The Lebanese Civil War Essay

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The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) was a bloody conflict among Lebanons various ethnic and religious groups. The war led to the deaths of at least 130,000 people, (1) the displacement of about 25% of the population (2) and the collapse of the countrys economy. (3) Throughout the duration of the war, Lebanon was occupied by both Iranian military advisers (4) and Israeli, Palestinian and Syrian troops. (5) Forces from the United Nations, (6) United States, United Kingdom, France and Italy (7) eventually intervened as well.

If analyzed closely, the Lebanese Civil War is the result of the usage of religious fundamentalism as a political strategy. (8) Ironic, considering that in the previous centuries, Lebanon has served as a refuge for minority communities escaping totalitarian regimes. (9) But the history of modern Lebanon was characterized with a continuous interplay between domestic forces and external actors whose intervention has ranged from intellectual and economic influence to forceful occupation.

(10) Since the end of World War II, Lebanons major religious denominations backed by foreign elements fought each other to obtain political and economic control over the country. Although Lebanon was traditionally identified with Mount Lebanon, (11) the nations borders were drastically altered after World War I. During this period, France received the Mandate over Syria and Lebanon. It then proceeded to create a new Lebanese state le Grand Liban. (12) Large tracts of land were added to the southern, eastern and northern parts of the traditional area of Mount Lebanon.

The formation of le Grand Leban therefore led to major changes not only in Lebanons borders but also in its demographic structure. (13) Maronite Christians constituted majority of the inhabitants of the original region of Mount Lebanon. The newly-appended areas, on the other hand, had a predominantly Muslim populace. The Beqa, located in the southern and eastern part of Mount Lebanon, had a mostly-Shiite population. Sunnis, meanwhile, dominated the northern area of Tripoli. In subsequent years, the Maronite population of le Grand Leban diminished significantly.

At the time of the states formation, the Maronites constituted about half (14) of the population. But large numbers of Maronites later migrated primarily to the US and Latin America. In addition, there were higher birth rates among the Muslims. (15) In the process, the political power of the Maronites declined as well. By the time Lebanon attained sovereignty from France in 1943, the Muslim community of the former was already beginning to demand for political representation.

Given that Lebanese society was composed of several religious communities, religion inevitably became the main basis of communal identity. (16) It was thus necessary to take into consideration religious differences in the creation of Lebanons postwar government. The countrys Muslim community, having already outnumbered the Maronites, felt that they deserved a role in the new regime. (17) Consequently, the elites from Lebanons different religious communities devised a peculiar, but very applicable, model of government the confessional system.

In 1943, the Maronite and the Sunni elites came up with the National Pact, an oral agreement which acknowledged the entitlement of the Maronites to the political leadership of the country. (18) In accordance to this pact, the most powerful position in Lebanese politics, the presidency, was given to a Maronite. The Chief of Staff of Lebanons armed forces was likewise reserved for a Maronite. The National Pact, however, also gave certain political positions to other religious communities. As a result, the Prime Minister had to be a Sunni Muslim, the Minister of Defense a Druze and the Chairman of the Parliament a Shiite.

Such a manner of distributing power was intended to produce a delicate system of checks and balances. (19) Lebanons confessional government would only function if there was continued agreement among the elites of the countrys religious communities. (20) Instead of imposing the will of one community only, the elites must recognize their shared interests. But a confessional government was unable to save Lebanon from religious strife. From 1947 to 1948, Palestinian refugees began pouring into Lebanon in order to escape the chaos brought about by the 1948 Palestine War.

The Lebanese government accommodated them by setting up camps in locations including Beddawi (1955), Burj el-Barajneh (1948), Burj el-Shemali (1955), Dbayeh (1956) and Ein el-Hilweh (1948). In 1948 alone, there were already about 84,000 Palestinian refugees (21) in Lebanon. However, there were apprehensions that the massive influx of Palestinian refugees to Lebanon would disrupt the delicate balance of the countrys confessional government. As majority of the said expatriates were Muslims, opportunistic parties might use the increasing number of Muslims in Lebanon as an excuse to demand for greater political power.

(22) These speculations were not without legitimate basis many Palestinian refugees were denied Lebanese citizenship and were therefore condemned to live in inferiority and squalor in the refugee camps. On the other hand, majority of those who managed to obtain Lebanese nationality were Christians. (23) While their Muslim counterparts suffered from poverty and discrimination, they were fully assimilated into Lebanese society and became bankers, entrepreneurs, doctors and academics. (24) In March 1958, Egypt and Syria, under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser, merged to form the United Arab Republic.

Nasser envisioned the United Arab Republic as a Pan-Arab movement that would free (the Arab world) from the remaining vestiges of European imperialism and desert feudalism. (25) The institution of the United Arab Republic, meanwhile, coincided with mounting nationalist opposition to the pro-West Hashemite regimes in Jordan and Iraq. These developments, therefore, excited the Muslims of Lebanon, especially the Sunnis. (26) Lebanese Sunnis were very much hopeful that their country would likewise join the United Arab Republic. (27)

But Lebanese President Camille Nimr Chamoun vehemently opposed the United Arab Republic. Chamoun was a stalwart Anglophile, (28) being the scion of a well-known Maronite Christian clan. For him, Nasser was a leader who espoused Communism. (29) Furthermore, the Lebanese Sunnis support of Nasser was merely a dangerous obsession. (30) To prevent the spread of Nassers pan-Arab rhetoric in Lebanon, Chamoun became increasingly hostile towards his Christian rivals and the Muslim opposition. (31) Chamoun obtained a second presidential term by rigging the 1957 elections.

(32) To suppress widespread allegations of electoral fraud (most probably with the help of the Central Intelligence Agency), he attempted to change the constitution and allowed himself a second term as president. (33) By 1958, Lebanon was already in the state of civil war violent clashes between pro-Western Maronites and Muslim pro-Arab nationalists were rampant throughout the country. The chaos left Chamoun with no other choice but to call upon the Eisenhower Doctrine, a foreign policy which promised US military assistance to any Middle Eastern country that was under the threat of Soviet encroachment.

On July 15, 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower sent about 15,000 American Marines (34) to Beirut under Operation Blue Bat. (35) The civil war ended three weeks later, leaving behind a death toll of between 1,400 to 4,000 Lebanese. (36) But the situation in Lebanon remained volatile. The government, for one, did little to correct the uneven distribution of wealth in Lebanese society. Although Lebanons economy prospered in the 1960s, this opulence was largely concentrated in Beirut and along the coast. (37) The hinterlands, on the other hand, were characterized with the absence of industry, population explosion and grinding poverty.

(38) In addition, hostilities such as the Six-Day War in June 1967 and King Hussein of Jordans small-scale wars against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the early 1970s resulted in more Palestinian refugees escaping to Lebanon. (39) This wave of Palestinian refugees, however, included with them armed militias of the PLO. (40) Taking advantage of the abject living conditions in Lebanons refugee camps, the PLO incited their fellow expatriates to take up arms against the countrys Maronite-dominated regime.

As the PLO was heavily armed, their arrival in Lebanon threatened to reverse the balance of political and military power in favor of the Muslims. (41) The Maronites, as expected, was resistant to Muslim attempts to obtain de facto power. In response to the PLOs recruitment of Palestinian refugees, the right-wing Christian Phalange party started to arm and train young men in Maronite mountain strongholds around the Qadisha Valley. Israel allied itself with the Phalange and provided the latter with weapons and training.

Violent confrontations between the PLO and the Phalange began to escalate as a result. The Lebanese Civil War finally began on April 13, 1985, when Phalangist gunmen attacked a bus in the Beirut suburb of Ain al-Rummaneh and massacred 27 Palestinian passengers. (42) The first months of the civil war was characterized with retaliation killings from both the PLO and the Phalange. (43) When a December 6, 1975 shooting left four Christians dead, Phalangists stopped all cars around Beirut and slit the throats of the Muslims that they found in these vehicles.

Muslim militias soon followed suit by killing Christians. This killing spree, later known as Black Saturday, led to the deaths of about 300 individuals. (44) In January 1976, the Phalange spearheaded the attacks on Palestinian refugee camps in Qarantina and Tell al-Zaatar. In retaliation, the Palestinians killed most of the Christian inhabitants of the town of Damour. The fighting between the Christians and the Muslims became so intense that Beirut was soon partitioned between the Christian East and the Muslim West.

This detachment, which eventually became the infamous Green Line, would last throughout the duration of the Lebanese Civil War. Syria, fearful that the aforementioned partition of Lebanon would trigger a possible Israeli occupation, intervened in the civil war in May 1976. Syria was initially sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. But disagreements with Kamal Jumblatt, the Druze leader of the reformist organization National Movement, prompted Syria to transfer its allegiance to the Christians. Thus, when Jumblatt was assassinated in March 1977, the Syrians were held responsible for his death.

(45) Druze locals in the Chouf Mountains avenged his death by murdering Christian villagers in their region. Israel, meanwhile, interfered in the civil war in order to get back at the Palestinians for its continued attacks in March 1978. (46) The UN Security Council, however, ordered Israel to withdraw its forces and surrender them to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil). Israel did pull out its forces from Lebanon, but it did not surrender them to Unifil. Instead of cooperating with Unifil, Israel formed its own militia the South Lebanon Army (SLA).

Headed by a pro-Israeli Christian, Saad Haddad, the SLA proclaimed the southern part of the Litani River as Free Lebanon. (47) Israel invaded Lebanon again in June 1982. Israel considered this period as a good time to drive the PLO out of Lebanon for good Iraq had just started its war with Iran, Syria had quelled a serious internal revolt and the Lebanese public was against the PLO. (48) Simply put, outside interference would not be as intense as in previous years. Israel did succeed in occupying almost half of Lebanon.

And in order to ensure that Lebanon would remain an ally even after the withdrawal of its troops, Israel supported the rise of Lebanese Christian leader Bashir Gemayel. (49) Gemayel was elected president in August 1982. But he was killed in a bomb attack three weeks after his election. Syria, which had shifted its adherence back to the PLO during this period, was suspected to be the perpetrator behind Gemayels assassination. (50) In retaliation, the Israel-backed Phalange militia slaughtered about 800 to 1,500 Palestinian refugees (51) in September.

The massacre, along with previous Phalange atrocities like the slaying of an estimated 1,000 Palestinians and Shiites (52) in the Sabra and Chatila Beirut refugee camps in 1982, further increased the unpopularity of Israeli troops among the Lebanese public. Bashirs brother, Amin Gemayel, was elected president on September 14, 1982. Upon assuming the presidency, Amin immediately forged a peace treaty with Israel. Syria and its local allies strongly opposed the agreement they were afraid that it will undermine Syrian-Lebanese relations by placing Lebanon under Israeli control.

(53) To show their objection to the peace treaty, Druze and PLO forces staged attacks against the Phalange militia and the Lebanese militia in various parts of Lebanon. The agreement was therefore not enforced, although it was approved by parliament on May 17, 1983. By the summer of 1983, fighting between the Druze-dominated Progressive Socialist Party and the Lebanese army had already resulted in the destruction of many Druze and Christian towns, as well as in the displacement and deaths of hundreds of civilians.

Consequently, four Western powers the US, the UK, France and Italy sent troops to Lebanon in mid-1983 on a peacekeeping mission. But on October 23, 1983, 241 American soldiers and 58 French soldiers (54) were killed when a truck bomb exploded in their barracks in Beirut. In addition, the joint forces of the Druze and the Shiite militia Amal (Lebanese Resistance Movement) managed to rid West Beirut of Christian troops in early 1984. These developments forced the Western peacekeeping forces to leave Lebanon in February 1984.

Since the withdrawal of Western troops from Lebanon, the country was plunged into intramilitia fighting. (55) Strife, however, was heaviest in the more heterogeneous West Beirut. (56) As a result, the government of West Beirut called on Syria for military assistance. In February 1987, Syrian forces entered West Beirut to maintain order and to prevent intramilitia clashes. Lebanon was unable to come up with a new president in the September 1988 polls. Consequently, outgoing President Amin Gemayel appointed army commander General Michael Aoun as president of a council of ministers composed of the six members of the army command.

But the three Muslim members of the appointed council refused to recognize Aouns presidency. Furthermore, Lebanons existing government disputed the legitimacy of the council appointed by Gemayel. In the process, two competing regimes emerged. Aouns government, on the other hand, rejected the Taif Accord. The Lebanese Parliament ratified the latter in October 1989 with the objective of putting an end to religious strife through political reform. (57) Aouns administration therefore underwent a period of ferocious fighting with Syrian army units and later with pro-Taif Maronite forces.

But a joint Syrian-Lebanese military offensive finally forced him to leave the country in October 1990. Aouns departure paved the way for negotiations that would finally put an end to the civil war and unite the Lebanese government. The Lebanese Civil War was not without tremendous economic and social cost to Lebanon. What is saddening is that this hostility would have never happened had the countrys different religious communities had equal access to economic opportunities and political representation.

The Maronites, who held most of Lebanons political and economic power, did little to bridge the growing disparity between the rich and the poor. As a result, the Muslims brainwashed by opportunistic parties used their impoverished and marginalized state as an excuse to wage a civil war. Sadly, peace remains elusive in Lebanon. At present, it is still a battleground between Islamic fundamentalists and their opponents. The root cause continues to be the same political and economic inequality among the countrys different religious denominations.

Thus, there is also only one solution to the war equal opportunities for everyone, regardless of religion, creed and social status. When all of the members of a given society have the same chances for advancement, the idea of rebellion is pointless.

Notes 1. Margaret K. Nydell, Understanding Arabs: A Guide for Modern Times (Boston: Intercultural Press, 2005), 163. 2. Ibid. 3. Don Peretz, Palestinians, Refugees and the Middle East Peace Process (Washington, D. C. : US Institute of Peace Press, 1993), 62. 4. Beverley Milton-Edwards, Islamic Fundamentalism since 1945 (New York: Routledge, 2005), 86.

5. Paul Charles Merkley, American Presidents, Religion and Israel: The Heirs of Cyrus (Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004), 157. 6. Michael Edward Brown, Ethnic Conflict and International Security (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 190. 7. John C. Rolland, Lebanon: Current Issues and Background (Hauppauge: Nova Publishers, 2003), 176. 8. Ghassan Hage, Religious Fundamentalism as a Political Strategy, Critique of Anthropology 12, no. 1 (1992) [database on-line]; available from SAGE, accession number 10. 1177/0308275X9201200102, p. 27 of 45.

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