A Refresher Course on Lebanese History

Hezbollah Parade in Beirut

Hezbollah Parade in Beirut

By Daniella Wenger

Photograph of Hezbollah Parade in Beirut courtesy of JTA


While exiting the library after a study break, a couple of international friends and I discussed potential vacation destinations for the summer. I mentioned my preference to visit Italy and France, fantasizing over trips to the Coliseum or lunch at a sidewalk bistro. War-ravaged countries in the Middle East did not immediately jump to mind. However, my friend suggested: “Let’s go to Lebanon. The night life is amazing. There are beautiful Roman ruins, charming castles, and limestone caves.” Another friend commented, “Isn’t Lebanon known as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’?”

So, what is Lebanon? When Jews think of Lebanon they often think of 2006, Hezbollah, rockets, and terrorism. When Christians think of Lebanon they think of Jesus’s visits to southern territories where he preformed miraculous healthiness; they think of Saint Maron who founded ecclesiastical Maronitism. However, there are also Sunnis and Shias who each, respectively make up 27% of Lebanon’s population as well. Their deeply rooted conflicts have existed for hundreds of years.

How does one understand the diverse Lebanese population? Over this three part series The NU Middle East Review will provide three segments: a re-introduction to Lebanon, its relationship with Israel, and the country’s projections for the future. Together, we will investigate Lebanon’s past, present and future in order to understand it’s position within the Middle East.

For those of us—myself included— who need a refresher, Lebanon is a country in the Middle East bordered by Syria to the north and east and Israel to the south. It is a country with a rich history and strong cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity. Lebanon has hosted some of History’s great Empires such as the the Phoenicians, Romans, and the Umayyad. It was ruled by the Ottoman Empire from 1516 to 1918 until the Empire’s collapse after World War I, when the land was given to France. The diversity of the population remains to this day, as Christians, Muslims (Sunni and Shia), and Druze all call Lebanon home.

Lebanon gained independence in 1943 while France was occupied by Germany during World War II. The country assumed a unique political system called “confessionalism,” a system of government that embraces the mix of religion and politics. Government positions are apportioned amongst different religious groups according to the relative demographic weight of these groups. This apportionment is quite rigid. In fact, the National Pact of 1943 required that Lebanon’s President be Maronite Christian, speaker of parliament be Shite Muslim, prime Minister be Sunni Muslim, and Deputy Speaker of Parliament and Deputy Prime Minister be Greek Orthodox.

This constitutional framework faced its first major challenge in 1948. Lebanon supported Arab countries in a war against Israel. However, according to their government they did not officially invade. After 1948, the country was full of tourists who appreciated Lebanon’s agricultural, commercial and financial centers.

However, in 1975, a civil war broke out in Lebanon. A coalition of Christian groups fought against the forces of the PLO, left wing Druze, and Muslim Militias. About a year later Syria sent in its own troops to attempt to restore the peace. In 1982, the PLO attacks from Lebanon on Israel led to an Israeli counter-terror operation. A multinational force of American, French and Italian contingents were deployed in Beirut to keep the peace. However, the peacekeepers withdrew following a 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Americans. In September of 1989, a ceasefire was established with the creation of the Taif Agreement. This agreement included timetable for Syrian withdrawal form Lebanon and a formula for de-confessionalisation of the political system. Still, de-confessionalization has not been implemented in Lebanon.

Yet the Taif Agreement did not bring peace and stability to Lebanon. Syrian troops remained in the country throughout the 1990s and into the new century. In 2005 Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a car bomb explosion which set off a series of assassinations of prominent Lebanese officials. Some blame the Mossad while others blame the secret Syrian special forces for these brutal attacks. Hezbollah agents have also faced prosecution for Hariri’s killing. These assassinations began the Cedar Revolution, which demanded the withdrawal of Syrian troops form Lebanon and an international commission to investigate the assassinations. In 2006, Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group and political party based in southern Lebanon, launched a series of rocket attacks and raids into Israeli territory. Israel retaliated with a ground invasion of southern Lebanon, escalating the 2006 Lebanon war. UNSC Resolution 1701 ordered a ceasefire after two months of fighting.

After the war a series of protests were launched against the Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who favored Western politics. He demanded the creation of a national unity government where Shia opposition groups would have veto power. Therefore in 2007, When Emile Lahoud’s presidential term ended in October 2007, the opposition refused to vote in a successor, leaving Lebanon without a president. In 2008, the Lebanese government announced that Hezbollah’s communications network was illegal. Various pro-government and opposition militias fought in guerrilla fights against one another. After the fighting Lebanon faced 18 months of political paralysis, resolved by the granting of a veto to the opposition (PLO and Left Wing parties).

Unfortunately, this solution proved short lived. in 2011, the national unity government collapsed due to the tensions stemming from the tribunal which indicted Hezbollah members for the Hariri’s 2005 assassination. Angering Hezbollah members, the parliament elected Najib Mikati, a member of Hezbollah. He blamed Israel for the assassination of Hariri.

Syria’s civil war threatens to further undermine Lebanese security. In 2012, the Syrian civil war nearly spilled over into Lebanon leading to clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli. The chaos continued in 2013 as the former Minister of Finance Mohamad Chetah and a senior aide to former Prime Minister of Lebanon Saad Hariri were killed with seven others in a car bomb explosion in downtown Beirut. Refugees from the Syrian crisis also challenge Lebanon. Today, Syrian refugees are an estimated quarter of the Lebanese population, which has placed a strain on the country’s resources. How Lebanon manages its combustible domestic challenges with the growing chaos in Syria will have a profound impact on the future of the country and the region as a whole.

What is the relationship between Lebanon and Israel today? Stay tuned for Part 2 next edition of NUMER.

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