Remembering the Lebanese civil war, 44 years on
It has been 44 years since the start of the Lebanese civil war, or “The Events” as the Lebanese refer to the 15-year period of conflict, Israeli invasion, car bombings, Syrian occupation, assassinations, disappearance of some 17,000 citizens and every other calamity that struck Lebanon on and after April 13, 1975.
Forever optimists, the Lebanese liked to think that things would improve quickly and that the country was going through a bad phase.
Since the start of the civil war, Syrians, Saudi Arabians, Sudanese, US Marines, French, Italians, British, as well as Palestinians, Israelis and Iranians have intervened militarily at some point in Lebanon. That’s excluding the 40 or so foreign forces serving with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon.
Even though most of the Western powers went to Lebanon in peace and were armed with good intentions, almost all foreign armies that intervened in the Lebanon conflict left the country worse off than when they arrived.
Those that tried to bring peace were caught in the back-stabbing politics of the region. It didn’t take them long to realise the complexity of the social, religious and cultural melange that is Lebanon. It is a country with 18 recognised religious denominations and at least 20 political parties and movements, ranging from Trotskyists to right-wing fascists and armed militias, some of which rivalled the Lebanese Army in size and firepower.
On April 13, 1975, a series of skirmishes started when Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) guerrillas on a bus fired weapons as they passed a church. When they refused to be diverted by Phalangist militias, directing traffic, an altercation took place in which the PLO bus driver was killed. Some time later, unidentified gunmen approached the church in two cars and opened fire, killing four people.
That date is now considered the start of the civil war, the ingredients needed for the country to erupt had percolated for years. A major contributor was religion. Another was the presence of heavily armed Palestinian commandos. A major catalyst was a raid on Beirut’s Verdun neighbourhood, where three top Palestinian officials were killed by an Israeli hit team led by Ehud Barak.
Accusing the Lebanese of failing to provide protection, the Palestinian resistance took it upon itself to take care of its own security. Checkpoints around refugee camps angered the Lebanese. The PLO, which had relocated from Jordan to Lebanon after a falling out with the king, took weapons into Lebanon. The Christians saw the PLO as a natural ally to Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim population so they began arming and training for a clash that was inevitable.
Lebanese Prime Minister Rashid Karami challenged the status quo that had been in place since independence. Called the “Gentleman’s Agreement,” the National Pact of 1943 was designed to give all communities a sense of belonging. Christians, who were in the majority in Lebanon but a minority in the Middle East, would be given the presidency in exchange for a promise that they would not seek foreign intervention and accept an Arab-affiliated Lebanon, instead of a Western one.
Muslims would abandon their aspirations to unite with Syria. The president and the commander of the Lebanese Army would be a Maronite Catholic. The prime minister would be a Sunni Muslim. The speaker of parliament would be a Shia Muslim. All government jobs were to be allocated along confessional lines.
By the mid-1970s, that equation had changed. Muslims outnumbered Christians and challenged their right to the presidency. Karami declared himself a candidate in the 1976 presidential race.
Feeling threatened, Christians sat up training camps in the Keserwan Mountains to instruct recruits of Pierre Gemayel’s Phalange Party, Camille Chamoun’s National Liberal Party and other rightist Christian groups.
Shias, Kurds and Palestinians living in large slums and refugee camps formed a poverty belt around Beirut, adding to the explosive tension.
In 1975, Chamoun, in a business venture, set up a fish processing plant on a ship that anchored off the coast of Sidon. The project angered local fishermen, who feared their livelihood would disappear. Encouraged by Muslim anti-government forces in Sidon, a large march was organised for February 26 and headed by Maarouf Saad, a parliamentarian from Saida.
During the march, a sniper shot Saad. He was taken to the American University hospital in Beirut, where he died. The government, fearing the possible reactions, prevented news of his death from being released for eight days, claiming Saad was in a coma.
The sniper was arrested. He turned out to be a soldier in the Lebanese Army. With demonstrators claiming the Christian-led government killed Saad, Sidon went up in flames.
Within a few days the situation appeared to return to normal but beneath the surface it remained precarious. Then, on Sunday, April 13, 1975, came the bus incident, and, as they say, the rest is history.