A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 7: The Lebanese civil war #3


The last post ended on the eve of possibly the darkest hour (among many dark hours) of the Lebanese civil war. After the invasion by Israel, the evacuation of the PLO from Lebanon had just been completed and the Israeli-backed Christian leader Bashir Gemayel elected president, only to be killed by a remotely-detonated bomb on the 14 September 1982. The fanatical devotion of the Phalangist miliamen to Gemayel has already been noted, and their fury in the aftermath of his killing was unleashed on the largely-defenseless (especially since the Multinational Force which could have protected them withdrew from Beirut two weeks before schedule) civilians left behind in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Between the 16 and 18 September, the Israeli army surrounded the camps and admitted the Phalangist militia, as well as some of Haddad’s SLA troops flown in for the occasion, who massacred between 1000-3000 men, women and children (casualty figures are still debated) in cold blood.
Image: Robin Moyer
There is nothing quite like the power of eyewitness testimony. The American reporter Janet Lee Stevens, who saw the aftermath, gives an idea of the horrors:
‘I saw dead women in their houses with their skirts up to their waists and their legs spread apart; dozens of young men shot after being lined up against an alley wall; children with their throats slit, a pregnant woman with her stomach chopped open, her eyes still wide open, her blackened face silently screaming in horror; countless babies and toddlers who had been stabbed or ripped apart and who had been thrown into garbage piles.’
The following documentary made by Al-Jazeera includes the testimony of survivors. In this sense it is vital, but also one of the most harrowing hours of television I have ever seen:
Even in the midst of the horrors of the Lebanese war, the Sabra and Shatila massacre was shocking in its brutality, cowardliness and senselessness. Many of those who physically carried out the murders were wayward members of the LF who had been active in the movement earlier in the war but released from service when the militia became more disciplined and professional under Gemayel. Deemed unfit for service due to indiscipline and drug-abuse, they were formed into a special regiment under the command of Elie Hobeika, the Phalangists’ liasion officer with Mossad, who kept the unit in reserve for tasks such as this. This is Hobeika on the right, along with another Phalangist commander Samir Geagea on the left, who will also be prominent in what lies ahead:
Geagea and Hobeika. Image: Histoire des Forces Libanaises

While the Phalangist militiamen were the ones who went into the camps and slit the women and children’s throats, the question of broader responsibility for the massacre would assume even greater political significance. In terms of negligence, certainly the MNF which pulled out early bears some share of blame; Arafat had begged them to return, citing the danger in which Palestinian civilians were under after the murder of Gemayel. Israel, which was in control of the area in which the camps lay at that time, obviously bears responsibility for failing to prevent the massacres. Even their own investigation held Ariel Sharon personally responsible for failing to intervene to stop the Phalangists and forced him to resign as defense minister the following year. Many observers, however, have argued that Israeli responsibility went beyond negligence and failing to prevent the massacre, to claim that they deliberately facilitated it. Certainly there is no doubt that the Israelis sealed off the camps and sent the militias in, as well as helpfully illuminating the area with flares for the next two nights while they did the killing. It has always been argued that the Phalangist militia was sent in to root out ‘terrorists’, although by this stage it seems to have been widely believed by both the Phalangists and Israelis that all Palestinians-man, woman and child-could be categorised as ‘terrorists’. Certainly they had made little distinction between combatants and civilians in their bombings of the previous months.

The massacre resulted in a rare flurry of international activity on Lebanon’s behalf, even if it was ultimately to little avail. Unusually, even the Americans were critical of the role Israel had played, with Reagan’s representative to Lebanon telling Sharon he ‘should be ashamed of himself’. Belatedly realising the catastrophic consequences of their hasty withdrawal, the MNF returned on the 20 September. The following day, Bashir Gemayel’s brother Amine was elected President with American backing. Beyond protecting civilians, the mission of the MNF was now to assist the Lebanese state to restore sovereignty and authority over its territory. Amine Gemayel enjoyed a reputation as a more moderate and consensual politician compared to his late brother, a builder of bridges between the different sects. He declared himself to be taking power in the name of all the people, and the Lebanese army were once again deployed to the streets of Beirut to restore law and order. It soon became apparent, however, that Gemayel’s power was being wielded in the interests of his own community under the guise of reconstructing the state. The Muslims in west Beirut were subject to constant harassment and arrests by Gemayel’s army, who worked hand in glove with the LF, who behaved as conquerors. People were arbitrarily detained and in some cases disappeared, never to return.

While the MNF expressed concern about this turn of events, their role as supporting Gemayel’s regime essentially turned them into collaborators with it. They were blissfully unaware, or unwilling, to see that they had become partisans in the war rather than a neutral force. This disjoint between self-image and reality is evident in the following short video about the U.S. Marines’ presence in Lebanon in 1982. You can either turn the sound off or listen to the audio with propaganda sensors on full power. The narrator typifies the attitude of many Americans, oblivious to (and not very interested in) what the war was about, and the delusion that they stood aloof, keeping the warring parties apart. The litmus test for such a claim is, did the Marines confront the IDF or their Christian allies? Not likely.

It was obvious to the Muslims of Lebanon that the MNF were there to foist a Christian Gemayel government upon them. Of Lebanese communities, the Shia had borne the brunt of Israeli bombings in the south, the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, and now of Gemayel’s persecution. It was thus from this community that resistance began to form against the MNF. While this also consisted of French and Italians, it was the Americans-already figured as the ‘Great Satan’ in the demonology emanating from revolutionary Iran-who were seen as chiefly responsible. The Americans’ belief that they somehow stood outside the conflict was brutally shattered in April 1983 when their embassy was blown up by a suicide bomber driving a truck laden with explosives. 63 people were killed, including senior members of the CIA’s staff in Lebanon. Six months later, the barracks of American and French troops stationed in Beirut were also bombed, killing 241 Americans and 58 French paratroopers.
United States embassy (left) and barracks (right) after 1983 bombings. Images: Marine Corps.

The barracks bombing was the biggest single attack on the U.S. military since Iwo Jima, and the biggest loss of life of Americans in one attack until 11 September 2001. These attacks were some of the first instances of suicide bombings in the modern era. Attacking the enemy without being hampered by any regard for your own survival is, of course, nothing new. The Japanese kamikaze pilots most famously adopted it in the Second World War. Until its emergence in Lebanon in the 1980s, however, it was rare for non-state actors in conflict to employ it. It would become all-too common in the decades that followed up to the present day. The standard explanation is that this dramatic rise in suicide attacks was due to a new religious fanaticism colouring conflicts in the middle east. Of course, this cultural dimension to the act cannot be entirely dismissed. The emphasis on death over dishonour in traditional samurai culture no doubt played into the willingness of Japanese soldiers to take their own lives, just as the cult of martyrdom in Shi’ism influenced the ‘human wave’ attacks of Iranian soldiers after the revolution. More than a readiness to commit suicide in killing the enemy, I think it is the celebration of this sacrifice that really  characterises these cultures. When you think about it, there have been many circumstances where soldiers from European armies were sent into certain death (the columns of soldiers in World War One marching across no-man’s land towards machine-gun fire armed only with batons springs to mind), but these were not explicitly celebrated as suicide attacks, even though they basically were. Beyond the cultural dimension, I think it is worth considering something the author J.M. Coetzee has observed of suicide bombers, that they may be ‘a response, of a somehow despairing nature, against American and Israeli achievements in guiding technology far beyond the capacities of their opponents’. That is, they are a function of the asymmetry of wars which have become so unequal that the weaker party have few means of retaliation left open except to take their own life.

But I digress.

The result of this bombings was that the MNF withdrew in the Spring of 1984. The Americans essentially washed their hands of Lebanon and despaired of re-establishing state control over the country. This American withdrawal might seem surprising to us who have lived, post-2001, with a United States that has not been shy to retaliate with overwhelming and disproportionate power to attacks on its citizens, even against people who were not responsible for those attacks. In the 1980s, however, it was less than a decade since the humiliating retreat from Vietnam, and American public opinion was less than enthusiastic about foreign adventures, especially in wars they didn’t understand, or want to understand. The United States regime knew this, and contented itself with either fighting through proxy armies like the Contras in Nicaragua, or wars in which they would meet no significant opposition, such as the tiny island nation of Grenada, which was invaded just two days after the barracks in Beirut were bombed.

Who were these new actors in the Lebanese civil war, who had declared war on the American superpower in their backyard and succeeded in frightening them away? The bombings were claimed by the ‘Islamic Jihad Organization’, a shadowy guerrilla movement which was so shadowy that its existence was only attested by the telephone calls made to claim responsibility for bombings. Many observers, indeed, denied that the organisation even existed in any real sense, and that it was merely a front used by the Islamist militia in order to avoid directly associating themselves with certain acts. This movement, growing in strength at this time, funded by Iran and trained by its Revolutionary Guards, was Hezbollah.

Flag of Hezbollah.

We have already encountered a Hezbollah (The Party of God) in revolutionary Iran, and this Lebanese version, though it would be oversimplistic to describe it as a foreign branch of the Iranian, was profoundly influenced and guided by the latter. It had been active since the Israeli invasion of 1982, when Iran sent 1500 Revolutionary Guards to Lebanon with Syria’s consent. It was only gradually, however, that the outside world was beginning to realise there was a new Islamist grouping in the conflict. We have already examined the situation of the Shia in the last post, as well as the Amal movement, which had emerged to defend their interests and fought the Palestinians in the south, who were blamed for bringing the wrath of Israel upon the area. Amal, although founded by a Shi’ite cleric and characterised as a Shi’ite group, had secular features in that it reached out to all sectors of the community and did not aim at the establishment of an Islamic state (for which reason it had poor relations with the Iranian revolutionaries). Hezbollah was different in that its aims were explicitly non-secular, aspiring towards a theocracy such as that established by Khomeini in Iran. Its immediate aims were the expulsion of foreign armies (except the Syrians, who supported it) from Lebanese territory and the reform of the Lebanese political system to reflect more fairly demographic realities.

Hezbollah gunman, 1980s Beirut, note the picture of Khomeini on the rifle-butt. Image: Al-Jazeera.

With the occupation of the south by Israel, the population of poor urban Shia in Beirut was increased by refugees from that area. Some of these lived in the Palestinian refugee camps and formed  a significant proportion of the victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, not to mention the repression carried out by Amine Gemayel. There was therefore no shortage of grievances to push people into supporting either Amal or Hezbollah. Notwithstanding their common enemy, conflict between the two factions was probably inevitable given they vied for the same constituency. Indeed, this last decade of the civil war will be marked by as much by intra-sectarian fighting as inter. Amal, after the disappearance of Musa al-Sadr in 1978, was led by his colleague Hussein el-Husseini, who resisted committing the movement to military engagement in the civil war beyond fighting the Palestinians in the south (see last post), whom they also regarded as interlopers. This more moderate leadership was ousted in 1980, however, by Nabih Berri (below), who represented the more militant grassroots of the movement.

Image: Sahm Doherty

Tensions began to emerge within Amal about the role Islam was to play in the movement, and a breakaway faction known as Islamic Amal, was formed in 1982, which would eventually be absorbed into Hezbollah. Amal’s involvement in the war gradually extended to fighting not only the Israelis, but the Gemayel government as well. At the same time, they would find themselves embroiled in a conflict with Hezbollah for the allegiance of the Shia community. These two conflicts, which dominate the middle of the 1980s, are known respectively as the ‘Mountain War’ and the ‘War of the Camps’, and involved numerous other actors besides the two Shi’ite factions. To explain them illustrates well how smaller conflicts in Lebanon became entangled within larger ones, and necessitates broadening the canvas once again to the national stage.

In the Mountain War, the mountains in question were those of the Chouf region, dominated by the Druze and their leader, Walid Jumblatt, who narrowly avoided being killed by a car-bomb in December 1982. A significant Christian minority lived in the Chouf, however, and its return to the control of the state was a priority when Amine Gemayel came to power. Gemayel’s attempt to subdue the area was carried out not only by the Lebanese army, but also by the LF, who were in no mood to magnanimously establish a power-sharing regime with equal regard for all sides. These forces were led by the above-mentioned Samir Geagea, who established an LF presence (with Israeli approval) in the west of the Chouf in early 1983. The incursions were resisted by a coalition of Jumblatt’s PSP, along with the Communist party and the SSNP, essentially the core members of the LNM, which had dissolved following the Israeli invasion of 1982. This new coalition was known as the Lebanese National Resistance Front (LNRF), and while not members, was allied with Amal and also PLO elements who were beginning to re-emerge in the country following that organisation’s official withdrawal. The LNRF operated under the wing (I think this is an appropriate image) of Syria, just as their opponents were sanctioned by Israel. We need to constantly bear in mind this proxy war nature of the conflict as we go forward…or round and round in circles as the case may be.

Of course, this sub-war was not just about control of the Chouf. Fighting spread to the suburbs of Beirut and the whole thing took place against the backdrop of the American-led intervention and subsequent withdrawal, and the growing realisation by Muslims that the Gemayel government had little intention of reforming the political system in any serious way. Furthermore, Gemayel was proving reluctant to sign an accord (the so-called ‘May 17 agreement’) with Israel that would have given the Israelis a massive say in Lebanese affairs and alienated Syria. In order to twist his arm, Israel began to withdraw their support for the Christian forces in the Chouf, and without this support, the LNRF overran the army/LF positions in September 1983. The latter were forced to retreat, along with many Christian civilians, to the town of Deir el Qamar, where they were besieged until December. Those Christians in the Chouf unlucky enough not to escape were attacked by the Druze militia and a massacre of around 1,500 civilians in the area took place, not to mention the displacement of many thousands more from their homes.

At the same time, in west Beirut, Amal were fighting for control of sections of the city against Gemayel’s army, which was backed up by the MNF. American battleships in the Mediterranean fired shells at LNRF positions (although often missed and killed many civilians) and Reagan sent in extra troops, making increasingly belligerent statements about teaching Syria a lesson and unconditionally backing  Gemayel. It is here you begin to see why they weren’t regarded as neutral peacekeepers by the Lebanese Muslims. The Americans’ French and Italian allies even expressed their concern that the MNF was coming to be seen as just another hostile foreign presence in the country, partial and combatant. It is against this backdrop that the suicide bombings discussed above occurred. By December, the Israelis had rescued many of the Christian fighters in the Chouf and Amal and its LNRF allies were proving more than a match for the Lebanese army in west Beirut. By early 1984 they had essentially driven Gemayel’s forces out of their part of the city and taken over. Berri even managed to convince Shia  elements of the army to defect to Amal.

West Beirut came under the control of a number of different militias, who sometimes fought each other. It is basically in this period after the withdrawal of the MNF that Lebanon’s image in the west as an incomprehensible violent maelstrom of chaos really begins to approach the truth. A series of wars within wars within wars, as the various sects, once they had established control over their own areas, began fighting amongst themselves over the spoils of power. Law and order was replaced by the rule of brute force, protection rackets and summary executions. Any ideological or even sectarian dimension to the violence was often lacking and it becomes difficult at times to distinguish what was going from simple turf warfare between gangs.


The ‘War of the Camps’ was primarily between Amal and the PLO, as the Palestinian refugee camps in west Beirut were surrounded by Amal forces. These were heavily supported by Syria, who wished to prevent the PLO under Arafat from once again establishing itself as a major player in the war. The irrepressible Arafat, having fled the country in 1982, was back in Lebanon and Assad was haunted by the same old concern that it would provoke an Israeli invasion that would damage Syrian interests, and that it would become a rival locus of power. Using a number of anti-Arafat Palestinian factions who I won’t go into here (the last thing we need is more acronyms) Arafat’s partisans were attacked in their new headquarters in Tripoli in the north of the country, and their leader was expelled from the country for the second, and last, time, in December 1983.

This was not the end of the PLO’s resistance, however. In Beirut, Amal was not only supported by the Syrians but even a part of the Lebanese army commanded by Michel Aoun (more of whom later). Fighting centred around control of the Sabra and Shatila and Burj el-Barajneh camps and lasted sporadically between May 1985 and July 1988. The Palestinians were supported by a local Sunni faction which I haven’t mentioned yet, named Al-Murabitoun (‘The Steadfast’) and, belying any image of this as simply a Shia-Sunni conflict, Hezbollah who, in its rivalry with Amal, also took the side of the PLO. In the early stages of the conflict, Jumblatt’s PSP and its LNRF allies helped Amal defeat Al-Murabitoun, but were less enthusiastic about fighting the Palestinians, with whom they had a long tradition of comradeship. By the end of the conflict, they were in fact fighting alongside the PLO and Hezbollah against Amal. This seemingly-interminable conflict was only brought to its inconclusive end with the Syrian army’s direct intervention and occupation of west Beirut in 1987.

Despite the Syrian support for Amal, however, Hezbollah emerged ultimately stronger from the power struggle. In the west, its profile was raised by its association with numerous kidnappings of westerners in Lebanon from 1982 onwards. Like the embassy and barracks bombings, these were often carried out under other names such as Islamic Jihad in order to avoid direct responsibility, but it is generally accepted Hezbollah were behind them. Indeed many observers believe that Iran was ultimately pulling the strings. It is difficult to discern any other concrete motive to the kidnappings. The MNF had, after all, departed in 1984 and yet the seizure of Americans and European individuals continued unabated. Some have suggested that Hezbollah saw the kidnappings as insurance against renewed foreign intervention in the country, others that the Iranians saw them as a means of gaining leverage in backstairs diplomacy with the west. This latter objective can be seen in the secret Iran-Contra deals described in an earlier (part 4) post. The Iranians were ultimately responsible for getting Hezbollah to release many of the hostages, with the last, American journalist Terry Anderson, being let go in December 1991. This BBC documentary about Iran gives a good account of the whole affair. The bit about the hostage situation starts at 8:20.

If you keep watching to around 35:00 you realise the somewhat shabby treatment of Iran by the Americans. Having helped get their men released, the United States government then reneged on an promise to improve relations with Iran in return. Also, don’t miss the skulduggery of the French opposition, who apparently scuppered negotiations to release French hostages and paid Hezbollah to keep them until after the French election in order to help Jacques Chirac win.

Certainly these were not acts of random or mindless vengeance. To capture, keep hidden and keep alive a western civilian for years on end in war-torn Lebanon required a level of planning and military discipline that suggests a determined purpose. While it cemented Lebanon’s reputation in the west as a lawless hellhole, among the Lebanese Shia (and indeed across the Muslim world) it contributed to Hezbollah’s growing prestige as the true face of Islamic resistance to the west. Allegiance to Hezbollah was no doubt bolstered by the Israelis’ indiscriminate bombing of Shia villages in the south, and the continued covert involvement of the United States. The most notorious of these incidents was a car-bomb in March 1985 intended to kill the cleric, Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, who was (wrongly) believed to be the leader of Hezbollah, for which the CIA and British intelligence are believed to have been responsible. It killed 80 civilians, mostly women and schoolgirls, and Fadlallah escaped with minor injuries. Such actions only fueled support for Hezbollah’s more radical message of resistance to Israel and the west.

Hezbollah’s prestige was probably most augmented by their leadership of the fight against the Israelis in the occupied south. While Israel had not withdrawn by the end of the civil war in 1990, Hezbollah effectively bogged them down in an unwinnable war of attrition which, for the first time, inflicted what could be described as a defeat on the IDF. Israel would finally withdraw in 2000. It is interesting to reflect that senior figures on both the Lebanese and Israeli side credit the Israeli invasion with the genesis and growth of Hezbollah. It’s current leader Hassan Nasrullah has said that, had Israel not invaded, ‘I don’t know that something called Hezbollah would have been born. I doubt it.’ The former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, one of the more reflective of the political class there, also stated: ‘When we entered Lebanon … there was no Hezbollah. We were accepted with perfumed rice and flowers by the Shia in the south. It was our presence there that created Hezbollah’. This attests to a phenomenon which will be seen time and time again with other groups like the Taliban or Islamic State, which is the expansion of a small group of fundamentalists to a major actor in the conflict, not so much as the result of some homegrown rise in religious fervour as a response to the destabilisation of their country by outsiders.

While the Muslim groups were busy shooting at and blowing each other up, the Christian militias were showing they were every bit as capable as their Muslim opponents of internecine conflict. The agreement which would eventually bring the Syrians into Beirut again had been signed by the LF leader Elie Hobeika, but Samir Geaga didn’t support it, nor did Amine Gemayel, who was leader of the Phalangist party as well as being president. The LF split up into two factions, led respectively by Hobeika and Geagea, and fought a bloody and destructive conflict over whether to accept the accord or not. Geagea, who had the support of the Lebanese army and also maintained close ties to Israel (while Hobeika sought to break these ties) eventually emerged dominant and Hobeika fled to the city of Zahlé  in the Beqaa, forming a rival LF under Syrian patronage.

Gemayel, meanwhile, was nearing the end of his term as President in September 1988. This being Lebanon, however, it wasn’t simply a case of the parliament meeting and electing a successor. The Syrian-approved candidate was the former president Suleiman Frangieh (yes, he’s still around; he was old the first time around, now he’s 78!) but he was unacceptable to Geagea’s LF faction (not to mention the Americans) and nobody could agree on an alternative. When a session was arranged to elect (i.e.crown) Frangieh, the Lebanese army under it’s commander Michel Aoun (below) was accused of preventing the delegates from east Beirut from attending, and thus preventing the session from reaching the quorum necessary to validate the election.

Michel Aoun. Image: Lebanese army.

Rather amusingly, Aoun denies he prevented them, suggesting in interviews that they called him and asked him to prevent them from attending. The haggling went on so long that Gemayel’s term ran out without a successor being elected, so the latter appointed a military government headed by Aoun, who himself had wanted to be president but was opposed by the Syrians. He now became acting Prime Minister, or I should say at least one of the acting Prime Ministers, because Gemayel’s Prime Minister Selim Hoss refused to accept his dismissal, citing the National Pact, which reserved the post to a Sunni (Aoun is a Maronite) and set up its own rival regime in west Beirut with the support of Syria, dismissing Aoun from his position as commander of the armed forces. Aoun on the other hand had the support of most of the army, Geagea’s LF and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which was seeking to extend its influence over the middle east (the invasion of Kuwait was less that two years away) where the local Ba’ath party were deadly rivals of the Syrian Ba’ath party. This alliance incidentally would alienate the Americans from Aoun when they became enemies with Saddam Hussein, and pushed them into supporting the Syrians’ role in the country.

The stage was set for the last major showdown of the civil war. Aoun declared a ‘War of Liberation’ from the Syrian occupation in March 1989 and a campaign of shelling between east and west Beirut followed in the next few months which was more destructive than anything yet seen in the war, which for Beirut is really saying something.

Beirut skyline during the artillery bombardments of 1989. Image: Al-Jazeera.
These horrors, and moreover the fact that the two regional powers of Syria and Iraq were now fighting a proxy war in Lebanon, raised concerns among other Arab states of the Lebanon conflict spiraling into a more widespread war. This finally focused minds on finding a negotiated settlement to the civil war. In October 1989, Lebanese parliamentarians from all sides convened in the Saudi Arabian city of Taif and signed an accord which would ultimately put an end to the war by providing for political reform recognising the increased numbers of Muslims in the country, and a ‘special’ relationship with Syria which would give the latter a profound role in Lebanon’s security affairs. Fawwaz Traboulsi has, I think accurately, described post-war Lebanon as a Syrian ‘mandate’, which is also kind of neat, as when we started this story it was a French mandate.
The accord was ratified in November and René Mouawad elected as Lebanon’s new President. That the war was not yet at an end, however, was made painfully clear as Mouawad was killed by a car-bomb seventeen days later. Michel Aoun, still ensconced in east Beirut, and still enjoying the support of large sections of the population (both Christian and Muslim) was the primary remaining obstacle to the establishment of a ‘Pax Syriana’, although it was never conclusively proved that he was responsible for the assassination of Mouawad. Aoun made a final push to shore up his power during the Summer of 1990, now fighting Geagea’s LF as well, who were positively disposed towards the Taif accord. A huge part of the reason that a Syrian-dominated peace became possible was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990; with the Americans keen to attract Syrian involvement in their war against Iraq, the price was allowing Assad to throw all his might against Aoun and end the situation where there were two government’s claiming legitimacy. It is truly remarkable, incidentally, how every time you think the Assads have manoeuvred Syria into the position of pariah state, they somehow manage to make themselves indispensable and ingratiate themselves with the west once more.
The end came in October, when Syrian troops entered east Beirut and took the surrender of Aoun’s forces. Sadly, there was to be one final bloodstained chapter in the war, as the Syrian soldiers executed around 250 Lebanese soldiers after they had already surrendered, many of whom shot at point blank range. Aoun, meanwhile, whose personal ambition had contributed greatly to this bloodbath, was given refuge in France, where he would live for the next fifteen years. He would finally be able to return in 2005 because the Syrians would finally withdraw their army from Lebanon in that year. At the time of writing (2016), he is jostling for position to finally realise his ambition of becoming President, with the support of Samir Geagea, who he has patched things up with. But all of these events are beyond the scope of this post, which will close with the exhausted agreement of all parties in the civil war to stop fighting. The Christians and Muslims now had equal numbers in parliament, the Muslim Prime Minister’s powers were increased relative to the Christian President, and the militias began the process of disarming and handing over power to the Lebanese state. The only group which was not obliged to disarm was Hezbollah, in recognition of their role defending the south against Israel.

The Lebanese civil war lasted from 13 April 1975 and ended on 13 October 1990, that is, 15 years and 6 months. The death toll is often given at around 250,000 victims, although more recent research has greatly reduced this. I have seen estimates as low as 40,000, and am frankly at a loss as to how they can vary so wildly. Given the massive upheaval and suffering it involved, as well as its longevity, it is alarming how little really changed after all this. There was some slight reform to the political system as has been seen, but sectarianism remained a cornerstone of politics and Syria remained entrenched in Lebanese politics. The emergence of Hezbollah is of course a vital episode in the emergence of Islam as a force in middle-eastern politics, but once again we should reflect upon how little role religion played in the genesis of the war. It was only after years of suffering and, even more significantly I think, hopelessness, that an anti-western religious fervour was kindled, but this cannot be said to characterise the war as a whole, which had far more to do with problems specific to Lebanon than any broader conflict in the middle east as a whole. Because I think a picture says a thousand words, I will end this series on Lebanon with this picture of a man praying in the rubble of his own home in southern Lebanon, 1993, where the war against Israel continued sporadically to the present day.

Screenshot from 2016-05-16 03:08:22.png
Image: Al-Jazeera.


Featured image above: Amal militia members attacking the church of St.Michael, Beirut, 1984.


End of part 7

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 7: The Lebanese civil war #3

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 6: The Lebanese civil war #2


When we left Lebanon at the end of the last post, it was enjoying an interlude of uneasy peace (although they didn’t know it was merely an interlude) between the autumn of 1976 and the spring of 1978. Syrian forces had occupied the country (except for the far south, which was too close to Israel for comfort) in order to protect the Christian Maronites from succumbing to overwhelming military defeat from the alliance of (mostly Muslim) left-wing groups known as the LNM, not to mention to prevent the Palestinian factions from becoming too powerful. This is not to say that Hafez al-Assad’s government wanted the Christians to win the war either. A fragile, weakened Lebanon at uneasy peace with itself, dependent on Syria to secure this peace, suited the Syrians just fine. This state of affairs, however, was not destined to last. When hostilities broke out again in 1978, it was the Christian Phalangists and Syrians who would be fighting each other. Before we find out what changed in the interim, it should first be noted that this period of ‘peace’ was not without its violence. For starters, the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel, which had become a part of the Lebanese war, did not cease. Palestinian fedayeen attacks continued upon the north of Israel.

Secondly, one of the leading figures in the conflict, Kamal Jumblatt, was killed in March 1977. It has never been definitively established who killed Jumblatt, but the overwhelming likelihood is that it was the Syrians. As seen in the last post, his relationship with Syrian President Assad broke down in the lead-up to Syria’s intervention in 1976. Often admired by the left and certainly by the Palestinians, to whose cause he was deeply committed, Jumblatt was intransigent and implacable in pursuit of victory over the Phalangists and a non-sectarian Lebanon, an intransigence that simply did not fit Syria’s plans. The message in killing Jumblatt, who was shot in the head as he sat in the back of his car, could not have been clearer: refuse Syria’s help at your peril. The following striking poster bearing Jumblatt’s face surrounded by flames was produced by the PLO after his death and reads ‘Martyr of the Palestinian revolution, and the Lebanese National Movement: The great teacher Kamal Jumblatt’.

Image: Signs of Conflict Archive (Lebanon)

His assassination provoked a spate of killings of Christians in retaliation. Bear in mind, all of this occurred in the ‘peaceful’ interval between bouts of war in 1977, so perhaps it would be more accurate to describe this as a less intense period of conflict.

Jumblatt was not merely the leader of the PSP, but the leader of the Druze community in Lebanon, who were native to the Chouf, a mountainous area just south of Beirut. He was succeeded in these roles by his son, Walid, who would prove to be every bit as wily and capable a leader as his father, and remains active in Lebanese politics to this day. Here is Walid Jumblatt in 1982, looking spaced-out next to Yasser Arafat.

Image: Gilles Peress

1977 saw a deterioration in relations between the Christians and the Syrians who had saved them from defeat. The reasons for this are complicated, but a major turning point was the peace process between Israel and Egypt, under the sponsorship of American president Carter. I briefly looked at these Camp David Accords, which would be signed in September 1978, in part two. Following Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977, Assad began to reassess his attitude to the Palestinians, whose power in Lebanon he had been trying to contain. This is a good example of the way the Lebanese war was increasingly being drawn into the wake of other conflicts, not only Israel-Palestine but also the rivalry between Syria and Egypt, and specifically Assad’s ambition to become Egypt’s replacement as the leader of the Arab world against Zionism. With Sadat’s repudiation of this role, Syria once again began to turn towards the Palestinians in Lebanon, at the same time that they and the Maronite Christian factions were feeling increasingly disenchanted with one another.

Having saved them from defeat, the Syrians expected allegiance from the LF, but found their clients less than grateful for their help, especially when it became clear they were not going to eliminate the Palestinian threat altogether. Leading the opposition to Syrian intervention among the Christians was Bashir Gemayel, son of the Phalangist founder, who I introduced in the last post. Gemayel will become an increasingly central figure from 1977 onwards. In contrast to his later incarnation as a besuited politician, at this stage, he promoted a military, tough-guy image, which endeared him to the foot-soldiers of the Phalangist militias. Something like this:

Image: Tore Kjeilen/LookLex

Gemayel in fact inspired an intense personal devotion from the men under his command. What can only be described as a cult of personality grew up around him. The following lines from the animated film, Waltz with Bashir, are the observations of an Israeli soldier present during the 1982 occupation, who witnessed the Phalangist soldiers’ reverence of their leader at first hand:

‘They carried body parts of murdered Palestinians preserved in jars of formaldehyde.
They had fingers, eyeballs, anything you wanted.
And always pictures of Bashir.
Bashir pendants, Bashir watches, Bashir this, Bashir that…
Bashir was to them what David Bowie was to me.
A star, an idol, a prince, admirable.
I think they even felt an eroticism for him.’

Waltz with Bashir (2008), by Ari Folman.

Even today, the extent to which he was implicated in the more gruesome of his soldiers’ atrocities is hotly debated. If you research him online you will find no shortage of people lionising him, claiming he was unaware of the horrible things being done in his name, how he attempted to prevent killing of civilians etc. It is not always easy, from this distance, and given the wildly conflicting accounts, to determine the truth in each individual case. Personally, I cannot help but conclude that militias under his command were involved in too many massacres of civilians for him not to have been aware and, indeed, responsible, for these crimes. For all his film-star looks and polished rhetoric, and the fact that the Americans would come to regard him as the answer to Lebanon’s woes, he was one of the more ruthless in a war that brought more than its fair share of cruel, ruthless men to the fore.

When the LF agreed to Syrian intervention in 1976, Gemayel attempted to resign his positions within the movement. He was instead given funds to found his own military organisation within the movement, with its headquarters at Karantina, which had been the site of the massacre of Muslims the year before. This independent command made him one of the most powerful militia leaders on the Christian side. Furthermore, even as the Syrians were entering Beirut to prevent the Christians from being overwhelmed by the LNM and Palestinians, Gemayel was already in touch with the Israelis, whom he saw as a far more promising ally in what he clearly saw as a conflict that was far from over. Others in the Christian camp were similarly disposed to Israel, but there was also a powerful faction, which included the current president Sarkis, who continued to be staunch allies of Syria. Then there was the former president Frangieh and his Marada movement, which would become one of the first victims of Bashir Gemayel in his rise to dominate the Christian factions. In fact, if you thought the multitude of warring groups discussed last time was confusing, you are in for a treat, because internecine conflict now breaks out within the militias.

The Frangieh family and the Marada had their power-base in the Zgharta region in the north of Lebanon, and specifically the town of Ehden. The Marada had co-operated in the earlier stages of the war with the Phalangists, but this co-operation had led to a growing Phalangist presence in the region, where they had not traditionally been strong. They began to threaten Marada dominance and muscle in on their protection rackets (I did liken them to gangsters in the last post). The pulling-apart of the Christians into pro-Israeli and pro-Syrian factions brought the rivalry to a head in 1978. The Marada leader, Tony Frangieh (son of Suleiman) attempted, by both negotiation and force, to get the Phalangists to leave the area now that the war was ‘over’. Bashir Gemayel had by now settled on a strategy of removing his rivals among the Christian militias before attempting the takeover of the state. Accounts differ as to what exactly happened. Those who seek to defend Gemayel’s reputation suggest that the initial intention was merely to kidnap Frangieh, but whatever the intention, a gunfight broke out in which Tony Frangieh, his wife and three year-old daughter were killed, along with 32 of his associates. Those sources less keen to preserve Bashir Gemayel’s reputation claim the murders were planned in advance; I have even read claims that the couple were forced to watch their toddler shot before they too were killed. Given the kind of things that were later to occur, I do not think that it was beyond the capacity of the Phalangist gunmen to do such a thing.

Aftermath of massacre at Ehden. Image: Al-Jazeera

Meanwhile, in the same Summer of 1978 that the Ehden massacre took place, outright hostilities broke out between the Christians (excepting of course the Marada brigade) and the Syrians, who were now regarded as an army of foreign occupation. There was now no pretense that the war was not back on. This period of conflict (sometimes referred to as the ‘hundred days war’) began when the Syrians came into conflict with the Christian breakaway faction of what had been the Lebanese national army in Beirut. The Phalangists and Tiger militias were quickly drawn into the fighting, in which the Syrians shelled their positions within the city, showing scant regard for civilian lives. The area of Achrafieh (there is a map of Beirut in the previous post) in east Beirut was the stronghold from which the militias withstood severe Syrian pressure and, by the autumn, essentially forced the Syrians to withdraw from Christian east Beirut. This victory cemented Bashir Gemayel’s reputation as the champion of the Christian Lebanese. Although not everyone was sure they wanted him as their champion, you only had to look at what happened to Tony Frangieh to figure out where that got you.

The following years saw the permanent decline of the Marada movement and the Frangieh dynasty. Gemayel soon turned his attentions to those allies who had helped him fight the Syrians. As I noted in the last post, the Tigers militia were the military wing of former president Camille Chamoun’s National Liberal Party. While small compared to the Phalangists, they were known as fierce and well-equipped fighters, and made an important contribution to the LF campaigns discussed up to now. They had suffered a number of setbacks since 1976 however. First was the Palestinian takeover of the coastal village of Damour, where Chamoun lived and directed the defense, before fleeing by helicopter. In common with much of the political leadership of the Christians, Chamoun then acceded to Syrian intervention as the only means of saving the Christians from defeat. This move provoked a split between his NLP and the Tigers militia, which was led by his son, Dany:


The fact that the Tigers leaned towards opposing the Syrian presence in Lebanon might be thought to make them natural allies of Bashir Gemayel, and in 1978 they were. But there was more at stake here than what foreign power you aligned with. Gemayel was determined to consolidate all Christian militias under his rule. Some who knew him, such as the Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari, claim that  he was consciously imitating the Zionist underground movement during the British mandate period, in which all opposition was ruthlessly suppressed to create a single, disciplined and unified structure. Gemayel’s secret contacts with Israel were becoming more and more significant, and less secret, and by June 1980 he was ready to make his move. The Tigers’ base at Safra, north of Beirut, was attacked and over 80 members were killed, basically decapitating and finishing the movement as a significant factor in the war. Dany Chamoun, however, was allowed to escape, and went into exile, and he will be back in Lebanon later on; the civil war is not finished with him. The LF from then on was reconstituted with Bashir as its unquestioned leader.

But we need to backtrack a bit to explain why Israel was playing such an important role in Lebanese politics by 1980 (there are even claims that Mossad orchestrated the Ehden massacre), because I forgot to mention that they had invaded the south of the country two years earlier. So, back to March 1978, that is, before the aforementioned ‘hundred days war’.

The Palestinians had, of course, been using southern Lebanon as a base from which to launch attacks on Israel for years. What is less well-remembered is that Israeli had also been shelling the area for a long time. These bombings had inflicted massive civilian casualties. In many villages, almost the entire population had either been killed or fled, and it was suspected in some quarters that the Israeli government’s objective was to effectively depopulate the area, widespread burning of crops and infrastructure accompanying the killings. A particularly nasty Palestinian attack took place along the coast that month, killing of 38 civilians (plus the nine attackers, who were killed by the Israelis) near Tel Aviv. This was, ostensibly, the reason for the Israeli government’s invasion of Lebanon, whose avowed intention was to push back the Palestinians back away from proximity to Israel and beyond the Litani river, about 30km north of the border, creating a ‘security zone’.

In the light of this new aggression by the Israeli government, it is worth mentioning that a new prime minister, Menachem Begin, had been elected the year before. Begin’s victory in the 1977 election broke the monopoly of power enjoyed by the Israeli left since independence and marked a distinct right-turn for mainstream Israeli politics. It is ironic that Begin was subsequently best remembered internationally for making peace with Egypt, because by Israeli standards, he and his allies represented a particularly hardline Zionist nationalism that had little time for compromise with the Palestinians or other Arab nations. Begin had been around, in opposition, as long as Israel had existed. Back in the late 1940s, Albert Einstein and other prominent American Jews described his party as a ‘terrorist, right-wing chauvinist organization [. . .] closely akin in its organization, methods, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.’

Menachem Begin. Image: U.S. Air force

This time, Israel’s incursion into southern Lebanon was to last only a week, but its consequences would last for years. The major strategic goal of expelling the Palestinians was largely achieved, although not without stiff resistance. As usual, it was the civilian population that suffered most, with 100,000 to 200,000 refugees fleeing the area. The Syrians, fearing the Israelis would use the population’s evacuation as an excuse to annex the land, tried to send refugees back southwards, into the war zone. Oddly enough, the outcome of the operation would leave southern Lebanon dominated by two military forces, neither of them Israel or Palestine (although the Palestinians would drift back into the area as well). One was the South Lebanon Army (SLA), which would act as Israel’s proxy in the area after they left, and United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL for short.

It was noted in the last post that in the spring of 1976 the Lebanese army itself split into Muslim and Christian factions. The Christian side came to be known as the ‘Army of Free Lebanon’ (AFL) and its leader in the south was Saad Haddad:

Saad Haddad. Image: Steve Hindy
By 1980, his part of the army would split off from the AFL and become the South Lebanon Army. I’m just going to refer to Haddad’s forces as the SLA from now on. The SLA was more or less entirely armed and controlled by Israel as a means of allowing them to engage militarily without maintaining their occupation officially. Haddad was a loose cannon, ruling over an enclave he declared to be the ‘Free Lebanon State’ which no-one else recognised. Under his sponsorship, an evangelical Christian radio station was set up, the ‘Voice of Hope’ which broadcast (Haddad sometimes turned up to do a spot as DJ) a mixture of gospel proselythising and political propaganda. The Israelis would also refer to this part of the country as ‘Free Lebanon’, although what exactly it was free from (Lebanese government control?) is unclear.


A part of the UN’s mandate in the area had been to restore Lebanese sovereignty over the area. Despite all the good intentions this, along with the other parts of their mission (to restore peace and confirm Israeli withdrawal) went unfulfilled. Instead, UNIFIL were attacked at will by Haddad’s forces (and by extension, Israel). Instead of exerting any kind of control over the south, the UN soldiers ended up ensconced in isolated posts dotted throughout the country, the limited nature of their mandate effectively barring them from making any serious attempt to challenge the SLA, or any other armed group. UN soldiers were even killed by Palestinians on occasion. It has been argued by some, such as Fawwaz Traboulsi, that UNIFIL has unintentionally reinforced Israel’s occupation. They remain in southern Lebanon to this day (2016), still ‘interim’ after 38 years. In many ways it is a mystery: why did Israel, which had agreed to the original mandate of UNIFIL-which was partly to remove the Palestinian threat to their own northern border-allow (even orchestrate) the SLA attacks on it? I will leave the question hanging there for now, because although the Israelis officially pulled out their own troops after a week, their work in Lebanon is far from finished.
In the wake of this invasion, the Syrians, who had intervened two years earlier to disarm the Palestinians, now began to do the opposite. They and Israelis, although they could sometimes see each other along the Litani, were careful not to engage in any fighting directly, although the Syrians were fighting the Christian militias in Beirut that summer, as seen earlier. Nor were the Palestinians the only opposition in the south. The last thing we need here is yet another faction in this conflict to consider, but that’s what we’re going to get. I have neglected to discuss one group of Lebanon’s population up to now, so as to consider it in the period when their armed militia becomes a significant factor in the war. Most of the refugees fleeing the Israeli invasion, and the majority in that part of the country, were Shia. The Shia were Lebanon’s poorest community, economically and politically underprivileged. Robert Fisk dates this status to the days of Sunni Ottoman rule, when ‘they were treated with contempt, [. . .] neglected and turned into outcasts with much the same arrogance as that shown by the English Protestants towards the Irish Catholics during the same period.’ The ‘National Pact’ I discussed in the last post allocated power in Lebanon on the basis that the Shia were the third largest group in Lebanon, after the Maronites and Sunnis (based on a dodgy census taken way back in 1932). By this period, however, they had overtaken both the others in size and become the largest, without any concomitant increase in representation.
While it might be expected that all of this would make the Shia fertile recruiting ground for the left and radical Palestinian groups, but this is not how things played out. A major reason for this is this man, Musa al-Sadr:

Al-Sadr was an Imam from Iran who had come to Lebanon in the late 1950s, sent by the Iranian clergy to lead the Shia community in the southern city of Tyre. In the following years, he gained a following among Lebanese of all sects as a champion of the underprivileged, regardless of their confession. Sadr was very much a practitioner of an active Shi’ism, blending politics and economics with theology, and he resisted co-option by the various factions of Lebanese politics. He came to be regarded by  as a moderate figure as civil war loomed in the 1970s; while demanding the Christians relinquish some of their power at the same time he was an avowed enemy of Communism. The Americans looked upon him favourably as a bulwark against not just Communism but pan-Arab nationalism as well. For the first time, the most neglected section of Lebanese society was politically organised as a coherent group. This was called the ‘Movement of the Deprived’ and was founded in 1974.

When war broke out, Sadr attempted to hold his movement aloof from the conflict, going on a hunger strike in May 1975 to demand peace and a government of national unity. At the same time, however, the Shia were already forming an armed wing. An accidental explosion at a training camp in July of that year killed over sixty trainees, revealing the militias hitherto secret existence. This militia, the ‘Lebanese Resistance Regiments’ would come to be known by the acronym AMAL (from its Arabic name), by which name the whole movement is better known.

Amal logo

In the early years of the civil war, however, Amal played little role in the conflict and Sadr’s movement as a whole put forward a series of very moderate demands for political reform. Much of this changed in 1978. Firstly, there was the Israeli invasion. The already put-upon Shi’ites of the south were now living under occupation and the often-indiscriminate cruelty of Haddad’s forces. Secondly, and a source of enduring mystery, Musa al-Sadr vanished off the face of the earth on a visit to Libya in August of that year. It would be too much of a tangent to analyse all of the different theories surrounding his disappearance, interesting as they are. He was a guest of Muammar Gaddafi, whose regime claimed that Sadr and his companions departed Libya for Italy. Most believe that Gaddafi had him killed for some reason, possibly at the behest of Yasser Arafat, whose PLO were rivals for power in southern Lebanon with the Shia and close allies of Gaddafi. Then again, it is reported that Sadr and Gaddafi had an argument about religion; maybe Gaddafi went berserk and killed him. Even with the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, it remains unclear what happened to the Imam.

Whatever the reasons, with the occupation of the south and the disappearance of their leader, Amal began to take a more militant turn. The success of their Iranian revolution in 1979 by their fellow Shi’ites only emboldened them. Despite the fact that Amal members were trained by the PLO in its early days, the rivalry with the Palestinians became increasingly violent, not to mention their fight with the Israelis and the SLA. Amal came to see the Palestinians as foreign occupiers who had brought the wrath of Israel down upon their country. Some Israeli strategists argued that they would find far more reliable allies in the Shia of southern Lebanon than the Christians, and that they should seek an alliance with Amal, but such an alliance did not materialise. Support for Amal came increasingly from Syria, and this connection would intensify even further in the 1980s, when Amal will come to play an increasingly important role in the conflict, but will also come to be rivaled among the Shia by more militant, and explicitly Islamic players like Hezbollah. This is just to establish who Amal are and where they stand. They will return to our story later.

As the war in the south raged between the SLA-Israelis, Amal and the Palestinians, relations deteriorated further north between the Christians and the Syrians. 1980-1 saw intense fighting over the city of Zahleh (see map in the previous post), a predominantly Christian city about 40km west of Beirut which Bashir Gemayel’s forces had taken over. The Syrians bombarded the city which in turn led the Israelis to shoot down Syrian helicopters, claiming they were in contravention of an agreement between them that the air force against ground target. The Syrians said they were merely transporting troops and moved surface-to-air missiles into the area. Here is an interesting piece by British television at the time on the battle for Zahleh:

The reporter sums up the fate of the Syrians (and subsequently of anyone else who tried to intervene) very succinctly: ‘The Syrians once tried to restore a semblance of order, but were then themselves swallowed up by the anarchy’. I have heard this said of the Israelis, Americans etc. by several commentators on the Lebanon war, although personally I would add a note of caution to this idea that well-meaning outsiders were sucked into the chaos of Lebanon and somehow corrupted by the country. In many ways, I think it would be just as true to say that it was outsiders who prolonged the conflict with their interventions.

The crisis over Zahleh would be diffused by Philip Habib, a special envoy sent by U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Philip Habib. Image: University of California Television.

Habib, who had Lebanese ancestry, managed to get the Syrians to withdraw, in return for which Bashir Gemayel promised to withdraw his forces in favour of the Lebanese army. He also made vague promises to cut links to Israel, which he never fulfilled. Just as they had after the ‘hundred days war’, the Phalangists saw the settlement over Zahleh as a victory, and returned to Beirut as conquering heroes. Bashir Gemayel’s stature only rose higher, and it is from around this period that his transformation from local warlord to aspiring president of the whole country begins. Whereas in the first phase of the war the LF had been fighting to preserve the traditional power-sharing structures that favoured the Christians, Gemayel was now, with Israeli and American backing, looking to destroy those power-sharing structures and seize power in order to expel the Syrians. These plans were also backed by Iraq, who had with the Phalangists a common enemy in Syria.

This plan went forward on all fronts; at the same time as his rival Christian militias were being slaughtered, attempts were being made to court western journalists. If you look on youtube for videos of the main figures discussed here, Gemayel turns up far more than anyone else, speaking pretty good, media-savvy English. In this long-term manoeuvering for power, Gemayel was no doubt coached by the Israelis, to whom his ambitions had become inextricably linked. What Israel became more and more convinced of, as the next presidential election approached in 1982, was that Gemayel could not achieve their main goal, of expelling the PLO from Lebanon, on his own. Another Israeli invasion moved inexorably closer. What nobody quite realised was that it would be on a greater and more ambitious scale this time. The architect of this 1982 invasion was a new and hawkish Israeli defense minster appointed in August 1981, Ariel Sharon:

Ariel Sharon in Lebanon, 1984. Image: Max Nash, Associated Press.

It is, in a way, misleading to think of two Israeli invasions punctuated by disengagement. The Israelis were bombing Lebanon most of the time between their withdrawal of ground troops in 1978 and their return in June 1982. Retaliation for PLO attacks on Israel was always used as justification for these air-strikes, which once again claimed many civilian lives. June 17 1981 in particular saw intensive bombing of Beirut which it was claimed was an attempt to eliminate the PLO leadership, although its main effect was to kill perhaps 300 civilians. These atrocities provoked rare criticism of Israel from the United States, if no concrete action, and the truce arranged by Philip Habib mentioned above also put a temporary halt to these. An uneasy and unofficial (because neither side would negotiate directly with one another) truce lasted until April 1982, when an Israeli soldier was killed by a landmine while visiting SLA forces and Israel, with characteristic disproportionate force, bombed Damour, killing 23 people in retaliation, claiming that the Palestinians had broken the ceasefire agreement.

In fact, Arafat had no interest in breaking the ceasefire, and had made strenuous efforts to restrain his forces. He could, however, do nothing about the not-inconsiderable numbers of Palestinian forces outside the control of the PLO. It was the actions of one of these rival Palestinian militias which provided Israel with their excuse for the 1982 invasion. This was the attempted murder in London of Israel’s ambassador by the so-called Abu Nidal Organization, which was a more hardline rival of the PLO, sponsored by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The attempted assassination of the ambassador was most likely orchestrated by Iraq in retaliation for Israel’s bombing, the year before, of a nuclear reactor the Iraqis were building outside Baghdad. In short, it really had little to do with Lebanon, but was used as a casus belli anyway. It would be naive to take this at face value however. What Begin’s government (which had been re-elected in 1981) really hoped to achieve in invading Lebanon again was to install a puppet government with Bashir Gemayel as President and sign a peace treaty with it, expelling the Palestinian military presence in the country in the process.

On 6 June 1982, Israeli troops crossed the border once again. In line with their government’s publicly-stated goal, many of Israel’s own soldiers believed that the invasion would once again go no further than 40km into Lebanon’s territory, to establish an area under Israeli control, but go no further. Sharon had far more ambitious plans, however, and there is clear evidence (Sharon sued for libel a newspaper who made this claim and he lost the case) that Sharon even misled his Begin and the Israeli cabinet into thinking that he would merely take his troops as far north as the range of the Palestinian rockets and no further. It became immediately clear that this was on a far greater scale. The fact that the United Nations now stood in their way made zero difference; the UNIFIL troops could do nothing but watch as over 1000 Israeli tanks drove straight past them.
Tyre was quickly captured, followed by Sidon. In both places, the Israeli air-force bombed civilian areas indiscriminately. In this kind of dry political and strategic narrative, it is easy to forgot that the real victims of this war were innocent civilians caught in the middle. The British journalist Robert Fisk, who witnessed first-hand some of the worst atrocities of the Lebanese war, visited the site of a school in Sidon which had been bombed by the Israelis, next to which a PLO guerrilla had chosen to operate an anti-aircraft gun:
‘He may have been unaware that the school contained more than 100 refugees, although this is highly unlikely. His disregard was criminal, like that of the Israeli who killed him. For an Israeli pilot had presumably seen the gun flashes and decided to bomb the artillery. The Israeli could not have seen what he was aiming at; he could have had no idea how many civilians were in the area. Nor could he have cared. For if the Israelis were really worried about civilian casualties, they would never have dropped ordnance at night into a densely populated city.’
There is a tendency, which has always baffled me, to feel less appalled by the slaughter of civilians if it is carried out at a distance from the air, as opposed to ground troops armed with guns or machetes. Compare the thousands killed by the Serbs at Srebrenica by gunshot and starvation, rightly infamous in modern history as a genocidal act, to the comparable numbers killed (many from airstrikes) in the opening weeks of the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, the so-called ‘shock and awe’ phase, which was presented in such a clinical and sanitised fashion that it almost seemed like a video game to spectators, was presented as somehow not as bad as the Serbs executing their victims at point blank range or the Rwandan Hutus hacking the Tutsis to death. But it was. Fisk’s book, Pity the Nation, is full of powerful descriptions of the aftermath of such ‘surgical’ bombing, and shows that the result of both massacres are pretty much the same pile of reeking corpses:
‘In the roof of the school there was a jagged hole, like the one we had seen earlier above the door of the municipality building, made by the Israeli bomb. It had not exploded on contact with the roof. The bomb had been designed to detonate only when it could no longer penetrate the hard surfaces that it struck. So it passed through three floors of the building right into the darkened cellar where the refugees were huddled in terror and only then, when it came into contact with the firm, immovable floor, did it blow up. The bodies lay in a giant heap that had left the children on top and the women beneath them. The bomb must have somehow lifted the huddled mass of refugees and sucked the heaviest of them into its vortex. The white lime dust lay more thickly over some parts of the pile than others, leaving the children exposed, their legs splayed open, heads down. [. . .]
An Israeli officer attached to his army’s `press liaison unit’ in east Beirut was to tell me next day that the story of unburied bodies in Sidon was `PLO propaganda’, that anyone who had died in Sidon was a `terrorist’ or – at worst – a civilian who had died at the hands of `terrorists’. The claim that more than 100 people, including children, had died in that school basement was `utter rubbish’. He instructed me to `check my facts’ before I wrote slanderous articles to the contrary. When I told him I had visited the school and seen the corpses with my own eyes, he told me I had received no permission to visit Sidon, that I should have travelled there with an Israeli escort officer and that I should not visit the city again.
Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation
They began to shell west Beirut on the 21 June. The city had already been subjected to bombing from the air which would kill thousands. In Christian east Beirut, however, the arrival of the Israelis was a strange replay of the Syrians’ arrival in 1976; the same people who had greeted Assad’s forces then were now greeting the Israelis as liberators. Even some Lebanese Muslims, especially the Sunni (who had suffered less as the hands of the IDF than the Shia) were not displeased with the arrival of the Israelis, if it meant the expulsion of the PLO. Even Walid Jumblatt, hitherto a staunch ally of the Palestinians, accepted the inevitable Israeli victory and agreed to participate in a cabinet of national salvation with Gemayel’s Phalangists and Amal. This left the PLO and Syrians as the only ones fighting the Israeli occupation.
The siege went on for almost two months, the Israelis bombing, cutting off food, water and electricity supplies, but reluctant to send troops in (apart from some undercover agents sent in to plant car bombs) for fear of the heavy losses they would incur. The Palestinians spoke of turning Beirut into ‘their Stalingrad’, making a last stand with surrender not an option. This prospect no doubt frightened the Israelis (not to mention the Lebanese stuck there with them); an enemy for whom death holds no fear is a far more formidable one that one who hopes to escape. But the PLO leadership, seeing the inevitable annihilation that would result if they remained, began to negotiate for their evacuation behind the scenes. Habib attempted to secure an agreement, to which efforts Sharon merely intensified the bombing. By early August, even the American government’s legendary forbearance ran out and Reagan criticised Israel, resulting in Sharon’s decision-making powers being curtailed by the Israeli cabinet.
Finally, on 18 August, an agreement was reached that the PLO would evacuate their forces from Beirut, to be dispersed throughout several Arab countries (Arafat was to be exiled to Tunisia), this evacuation to take place under the supervision of a ‘Multinational disengagement force’ consisting of troops from the United States, France and Italy. These troops arrived a few days later, and the Palestinians (as well as the Syrians) began to depart. Here is Arafat on board his ship as he departs on the 27 August:
Image: Al-Jazeera
And here is Walid Jumblatt firing a machine gun to give him a send-off:
Image: Al-Jazeera
It really began to look as if the war might be over, but this is Lebanon; there is always a cruel twist in the tale. Events move quickly now. A few days before the departure of Arafat, Bashir Gemayel was elected to the Presidency unopposed. Clear indications that the Israelis and Americans would accept no other candidate had been enough to convince a majority of parliamentary delegates to vote for him, and if that didn’t work, judicious bribes convinced the rest. His supporters celebrated on the streets of Beirut:
Image: Georges Hayek


No doubt the inhabitants of west Beirut greeted news of his election with less enthusiasm. It was clear now that the Muslims, and especially the Palestinian civilians left behind in the refugee camps by the PLO fighters, were at the mercy of the new Israeli-backed president and his militias. The only tenuous protection appeared to be the Multinational Force who were scheduled to stay in Beirut for at least a month. These reboarded their ships on the 9 September, however, after only two weeks in the city. With the Palestinians gone, their job appeared complete, and they saw no reason to hang around.

Gemayel, meanwhile, was having secret meetings with the Israelis on the 1 and 12 September, at which Begin and Sharon demanded he sign a peace treaty with Israeli. The president-elect was reportedly furious at the high-handed way he was treated by the Israelis, however, and demanded that he be given time to build consensus among all the Lebanese for such a treaty. This indicates that, although he had been brought to power by Israel, Bashir Gemayel may have been preparing to distance himself from his patrons now that he was president. It will never be known what exactly a Gemayel presidency would have looked like, however, because he was killed by a remotely-detonated bomb on the 14 September.



Although his killer had been a Christian, probably acting at the behest of the Syrians, this made little difference to the Phalangist followers of Gemayel who, as I noted earlier, were fanatically devoted to their leader and baying for blood in the wake of his assassination, and specifically the blood of Muslims. The PLO had left behind their elderly, women and children in the refugee camps on the understanding (Habib confirmed that this promise was made) that the Israelis would not enter west Beirut after their fighters evacuated. The Multinational Force, as noted, were no longer there to protect anyone. Within days of Gemayel’s killing, the Israelis broke their promise, citing the need to maintain law and order in the area. What was to subsequently happen in the camps of Sabra and Shatila, however, carried out by the Christian militias and overseen by the Israelis, was the very antithesis of law and order.
End of part 6
Featured image above: aftermath of a car-bomb, Beirut, 1980s.
A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 6: The Lebanese civil war #2

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 5: The Lebanese civil war #1



This post began as an attempt to explain the environment from which Lebanese Hezbollah, today a major Islamist movement, emerged. Given that the stated purpose of this blog has been to explore the genesis and development of political Islam and its relationship to the west, it seemed initially wise to limit my focus to Hezbollah as much as possible. I have encountered two problems with this approach however. Firstly, it seems impossible to explain this background without basically going back to 1975 and explaining the whole saga of the Lebanese civil war. Any truncated version which begins, say, with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon or the presence of the multinational forces in the country in 1982, will just decontextualise the story, which is exactly the opposite of what I’m trying to achieve here. Secondly, the whole labyrinthine story of the Lebanese civil war is just too damn interesting (and little understood) not to tell. Something that has struck me quite forcefully since I started writing this is that it is impossible, and for that matter undesirable, to try and isolate religion and ‘political Islam’ from other factors such as economics, politics, nationalism, environment etc. which, until the 1980s at least, played a far greater role in driving the conflicts that have come to define the Middle East today.

Religious rhetoric has played a prominent role in the last two posts, because the Iranian revolution was under the spotlight, a self-consciously religious event (at least for those of its participants who won out), but when we examine other conflicts like the Arab-Israeli war, we find that it is only relatively recently that these have come to be viewed through the prism of religious conflict. Lebanon is a perfect example of this. For all the facile characterisations in the western media of it as an incomprehensible sectarian conflict between fanatical religious groups, there is far more to the Lebanese civil war than this. Certainly religion as a marker of ethnicity is there in the mix, a prominent factor which fed into and exacerbated the conflict, but the war had little or nothing to do with any purported wider conflict between Islam and the west. Hezbollah, for example, will not emerge in this story as a significant actor until almost a decade after the war’s beginning.

So I am going to try and tell the story of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) in a couple of posts, a conflict which only tangentially fits into a story of political Islam. In recognition of this, and the fact that much else written on this blog concerns developments beyond political Islam, I have changed its title to the more general ‘A contemporary history of the Muslim world’…which will have to do for now.

To understand the roots of the Lebanese war, we must once again return to the secret arrangements made by the British and French after World War I to carve up the former Ottoman possessions in the region, the Sykes-Picot agreement. It might be remembered (see part 1) that the Arabs helped the British and French fight the Turks in the expectation that they would be rewarded with independence after the war. It might also be remembered that this isn’t how it panned out. I didn’t mention Lebanon in the first post, but it found itself (along with Syria) under French control when the dust had cleared, while the British were handed the ‘mandate’ to run Palestine, Jordan and what would become Iraq. The Syrians, who claimed jurisdiction of an area today containing Lebanon, fought against French rule, but their revolt was quickly crushed by the French in 1920 and the latter took control of the region, dividing it up into six states, one of which was called ‘Greater Lebanon’ and would form the basis of the country of Lebanon (marked in yellow below) when it later achieved independence.


Pretty much the only group of people who were happy to see the French take over here were the Maronite Christians, who were concerned at the implications of Arab independence and their status as a minority in any Muslim-dominated future state. The Maronites (named after a 4th-century Syrian monk) are closely related to the Catholic church and (as far as I can understand) do not really differ from the latter in beliefs, but rather forms of worship and administrative structure. In 1920, they saw the French as their saviour, and the French in return saw them as a useful ally in the region and a potential spanner to throw in the works of Arab nationalism. Here is the flag of ‘Greater Lebanon’ under French rule. You can see the French really took into account local sensitivities and were not at all attempting to evoke any similarity with the French tricolour:


Indeed, this Lebanese state was far larger than the Lebanon that had existed under Ottoman rule, hence the name ‘Greater’ Lebanon. Robert Fisk has described it (and therefore the modern Lebanon based on it) as a ‘totally artificial, French-created entity’, whose borders were designed to weaken the surrounding Muslim lands. Hence, the future state of Syria was deprived of its best ports (Tyre, Sidon and Tripoli), which were handed to Lebanon, as the French attempted to create a state as large as possible in which the Christians could exert a controlling influence. We can observe, at the very same time, the British applying the same strategy viz-a-viz the Unionists in drawing the borders of Northern Ireland. The downside of this arrangement for the Maronites was that instead of being an overwhelming majority dominating a smaller Lebanon, they ‘only’ comprised about 28% of the population. They still made them the largest religious minority in a land of religious minorities, along with other Christians sects (Greek Orthodox and Catholics) the Sunni and Shia Muslims, as well as the Druze (I’ll get to them).

Another legacy of this was that it left a large number of Muslims in Lebanon feeling, at the very least, ambiguous about their membership of this new nation when Lebanon finally achieved independence from France during the Second World War. Significant numbers of Muslims did not even want Lebanese independence, hoping the country would be annexed by their newly-independent Syrian neighbour, something their Christian ‘compatriots’ feared more than anything. As seen in part one, the aspiration towards Arab unity was a major political theme in the Middle East in this postwar period, and Lebanon was not immune to this temptation. The exact extent of Muslim discontent is disputed, however. There were no  doubt a willingness among some Muslims in some periods to make it work, and a sense of Lebanese national identity cannot be written off as a complete fantasy.

At the same time, while there was much talk of this common national identity transcending the ethnic and religious divide, there was no getting away from the fact that many Maronites saw the country from the start as a kind of Christian bulwark in the Middle East. Their attitude can be best summed up by a quip by one of their most prominent politicians in the mandate period, Emile Iddi, who remarked that those Muslims who didn’t want to live in a Christian-dominated Lebanon could emigrate to Mecca. At the time of independence in 1943, the leading Lebanese politicians therefore attempted to address these tensions in a verbal understanding which was to form the ground-rules for constitutional politics in the decades to come. It was called the National Pact, and sought to balance the conflicting aspirations and assuage the fears of the various ethno-religious groups in the country. Briefly, the Christians agreed to give up French protection in return for the Muslims giving up their aspirations to unite with their neighbours. The top positions in government were apportioned to the various communities according to their preponderance in the population: the President would always be a Christian,  the Prime Minister always a Sunni, and the Speaker of the parliament always a Shi’a Muslim. Seats in parliament were likewise allocated along ethnic lines, with a 6:5 ratio of Christian to Muslim guaranteed.

If all this sounds like a perfect recipe for entrenching ethnic divisions in a country, yes, in a way it was, but it also worked for a surprisingly long time…in a way. Despite being the tinderbox of sectarian tension which the world would come to identify it as, Lebanon, in the first two decades after independence stood out as an economic success story in the Middle East, at least on the surface. The country was turned into a mercantile and financial hub, an apparent oasis of stability in an instable region. Everything else was subordinated to the interests of business, so ‘light touch’ regulation, low taxes and duties were the order of the day. If peace and stability were good for business, it was believed, then prosperity could only beget more peace and stability. In the late 1940s for example, 30% of the world’s gold passed through Beirut, as the rulers of Arabia’s new oil-rich states exchanged their petrodollars for the stuff. Capital likewise fled other, left-leaning Arab nations which were busy nationalising sectors of their economies, and settled in Lebanese banks. The country began to market itself as the ‘Switzerland of The East’, a business-friendly entrepôt, banking, cedar forests, skiing, you name it. Here is a short film advertising the country to potential tourists in the 1960s, which is kind of eerie to watch when you think of how Beirut became synonymous with war and destruction later on.

The effect of all this glitz and glamour was to hide the symptoms of Lebanon’s underlying sickness for quite some time, but skiing and financial hocus-pocus will only get a country so far. In many ways, prosperity merely papered over the cracks in the country’s political system, allowing people to lapse into complacency and the belief that these cracks were not there. This boom created social tensions of its own. With an economy geared towards middlemen and the service sectors such as banking and tourism, manufacturing and agriculture suffered a relative decline. While a few became immensely rich, the poorest sections of society just got poorer as the growing wealth of the few stoked inflation and the ‘trickle-down’ theory of economics was as nonsensical then as it is now. The rural poor, ruined by the downturn in agriculture, poured into Beirut and other cities (but mainly Beirut) where they joined the burgeoning population of Palestinian refugees (see below).

Speaking of these wealthy few, another feature of Lebanese political life must be mentioned which is central to this story, which is clientism or, as the Lebanese call it, the Za’im system. A Za’im is the head of an established powerful family or clan, who used their wealth and influence to control the outcome of elections, basically monopolising power in the years prior to the outbreak of war. They have been compared to organised crime syndicates or feudal lords in their stranglehold over Lebanese political life, and once war came, they formed armed militias and formed shaky alliances which were as often about dynastic rivalries as ideological differences. Politics was (and is) a family business, sons often inheriting their father’s electoral seats. Almost a quarter of the members of the 1960 parliament were kin to those who had been appointed under French rule. A group of about thirty families dominated the country in this way. This must be borne in mind if we are tempted to imagine that the liberalised, western-style economy described above was in any way ‘free’ or open to enterprise or men of ability (let alone women). It wasn’t. It was in fact a largely closed shop, opportunities being open only to the already-rich and influential. The traditional system of patronage, kinship and loyalty, feudal in character, which had its roots in rural areas, was merely transfered over to the the cities when Lebanon became more urbanised. By the way, lest we kid ourselves into thinking that this kind of clientist system is something that doesn’t happen in Europe, just take a look at Irish politics.

Left to right: Bechara El Khoury, Fuad Chehab and Camille Chamoun.

The figures who ran Lebanon in these years emerged from this background. Bechara El Khoury, who ruled from 1943 to 1952, was so blatantly corrupt that he eventually provoked massive protests against his rule. He requested the head of the army, Fuad Chehab, to use force against the protesters, but the latter refused and El Khoury resigned, making way for Camille Chamoun, who ruled until 1958. Chamoun was an authoritarian figure, pushing forward with economic liberalisation (but not any other kind) and working actively against Arab nationalism and the drive towards a pan-Arab state which, as seen in part one, led to the short-lived union of neighbouring Syria and Egypt in 1958. While all these presidents were Christians (remember the National Pact) Pan-Arab nationalism was not without considerable support among the Muslims of Lebanon and Chamoun was fighting against a groundswell of support for Nasser’s vision. He nailed his colours to the mast during the Suez Crisis, refusing to cut off diplomatic relations with France and Britain and pissing off Nasser. The following year, Chamoun aligned Lebanon to the United States by formally accepting the Eisenhower doctrine, by which the Americans promised to ‘assist’ any nation in the region to fight ‘Communist aggression’, which was very loosely interpreted as meaning the Egyptians and Syrians, who were supported by the Soviet Union at the time.

Much of this looked to Muslims like a betrayal of the National Pact, which had promised that the country’s foreign policy would be Arab-orientated in return for their acceptance of a Christian President. Protests against Chamoun increased, not only over the issue of Arab political union, but also due to the inevitable corruption in which Chamoun’s regime was neck-deep. Scarcely any attempt was even made to hide it. In many cases what would now be (and was then) described as corruption was simply legalised, and elections in 1957 were widely believed to have been rigged, depriving many popular opposition figures of their seats. In response to this, protests escalated, exacerbating sectarian tensions. It should be remembered in all that follows-much of which will take a sectarian and religious form-that it was social tensions resulting from building a state skewed towards the interests of banks and traders which played a huge role in creating the conditions for war.

In 1958, things came to a head. In May, with rumours rife that Chamoun would (illegally) seek another term of office, and the murder of a prominent journalist by the security services, a general strike was called and the people rose up in arms against the authorities. The leaders of this opposition (left to right below) were Saeb Salam, Rashid Karami (two Sunni politicians who would between them serve fourteen terms as Prime Minister) and Kamal Jumblatt, a Druze leader who had founded the left-wing Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) which will come to play a vital part in the early stages of the civil war:


By July 1958, much of the country was controlled by this opposition. Chehab, who was still head of the army, once again refused to allow it to be used by an overreaching politician, and positioned his forces in a largely neutral role, preventing either side from securing strategically important positions and refusing to take sides in the conflict. In panic, Chamoun asked for help from the United States marines to save his regime. At first the Americans were reluctant, but after a coup in Iraq that July toppled the pro-western government there, Eisenhower sent the marines in, whose presence was enough to pressurise the various sides into making a deal. While expecting they would prop up Chamoun’s regime, the Americans instead lent their support to his replacement by Chehab, and a government of reconciliation formed with Karami as Prime Minister. Despite his military background, Chehab actually stands out as one of the few responsible, statesmanlike figure in this story. His government’s motto was ‘no victor, no vanquished,’ and while many accounts romanticise the apparent harmony which he restored, he generally succeeded in keeping a lid on the conflict in the following years, so much so that many wanted him to amend the constitution to allow him to run for another term in 1964. But he refused, and placed a follower of his, Charles Helou, in the office instead.

Helou remained in office until 1970. This is a crucial year for our story, and specifically the month of September, Black September. Back in part 2, I discussed the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967, in which the West Bank was annexed by the Israelis. The Palestinian leadership and many refugees fled into Jordan, only to come into conflict with the government there and be expelled, to Lebanon. The Palestinians had in fact been present in Lebanon for some years, launching attacks on Israel and fighting intermittently with the Lebanese army. The exodus after Black September brought a whole new dimension to their presence in Lebanon however. Before this, the Palestinian refugee camps had been largely run by the Lebanese security services under martial law, but then the PLO took control themselves and they became basically independent, outside of the Lebanese state’s control.

Palestinian rally in Beirut, 1979

This situation was, to some extent, given official sanction by an agreement between the PLO and Lebanese army in Cairo in 1969. In the long term, however, this solved nothing. From the Palestinians’ point of view, it legitimised their presence in Lebanon and freed them up from fighting the Lebanese so they could focus on raiding Israel. This they did, and their actions brought the inevitable retaliation from the Israelis. It quickly became clear that the Lebanese state was unable to protect its territory or citizens against Israeli attacks. In December 1968, for example, they attacked Beirut airport and destroyed 13 Middle East Airlines planes in retaliation for the Palestinian hijacking of an Israeli airplane in Athens. In 1973 a Israeli army unit was able to kill three leaders of the PLO in the middle of Beirut. During the Yom Kippur war which took place the same year (see part two), in which Lebanon wasn’t even a combatant, Israeli used the Beqaa valley as an air corridor to attack Syria. This might be the right moment for a map of Lebanon:


All of this begs the question: why was the Lebanese state so weak that it was unable to defend itself, not only against the Israelis (admittedly one of the most powerful armies in the world), but against the Palestinians and other militias which formed in the war? The Lebanese armed forces had always been weak in comparison to other Arab nations, many of which, like Syria and Iraq, were basically military dictatorships. Lebanon was different, ruled with the interests of its financial and merchant elite at heart-an elite that didn’t particularly want a large, expensive army and security apparatus that would only cost money and raise their taxes, provoke Israel and create a class of military rulers who would probably end up taking over. Nonetheless, Chehab had in the 1960s created a security service that functioned efficiently enough to provoke complaints of an encroaching police state. This ‘Deuxième Bureau’, as it was known, became associated with the Chehabist programme. Its unpopularity is part of the reason for the other important event which occurred in September 1970, which is the unexpected defeat in the presidential election of the appointed Chehabist successor to Helou, and the success of this man, Suleiman Frangieh:


Like many prominent Lebanese politicians, Frangieh inhabited the grey area between politician and mafia boss. He had, some years earlier, helped gun down a rival mob and was forced to flee to Syria while the heat died down. He enjoyed close relations with the Syrian president Assad, and his promise of increasingly close relations with Syria was probably one of the reasons he won this controversial election, which was conducted by the parliament rather than the general populace. Jumblatt and his bloc of leftwing delegates had been expected to support the Chehabist candidate, Elias Sarkis, but he was persuaded to switch his vote to Frangieh at the last minute and the latter won by one vote. It remains unclear why Jumblatt (who later said he regretted his decision) voted for Frangieh. The aforementioned closer ties with Syria were no doubt a lure, as were promises to scale down the Deuxième Bureau. In addition to this, Frangieh appears to have promised continued leniency towards the Palestinians, Jumblatt’s allies. Another, more conspiratorial explanation, is that he was ordered to by the Soviet Union, as revenge for the previous Chehabist government foiling a plot of theirs to steal an American-manufactured plane to examine it.

Whatever the reasons, Frangieh was as good as his word with the Deuxième Bureau. The security apparatus of the Lebanese state was considerably reduced and a number of leading figures put on trial. Many have subsequently blamed the anarchy that prevailed during the civil war, the free rein given to independent militias and the inability of the state to exert control, to Frangieh’s actions in this period. All of this played into the hands of the Palestinians of course, and by 1973 they were once again fighting the Lebanese army. In this, they were now joined by a coalition of left-wing Lebanese groups, led by Jumblatt, which would come to be known as the Lebanese National Movement (LNM). We are getting to the point where the various factions in the civil war begin to coalesce and the LNM are one of those. There is no point at this stage in pretending that the Lebanese Civil War was anything other than insanely complicated, and I will try to clarify it as much as possible, but there is no getting around the fact that the following will contain a confusing array of militias, leaders and constellations of alliance, but what can you do except try and come to grips with it?

Emblems of the main parties in the LNM: The PSP, SSNP and the Lebanese Communists.

So, the LNM was composed of, besides Jumblatt’s PSP, the Lebanese Communist party, a number of small Nasserite groups campaigning for pan-Arab unity, and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), who wanted to unite Lebanon with Syria and were also (broadly-speaking) left-wing in their socio-economic outlook. This block of parties were, at this stage, backed by Syria (remember Assad’s ‘Corrective Movement’ had brought him to power in 1970) and the Soviet Union, and with the help of the latter, as well as the experienced Palestinian guerillas, built a powerful military organisation which, by the mid-1970s, had grown to rival the state’s security forces. The LNM was officially secular, but in practice overwhelmingly Muslim. The PSP was in fact associated with the Druze, a religious minority in Lebanon to which Jumblatt belonged. The Druze are a religious group native to the Levant. Related to Islam but (usually) not considered Muslims, they combine a monotheistic faith similar to the other Abrahamic religions with a belief in reincarnation. Being a minority everywhere they exist, they have suffered a great deal of persecution over the centuries and, not surprisingly, this has made them a tight-knit, coherent community, proud of their distinctive traditions and culture.

Their role as a minority, sandwiched in between the Christians and Muslims, also left the Druze in dire need of allies. It was partly the skill of Jumblatt that made the LNM such an effective alliance, and prepared to support the Palestinian refugees in their country. The really pertinent question here is: why were these Lebanese groups increasingly taking up arms against their compatriots and making cause with the Palestinians in their struggle against Israel? For starters, pan-Arab solidarity with the Palestinian cause cannot be entirely discounted. In the early 1970s, the Palestinians were still welcomed by many Lebanese. It was only after their presence had provoked such ferocious Israeli attacks that they came to be resented by much of the population. But this is far from a satisfactory explanation on its own. Far more relevant is the element of class conflict in Lebanon, and the dovetailing of interests between these left-wing groups, who wanted to see radical social change, and the Palestinians, whose movement had become more revolutionary since the Arab defeat in the 1967 war, in which the older generation of Arab leaders such as Nasser, had been somewhat discredited, and the Palestinians had begun to take the initiative in their struggle themselves. As much as religion, therefore, the Lebanese civil war was rooted in the growing inequality between the classes in Lebanon, which came to be articulated in sectarian terms. It was perceived to be perpetuated by the National Pact, and one of the LNM’s princial aims was an end to the 6:5 ratio of parliament seats in favour of Christians.

Emblems of the main factions within the LF (left to right): Kataeb (Phalangists) Party, the Tigers Militia, Marada, the Guardians of the Cedars and Al-Tanzim.

In the first period of the civil war, the LNM’s opponents would be the LF (really helpful-all these acronyms!), which stood for ‘Lebanese Front’ or ‘Lebanese Forces’, and was almost exclusively composed of Christian political factions and their militias. The largest of these was the Kataeb or, as they are usually known in English, the Phalanges Party. If the word ‘Phalangist’ sounds vaguely familiar, it should. This was the name of a Fascist movement in 1930s Europe which became the ruling ideology of Spain under the Franco dictatorship. How Phalangism became a major ideology in Lebanese politics is down to one man, Pierre Gemayel, who was impressed by the discipline of the Hitler youth on a visit to the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and founded the party shortly afterwards. The Phalangists advocated a strong authoritarian state and the maintenance of the social hierarchy as it was, with the wealthy elite and the Christians maintaining their privileges. Anti-trade-unionist, anti-communist, they wouldn’t openly admit to being fascists, but then again, who does? Here is Gemayel on the left, along with his two sons, Bashir and Amine, who will also play key roles in the war:


The Phalangists stressed the separateness of the Lebanese nation from its Arab neighbours. This differentiated it from the Marada movement, which was dominated by President Frangieh, and had close ties to Syria. The Marada first attracted attention when they were led, armed, into the parliament chamber to ‘support’ the election of Frangieh. They were led on that occasion by his son Tony, who was the Sonny Corleone to Suleiman’s Vito. As will be seen, however, the Frangiehs were not alone in resembling mobsters. The Marada were mainly active in the northern city of Tripoli and the surrounding area. The Tigers were the military arm of the National Liberal Party, founded and initially financed by former president Chamoun. Like the Phalangists, it laid great stress on Lebanon’s independence,  but differed ideologically from the latter in adherence to free trade and American-style liberalism. The ‘Guardians of the Cedars’ took the separateness of Lebanon even further, claiming that the Lebanese were not Arab at all but ‘Phoenician’, descended from the trading people of classical times, and a ‘western’ rather than ‘eastern’ country.

This is where the Christian militias’ ideology shaded into outright racism. Etienne Saqr, the ‘Father of the Guardians’ was described by Robert Fisk as ‘one of the more psychopathic of the minor Christian militia leaders’ which is really saying something when you consider the stiff competition. The ‘Guardians’ were even more fiercely hostile to the Palestinians in Lebanon, often attacking indiscriminately and torturing their victims to death. Al-Tanzim (meaning ‘The Organisation’) was ideologically similar to the ‘Guardians’. Formed by Phalangists years earlier who had believed their party was not militant enough, they had close links to elements within the Lebanese army who opposed the Cairo agreement with the Palestinians. They would come to fracture into pro- and anti-Syrian camps in the summer of 1976, but we’ll get to that.

Some of the more militant among these factions were arming and training from 1970 onwards, foreseeing the struggle ahead with the Palestinians. There is good evidence that the Lebanese army helped them import weapons. Rather than pinpointing the start of the war to a particular date, it would be truer to say that Lebanon gradually descended into anarchy, as the state forces lost control and the two Lebanese factions, along with the Palestinians, engaged in a series of tit-for-tat killings that eventually drifted into outright war. A major flashpoint occured on February 26, 1975 in Sidon, when fishermen demonstrated against the attempts of a deep-sea fishing company (founded and chaired by Chamoun) to establish operations in their fishing grounds which threatened their livelihoods. A leader of the Sunni community and leftwing activist, Maaruf Saad, was killed by the army and the protesters fought back. More civilians and army personnel were killed in the following weeks, and the unrest spread to other parts of the country, as the right-wing groups held demonstrations in support of the army.

The 13 April 1975 is usually reckoned the ‘outbreak’ of the war, when things got irrevocably out of control. On this day, an attack took place on a church congregation (among which was Pierre Gemayel) in the east Beirut area of Ain el-Rammaneh, a predominantly Christian neighborhood. Four people were killed, and the perpetrators were most likely Palestinian gunmen who had been involved in an altercation with the Phalangists guarding the church. Within hours, Phalangist militiamen, joined by the Tigers, had set up roadblocks in the area and attacked a bus filled with Palestinians returning to the refugee camp in Tel al-Zaatar, killing 27 passengers. LNM and Palestinians set up roadblocks in their own, western half of Beirut, and over the next few days hundreds were killed as the division which would characterise the city for the next decade began to harden. Here is a map of Beirut and the places mentioned in the text here:
This downward spiral of violence intensified over the summer. Ceasefires were declared and promptly broken. Frangieh proved himself utterly incapable of dealing with the crisis. When his Prime Minister,  Rachid Solh, in May resigned in protests against the excesses of the Christian militias, Frangieh appointed a military cabinet, hoping to send out the message that the government was ready to restore law and order. The fact that this cabinet resigned after only a few days, cowed by the threat of a strike by the LNM, sent out the exact opposite signal. A lull in the fighting following in June, as a ceasefire arranged by the (re-appointed as Prime Minister) Karami was taken slightly more seriously than other ceasefires. Negotiations and proposals for reform were exchanged back and forth among the leading politicians. Much of the killing that was happening on the streets was random and brutal, often with little motivation beyond the fact that the victim was a member of a rival sect. What is often left out of account in narratives that stress war as a mere extension of politics is the role played by revenge, and the way conflicts like this can take on a life of their own independent of political developments, as each side seeks to exact revenge for the atrocities it has suffered by inflicting an even greater one on ‘the enemy’.
On 5 December (known as ‘Black Saturday’) the killing escalated dramatically, as the bodies of four Christians were found dead in east Beirut, and the Phalangist militias, under the orders of Bashir Gemayel, went on the rampage in the port district, killing Muslims at random. The LNM and Palestinians began killing Christians in retaliation. Roadblocks were set up and ID cards used to identify members of the opposing side (cards gave the religion of the bearer in those days), who was often dragged out of their car and had their throat slit there and then. By the end of the day, 600 people had been killed, roughly half from each side. While civilians had been killed before, Black Saturday was a watershed in that it was the beginning of a feature that would come to characterise the war from this point on, the indiscriminate massacre of civilians, often known as ID-card killings.
This photograph of a Muslim woman in Karantina pleading with a Phalangist milita member won the World Press Photo for French journalist Francoise Demulder.
Another major massacre was carried out by the Phalangists in January at the refugee camp at Karantina, now surrounded within east Beirut. As many as 1000 civilians there were murdered, not only Palestinians but Kurdish and Armenian refugees as well. The survivors were moved to west Beirut and the division of the city between Muslim west and Christian east only became more entrenched. These massacres led the LNM and their allies to go on the offensive. The PLO attacked the town of Damour, stronghold of Chamoun, 25 km south of Beirut, and massacred as many as 500 Maronite civilians. An intensified campaign was launched to take the hotel district in the downtown area of Beirut from the Christians. The site of most of the city’s tallest buildings, this phase became known as the ‘Battle of the Hotels’ and went on for months as the Phalangists and their allies held on grimly in the face of increasingly successful LNM assaults. In its early stages, hundreds of tourists and staff in the hotels were caught up in the crossfire, although most of these were evacuated during a ceasefire. The Holiday Inn is a fitting, unintentional memorial to the Civil War. Built in 1974, it operated for only a year before the outbreak of war. To this day, its gutted, bullet-ridden facade looms over the city. Due to a disagreement between its owners, it has never been renovated and remains in the ruined state it was left by the militias.
The Holiday Inn, Beirut, during the war and as it looks today.
By the end of March, the LNM and Palestinians had virtually captured the entire area. This was achieved with the help of a breakaway faction of the Lebanese army. In January, Muslim soldiers stationed in the Beqaa Valley mutined, led by a Lieutenant, Ahmed al-Khatib, and joined forced with the LNM. This faction would be known as the ‘Lebanese Arab Army’. In response, a Christian faction within the army led by Colonel Antoine Barakat in Beirut declared its allegiance to the other side. The worst nightmare of those who had hoped to maintain some semblance of central authority had come to pass-the splitting of the army along sectarian lines. By the summer of 1976, the Christians were facing military defeat in the face of the Muslim allies’ onslaught. The latter’s victory was thwarted from what might at first appear an unlikely direction: Syria. Like all Arab states, the Syrians were sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, and indeed so close was their association with some of the PLO factions that they could reasonably be described as puppets of the Assad regime. Having said this, Assad’s great bugbear was the growth of a powerful and unified Sunni opposition to his rule. It will be remembered from part two the trouble he was having at this time with the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood in his own country, and how brutal his suppression of this threat would be.
While Assad overtly supported the Palestinians ultimate goal of recovering their homeland from the Israelis, and had no objection to a Palestinian presence in Lebanon, within limits, he had broader strategic interests to which he subordinated Lebanese internal politics. Embroiled in rivalry with Sadat in Egypt, he sought to dominate Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians as a counterweight. The prospect of the Palestinians and LNM victory over the Christians in Lebanon was unwelcome to him, as it would leave the PLO far too powerful for comfort and no longer dependent on him, not to mention provoking Israel, which was the last thing he wanted. The Palestinians’ growing radicalism was likewise a cause for concern and was perceived to threaten instability. A meeting in March 1976 between Jumblatt and Assad in Damascus, once allies, ended in acrimony. The demands of Jumblatt to be allowed to pursue outright victory were denied by Assad, and his call for an end to sectarianism fell on deaf ears. It was becoming increasingly clear that the Syrians intended to intervene in the conflict to prevent their fellow-Muslims overwhelming the Christian minority. It should be remembered that Assad was not without his friends in that camp either. Both Frangieh and his successor (that September) Elias Sarkis (below, the one who looks like a waiter), were allies of Assad. Nor should it be forgotten that Assad himself belonged to the Alawite minority in Syria, and filled his government with members of that sect.
Through unofficial American mediation, the Israelis and Syrians tacitly agreed not to step on each other’s toes. The Israelis let it be known that, as long as the Syrians did not advance further south than the  Litani river, they would permit their intervention. From the beginning of the year, Syrian troops had been infiltrating the country secretly; from June, they were present in great numbers, professing to keep the peace between the warring factions. The Arab League created an ‘Arab Deterrent Force’, with a few token Sudanese and Saudi troops, in order to give the Syrian presence legitimacy. There was some resistance from the LNM and Palestinians, who attempted to halt the Syrian advance across the country at the same time as they raced to capture east Beirut from the LF before the Syrians arrived. Beyond the objective of establishing de facto rule over the capital, they had a more pressing need to take the city, which was to break the siege of the camp at Tel el-Zaatar, full of Palestinian refugees isolated in east Beirut. Despite intensive efforts, lack of basic supplies led to the fall of the camp, before it could be relieved, in August. Once again, the Christian militias committed an atrocity, killing between 1000-1500 unarmed civillians, raping and mutilating many of their victims. Many of the survivors would be resettled by the PLO in Damour, which the Palestinians had ethnically cleansed of Christians.
Somewhat ironically then, given their previous determination to resist incorporation by Syria, the Christians of Lebanon found themselves welcoming the Syrian army as their saviours. This doesn’t mean that their reception was without ambiguities however. The same can be said of the population as a whole. While many no doubt had mixed feelings about the arrival of Assad’s forces, their arrival at least heralded an end to hostilities and horrors such as those of Karantina, Damour and Tel el-Zaatar. By the time the Syrians reached east Beirut in November the LNM and Palestinians were no longer attempting to halt their advance. The Syrians prevented them from taking east Beirut. Knowing they were no match for the Syrian army, the LNM had little choice but to accept their presence, and the uneasy truce they established.
Syrian soldiers take up position on the streets of Beirut in November 1976.
This truce was in fact mistaken by most people as a permanent peace. Hope, as they say, is a powerful drug, and no doubt desperation to believe that the war was over blinded people to the fact that none of its substantive causes had been addressed. Lebanon was still ruled (to the extent that it was ruled) along sectarian lines, the Palestinians were still present in large numbers, nor had they been disarmed or substantially weakened by the Syrians. Rather than putting an end to hostilities, it might indeed be argued that the intervention of outsiders had the effect of prolonging the war. Nor am I merely referring to the Syrians here; soon the Israelis would be invading from the south; in a few years, everyone from the United States to the Italians would be piling in. In time, the war would come in large part to be about their presence, as opposed to being primarily a civil war between Lebanese. Just how long it was to last can be gauged from the following photograph, taken at some point in the 1980s. This is the front line between the two sides in Beirut (aptly called the ‘Green Line’, given the foliage). Once a bustling street in the middle of a metropolis, the area was destined to be abandoned so long it turned into a forest.



Featured image above: First hand-drawn flag by members of parliament during the declaration of independence in 1943.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 5: The Lebanese civil war #1