Major fighting occurred in Lebanon the last two weeks in May as Palestinian refugees sought to defend themselves against murderous attacks by the rightwing Phalangist militia. At least 130 persons were killed and 235 were wounded up to May 30. Two Lebanese governments fell during the crisis.
The current clashes are a continuation of fighting that began April 13 when a bus carrying Palestinians home from a rally was ambushed by members of the Phalangist party. Twenty-seven Palestinians were killed in a hail of machine-gun bullets. As many as 300 persons were killed in the next four days before a shaky cease-fire was arranged.
After coming under heavy attack from the Phalangists for not using Lebanese troops against the Palestinians, Premier Rashid Solh resigned May 15. In his resignation speech he accused the Phalangist party of bearing “full responsibility” for the “massacre” of the twenty-seven Palestinians.
The Phalangists have long campaigned for the suppression of the Palestinian movement. They see the 300,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon as a political threat and argue that unless the Palestinians are curbed, Lebanon will face continual attack from Israel, perhaps even loss of territory.
The Phalangists maintain a heavily armed, 6,000-man private army. They hope their provocations against the Palestinians and other Muslim groups will force open intervention by the Lebanese army and the crushing of the guerrilla groups along the lines of the September 1970 massacre by Jordan’s King Hussein.
The latest fighting started May 20 when Phalangists attacked the Palestinian refugee camp of Tal al-Zataar with rockets and mortar shells.
On May 23 President Suleiman Franjieh appointed a military cabinet, the first in Lebanon since independence. The eight-man cabinet, headed by a retired brigadier general, Nureddin Rifai, was seen as a clear gain for the Phalangists. Its announcement was greeted with jubilant bursts of smallarms fire in the right-wing neighborhoods of Beirut.
Among the predominantly Muslim working class, the formation of the military cabinet touched off an explosive upsurge, however. Beginning on May 24, the country was shut down by a general strike. Mail services stopped; garbage piled up in the streets; ships waiting to be unloaded jammed the ports; and barricades went up in Beirut and the major towns.
Muslim political and religious leaders united in opposition to the new cabinet. A delegation representing the entire Muslim community called on Rifai May 25 and demanded that he resign.
Representatives of left political organizations met with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat and told him they were ready to help the Palestinians defend themselves if the Phalangists continued their attacks. Arafat also received a telephone call from Libyan Prime Minister Muammar el-Qaddafi, who offered to place “all of Libya’s potential at the disposal of the commando movement in Lebanon.” Syrian President Hafez al-Assad sent a message of support.
In the midst of the crisis, the Israeli army stepped up its aggression in southern Lebanon, aiming to put additional pressure on the Lebanese government to crack down on the Palestinian resistance groups.
On May 25, Israeli troops on a “search and destroy” operation inside Lebanon clashed with the Lebanese army in the fiercest engagement for three years. Two companies – 150 men – of Israeli troops fought a twelve-hour battle, backed by heavy artillery fire and air strikes. The Lebanese army reported that five Israeli soldiers and seven of their own men were killed. The following day, 100 Israeli soldiers attacked in the same area.
After three days of continual street fighting and heavy pressure from the Muslim community, the military cabinet resigned May 26.
On May 28 President Franjieh appointed Rashid Karami as premier. Karami, who had been premier eight times in the past, was touted by some Muslim political leaders as the only solution to the crisis.
A PLO representative stated, after the military government fell, that “if a parliamentary government is formed under a Moslem premier, the Phalangists will have failed in their attempt to create a conflict between the Lebanese state and the Palestinian resistance.”
But the Phalangists also supported the appointment of Karami, who promised cabinet posts to all the major political tendencies. On the way to the presidential palace to accept his appointment, Karami drove through the Beirut stronghold of the Phalangists and was cheered by their militia. Phalangist leader Pierre Gemayel accompanied him to the palace.
The Phalangists – like the rest of the bourgeois forces in Lebanon – feared the mobilizations that occurred in defense of the Palestinians. New York Times correspondent Juan de Onis reported June 1 that in addition to their fear of Israeli retaliatory attacks against Lebanon, “a deeper concern expressed by the Phalangists, and shared by other conservative Christian forces, is that the Palestinians could join other Moslem and leftist political forces here in an armed revolution based on the grievances of industrial workers, Syrian and Kurdish laborers, and poor peasants.”
According to a report by Joseph Fitchett in the May 29 Washington Post, the rising influence of left-wing organizations in the explosive situation created by the combination of the Palestinian struggle with the long-standing grievances of the Muslim working class “disconcerted all factions of the establishment....”
Le Monde correspondent Jean-Claude Guillebaud said that it was the intervention of the Syrians and the discreet pressure of the leaders of the Palestinian resistance that ensured the selection of Karami and prevented the Muslim leaders from being outflanked to the left in the streets. The farleft groups “appeared to be the main beneficiaries of the radicalization that occurred,” he said, and “no Lebanese politician failed to notice it.”
Arab political analysts described the situation as worse than that preceding the civil war in 1958, when the Pentagon sent in more than 14,000 troops.
Washington was not ignoring the situation this time, either. The State Department issued a statement May 27 saying that “we particularly regret” the Israeli incursions into Lebanon “at a time when Lebanon is beset by internal tensions.” A high-ranking official said, “We are obviously concerned because if you look back, it is a more serious crisis in Lebanon than in the past.”
But in the wake of its Vietnam debacle, Washington is cautious about direct intervention in explosive situations around the world. The White House prefers to work through regional military forces. The same State Department official indicated the drift of Washington’s thinking. According to the May 28 New York Times, he “said that if the Palestinian guerrilla leadership gained the upper hand in Lebanon, this would be a cause of grave concern to Israel and might provoke military action of more serious nature than border raids.”