the Franjiyeh clan in Zghorta and the Sunni establishment in Tripoli. Mount Lebanon is Phalange territory, except for the enclave of Koura, in which the Syrian Social Nationalist Party has a strong base. The Shuf Mountains are more firmly than ever in the hands of the Druze-led Progressive Socialist Party. South Lebanon is Shi‘i turf, and the leading force is the Amal movement. But Amal has had to contest the Palestinians, the Israelis, and numerous sectarian and secular Lebanese challengers as it tries to consolidate its base there. The fluid situation in the south, and by extension in west Beirut, along with the existence of different tendencies inside Amal, provide the setting for the main spectacles in Lebanon today: the war for the Palestinian camps and the Beirut hijack drama.

The implosion that hit the Lebanese Forces with the Geagea revolt against Amin Gemayel and the counter-coup under Hobeika is practically a sideshow. But Geagea’s attack on Sidon and the Druze-led Muslim and Palestinian response, produced the population shifts desired by Israel, concentrating more Christians in the “security zone” along the border. Hobeika’s takeover, and immediate genuflection to Damascus, may well mark the end of the Israeli-Phalangist strategic connection which began in 1976. [3] No doubt links between Tel Aviv and Junieh will continue, but the “Israeli option” has been played out. This also means that the Phalangist project of reestablishing the hegemony of a Maronite-dominated state over the rest of Lebanese society is finished. The consequences of this for political struggles within the Maronite camp, or for the de facto cantonization of Lebanon, are not yet certain.

If Lebanon recovers as a nation-state, this revival will most likely take the form of a revised “national pact,” this time between the Maronite establishment and their Shi‘i and Druze as well as Sunni counterparts. The Shi‘a are the largest commmunity and, while not as cohesive as the Maronites and Druze, very much ascendant. At the center of this ascendant community, in more ways than one, is Amal. In this issue, Salim Nasr looks closely at the Movement of the Dispossessed that spawned Amal. As Nasr makes clear, the movement of Imam Musa al-Sadr was by no means the only important politicizing force within the Shi‘i communities. In particular, the Communist Party of Lebanon and later the Organization of Communist Action recruited heavily among the Shi‘a, and these organizations, along with the Arab Socialist Action Party-Lebanon would initiate the Lebanese National Resistance Front against the Israeli occupation beginning in September 1982. These secular parties, as well as the more militantly sectarian Shi‘i parties (Islamic Amal and Hizb Ullah), seem to have been responsible for the majority of the armed actions against Israeli forces and their local collaborators, for which Amal has been glad to take the credit. Musa al-Sadr’s movement, though, crystallized the incipient politicization of this community during the years leading into the civil war, when social and political struggles in Lebanon were insistently conjoined with sectarian identity. As that war, and Israeli military aggression in the south, enveloped Lebanon, Amal was not on the cutting edge of events, but it did successfully and impressively represent the political voice of the “disinherited” Shi‘i masses.

Amal began in 1975 as the militia, the armed expression, of Musa al-Sadr’s Movement of the Dispossessed. It is an acronym for Afwaj al-Muqawamah al-Lubnaniyya (Lebanese Resistance Brigades); it also means “hope” in Arabic, and in this sense, over years in which military security became the paramount concern of the Shi‘i population, Amal has become the identity of the movement of Musa al-Sadr. [4]

The history of Amal since 1975 is intertwined with that of the Palestinian movement in Lebanon, a history that has led to the murderous assaults on the Palestinian camps of Beirut in May 1985. The Amal militia was initially trained and assisted by Fatah, and in the first year of the civil war was a minor component of the Lebanese National Movement. The Amal affiliation with the LNM was short-lived. Musa al-Sadr came out in support of the Syrian intervention of January 1976 against the LNM-PLO joint forces. Amal’s still limited appeal even among Shi‘a was evident in June 1976, when the LNM-PLO forces were able to take over all Amal bases in only two days. Animosities intensified in August 1976 when an Amal representative, Shaikh Muhammad Ya‘qub, was suspected of collaborating with the Phalangists and the Syrians to bring about the fall of a PLO-held but largely Shi‘i Beirut neighborhood, al-Nab‘a. Most politicized Shi‘a at this time still belonged to the reformist and revolutionary multiconfessional parties that made up the LNM, and Amal’s influence waned considerably in the 1976-78 period.

Amal’s resurgence can be located in a series of developments between March 1978 and February 1979: the Israeli invasion known as Operation Litani; the disappearance of Musa al-Sadr on a trip to Libya; and the success of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. Operation Litani marked an important shift of Israeli policy, under the new Likud government, from one of retaliation to “relentless disruption” across south Lebanon. This had the intended effect of fostering anti-Palestinian sentiment among the local population. It also helped to close off the south to recruitment by the Lebanese groups allied with the PLO, restricting access to Amal. Originally conceived as a militia for defense against the Israelis, Amal’s main adversary in the south was now the Palestinians, particularly those factions supported by “hostile states”—Iraq and Libya. Fatah recognized the importance of good relations with Amal; it strove to avoid public hostilities and to discipline Amal’s main Palestinian adversaries. Amal, for its part, maintained a public position supportive of the Palestinian resistance (in its publication, for instance) but relations even with Fatah deteriorated steadily in the 1980-82 period. Especially in the south, Palestinians in general were increasingly viewed as interlopers, responsible for the periodic devastating Israeli attacks. Fatah and other PLO forces contributed to this process by alienating southerners with their arrogance and “excesses” (al-tajawuzat). The consequences were starkly evident in June 1982, as Amal forces watched the Israeli tanks and troops roll up the coast. By contrast, Amal forces in Beirut were among the most spirited and committed fighters against the Israeli siege.

Very little is known about the disappearance of Imam Musa al-Sadr on a trip to Libya in August 1978. Libya maintains that he left Libya for Rome; Musa al-Sadr’s followers insist that he never boarded the flight. The mystery has lent great symbolic meaning to al-Sadr’s absence, with its resonance of the “hidden Imam” of Shi‘i doctrine. According to one account, “[m]ore than a few Amal leaders concede that a ‘disappeared’ Imam is doubtlessly of greater value for the political mobilization of the masses than a ‘present’ one.” [5]

A third ingredient in Amal’s revival was the success of the Iranian revolution and the triumph of a specifically Shi‘i model of political power. Many of the Shi‘i shaikhs had studied in Iran; Musa al-Sadr himself was related by marriage to Ayatollah Khomeini. This Iranian contribution was initially more inspirational than material: as Abu Khalil puts it, “their Shi‘ism assumed new dimensions. It ceased to be a mere sectarian identification in a country of more than 17 sects.” [6] Iranian material support, via Syria, for Amal’s more militant challengers was a later development.

A fourth, underlying factor was the general Lebanese perception, particularly acute among Shi‘a, that the Lebanese National Movement and its program of deconfessionalization had failed, not only against its Phalangist, Syrian and Israeli adversaries but also within the components of the movement. The movement had lost its momentum and potential.

Amal’s Challengers

Amal, despite its origins as a militia, is significant less as a fighting force than as a point of Shi‘i political identity and mobilization. Membership has never been numerous, yet Shi‘a overwhelmingly declared their affiliation as Amal became synonymous with collective self-defense. Even competitors—adherents of leftist secular parties; village shaikhs who resented Amal’s non-clerical leadership—declared their allegiance. (In the spring of 1981, Amal temporarily suspended recruitment in the south because of the questionable loyalty of many new members.) [7]

Following Musa al-Sadr’s disappearance, leadership of his movement and that of the Supreme Shi‘i Council were held separately. Hussein Husseini, a Shi‘i member of parliament, became president of the Amal command council; Nabih Birri was elected to this position in 1980. Birri, a lawyer whose ancestral home is Tibnin, near the Israeli border, was born in West Africa and lived for a time in Detroit, where he still has family. In 1955-56, while at the Lebanese University in Beirut, he was the first Shi‘i elected head of the General Union of Lebanese Students. (Husseini is currently speaker of the parliament, the highest government post allocated to the Shi‘i community under the 1943 “national pact.”) Imam al-Sadr is still formally chairman of the Supreme Shi‘i Council, but effective control is with the deputy chairman, Imam Muhammad Mahdi Shams al-Din. Shams al-Din had been one challenger to Birri’s leadership of the Shi‘i community, but his conservative position has been eclipsed in the post-invasion period. At the last Amal congress, in early 1983, the command council was abolished and replaced by a politburo, headed by ‘Akif Khaidar, and an executive committee headed by Hassan Hashim. Birri is closer to the politburo, which is made up mainly of Western-educated professionals like himself. The executive committee consists of old comrades of Musa al-Sadr, of lower class and peasant origins, more in touch with the fighting cadre and more uncompromising vis-a-vis all adversaries—Phalangist, Palestinian, Israeli and American. This group is the locus of internal opposition to Birri’s moderate policies; they refer to him as “the American.”

Another challenger is Hussein Musawi, a member of the command council who, in July 1982, accused the Amal leadership of compromising the organization by having any dealings with the Phalange or the Israeli invaders, and urged a reorientation, with Iranian support, to the goal of an “Islamic revolution.” He was expelled later in the summer and moved to Ba‘lbek, where he now heads the Islamic Amal. The main impact of this split has been to remove the Shi‘a of the Beqa’ from the sphere of the mainstream Amal, and to pose a more militant, sectarian alternative to Birri and company. [8]

A third major element in the Shi‘i political spectrum is Hizb Ullah. This is much more a tendency than an organization. It seems to have no members or leaders as such. The lines between it and both Amal and Islamic Amal are quite blurred. Its main exponents are like-minded shaikhs in certain mosques in the Shi‘i neighborhoods of Beirut. The most prominent of these is Shaikh Muhammad Hussein Fadl-Allah, born in a small village in the south, educated in Najaf, Iraq, and widely regarded as the most distinguished scholar-shaikh in Lebanon, whose writings and teachings are influential throughout the region. Fadl-Allah acknowledges his influential role in Lebanon’s Shi‘i community but denies being the leader of an organization. These matters are apparently handled by Subhi al-Tusayly in Ba‘lbek and Ibrahim al-Amin in Beirut. Fadl-Allah asserts in interviews that Lebanon’s multicommunal character makes an “Islamic republic” solution to the political crisis “impractical” at this time, but to his followers he has been known to preach the virtues of clerical rule (velayet-i-faqih). [9] Fadl-Allah was the target of a car bomb in his Bir Abid neighborhood on March 8 which killed 92 and wounded hundreds, an attack later linked to the US Central Intelligence Agency. It is commonplace in the Western media now to regard Fadl-Allah and Hizb Ullah as responsible for the major bomb attacks against US targets in Lebanon.

Amal’s Agenda

A central and consistent Amal tenet has been a strong commitment to the reassertion of the Lebanese state authority in the south and the entire country. Amal demanded a rightful share of responsibility and power for the Shi‘i community in the government and state apparatus, but did not pose itself as an alternative to the state. This was one underlying difference with the LNM and the Palestinians, who were distinctly opposed to a strong Lebanese state and army presence in the south. It also lies behind Birri’s move into the government following the February 1984 uprising in which Amal led the “liberation’ of west Beirut (he holds three portfolios in the so-called “national unity” government of Prime Minister Rashid Karami). But it has been a government of paralysis, practically irrelevant to the economic and social crises gripping the country, and this has made Birri vulnerable to challenges inside and outside of Amal.

The assault on the Palestinian camps, which began May 19, grew out of Birri’s (and Amal’s) bid to consolidate his (its) role in a restructured Lebanese polity. In Tyre, Nabatiyyeh and other southern towns evacuated by Israel in late April, Amal took immediate control, and set up rigorous checkpoints outside Palestinian camps like Rashidiyyeh and al-Buss. A de facto ceasefire between Amal and Israeli forces ensued.

Alongside the Lebanese power game was the continuing struggle between the loyalist PLO forces of Yasir Arafat and the Syrian-backed Palestine National Salvation Front. By most accounts, the camps have remained largely sympathetic to Arafat, who has been trying to buttress that support with lots of cash. Arafat’s Palestinian opponents have taken advantage of Syrian arms and passage through the territory of Syria’s Lebanese allies to build up their positions in Sidon and Beirut.

Virtually all the major Lebanese players see the “Syrian option” as the only short-term resolution to the security and economic paralysis of Beirut. Syrian readiness to intervene appears to be conditional upon the agreement or acquiescence of all Lebanese parties. Hobeika has brought along the Phalange. Jumblatt and his Progressive Socialist Party have firm control over the Druze. Amal has a long and close relationship with Damascus, and in any case sees its interests as largely coinciding with Syria’s for the time being. In mid-April, Amal and the PSP quickly smashed the Murabitun (the Nasserist militia identified with the Sunni community and close to Arafat’s Fatah). Pro-Arafat Palestinian forces represented the last significant obstacle to a bloodless assertion of Syrian control in Beirut.

The Amal assault, when it came, accorded with Syria’s interests and at the same time expressed Amal’s hostile relationship with the PLO. Birri proclaimed as much when he cited Amal’s determination to prevent any reconsolidation of an armed Palestinian presence and denounced Arafat for “plot[ting] to foil Syria’s plan to restore Lebanese unity.” [10] Amal fielded 3,500 of its own fighters, plus 1,500 soldiers from the Lebanese Army’s Sixth Brigade. Palestinian regular fighters who had infiltrated the camps probably numbered only a few dozen, a hundred at most. But every able-bodied male had had some light arms and militia training from the 1981-82 period. By the time of the truce in mid-June, reports from Beirut indicated that some 1000 Palestinian militia were still holed up in Burj al-Barajneh, and 300 in Shatila. Without question, most of the Palestinian casualties were non-combatants, and most of the combatant casualties were on the Amal/Sixth Brigade side. [11] There were many atrocities and cold-blooded killings of Palestinian captives. The quality of the Palestinian resistance was captured in the remark of one weary Amal fighter trying to occupy the camps: “Everytime we relax, a guy jumps out of a drain, throws a grenade and disappears.” [12]

The result of the attack on the camps has exposed Amal’s limitations as a military force, and represents a setback for Syria. First, the assault unified all the Palestinian forces militarily, and has prompted some political realignment as well. Second, it provoked tensions in the alliance of Amal and Jumblatt’s PSP, which allowed Palestinians to bombard Amal positions from Druze-held hills east of Beirut and to send some supplies into Burj al-Barajneh. Third, it accentuated differences within Amal. Shaikh Fadl-Allah resolutely denounced the assault, and sources in Beirut report defections from Birri’s units. Birri was acting on a Lebanese consensus for Palestinian disarmament as a prelude to a Syrian “peacekeeping” role; but no Palestinians, including those supported by Syria, would consent to return to the situation that prevailed up to 1969. In the Syrian-engineered accord announced in Damascus on June 17, the Palestinians won the right to keep their light weapons, and to surrender their heavy weapons only at some indefinite point in the future when all Lebanese armed factions do likewise. They also won agreement that camp security would be in the hands of the weak Lebanese gendarmerie rather than the Lebanese Army. Syria won a paper concession, by having the Palestinian side represented by the anti-Arafat Palestine National Salvation Front.

With the assault on the Palestinian camps, Birri aimed to repair his standing in Amal’s executive committee, the locus of strong anti-Palestinian sentiment. The war of the camps is a stand-off, but Amal has made clear its determination to control what it regards as its turf. Amal spokespeople often stated that this was a battle for control of the south. The hijack episode has now forced Birri’s hand in his dealings with Washington and Israel. His aim appears to be to use the hostage situation to force Israel to jettison its South Lebanon Army and deal tacitly with Amal as the controlling force in the south, and to secure US recognition of Amal’s domain. The longer this particular drama continues, though, the more it becomes entangled in the intricacies of Lebanese and Palestinian politics and the less it is susceptible to a conclusive breakthrough.


Author’s Note: I am indebted to Samih Farsoun and As‘ad Abu Khalil for their useful comments and suggestions.


[1] See the dramatic account of Nora Boustany in the Washington Post, June 20, 1985.
[2] In a news conference translated in Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), May 12, 1985, and reprinted in Update:Mideast 11,5 (June 30, 1985).
[3] For a vivid Israeli account of this beginning, see Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari, Israel’s Lebanon War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984).
[4] This account of Amal’s development largely follows Augustus R. Norton, “Harakat Amal,” in Edward Azar et al, The Emergence of a New Lebanon (New York: Praeger, 1984); and As‘ad Abu Khalil, “The Underlying Causes of the Shi‘ite-Palestinian Conflict,” forthcoming in the Occasional Papers series of the Association of Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG).
[5] Norton, p. 177.
[6] Abu Khalil.
[7] Norton, p.183.
[8] Norton, p. 194-5. Musawi had been expelled for a period under Musa al-Sadr for pushing an “Islamic republic” line. See As‘ad Abu Khalil, “Druze, Shi‘i and Sunni Political Leadership in Lebanon,” forthcoming in Arab Studies Quarterly.
[9] For an instance of Fadl-Allah addressing a Western audience, see Middle East Insight (June-July 1985); information on Fadl-Allah’s sermons comes from As‘ad Abu Khalil.
[10] Christian Science Monitor, May 22, 1985. An Amal statement of that date asserts that Amal “was forced to storm the espionage cells in the Sabra and Shatila camps to purge them of Arafat supporters with capitulationist ideas.” Translated by FBIS and reprinted in Update: Mideast 11,5 (June 30, 1985).
[11] New York Times, June 19, 1985; Washington Post, June 20, 1985.
[12] Sunday Times (London), May 26, 1985.

How to cite this article:

Joe Stork "The War of the Camps, the War of the Hostages," Middle East Report 133 (June 1985).

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