Lebanon, a Powder Keg in the Middle East – Background to the Civil Strife

Intercontinental Press – November 10, 1975
By Peter Green (John Percy)

For more than six months, Lebanon has been racked by bitter and bloody fighting. The clashes have been fiercest in Beirut but have also occurred in most other major towns and much of the countryside.

As many as 5,000 persons have been killed since April, while estimates of the wounded run as high as 16,000. This in a country whose total population is about 3 million. The equivalent in terms of a country the size of the United States would be more than a quarter of a million dead.

The economy has been thoroughly disrupted, and damage to property has been put at $5.5 billion.

Ranged on one side in this conflict are left-wing political organizations, the Muslim community, the bulk of the workers and poor peasants, and the 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. On the other side are various right-wing parties based on the Christian community, and most of the bourgeoisie, often with their private militias. There are fifteen “official” militias in the country, containing an estimated 150,000 men under arms and possessing 300,000 firearms of all calibers.

The Lebanese bourgeoisie once liked to picture their country as “the Switzerland of the Middle East,” a peaceful haven in a troubled area that managed to embrace a multiplicity of religious and ethnic groups. That was never the reality, of course, but today that myth stands starkly exposed. Since the fighting began in April, repeated cease-fires have been negotiated and decreed. All of them have broken down.

How did the conflict start? What are its roots? Some commentators have portrayed it as purely a confrontation between Christians and Muslims. Others consider it as the “just combat” of “Lebanese nationalists against the Palestinian terrorists.” The New York Times sees the cause in outside agitators, “mischief-making by the most radical forces in the Arab world” – Libya being high on the list.

Such interpretations are false but they illustrate the complexity of the issues. A decisive factor is the class conflict between the masses of workers and poor peasants – mostly Muslim – and the Lebanese bourgeoisie – mostly Christian.

Also involved is the continuing struggle by the Arab masses throughout the region against imperialism and its neocolonialist plans for the area. In this struggle for national liberation, the Palestinian effort to dismantle the Zionist state of Israel and regain their homeland plays a central role.

The region now known as Lebanon has played an important role in the growth of the Arab national movement during the past 100 years.

Beirut was perhaps the most culturally advanced city in Greater Syria, the area under Ottoman rule that was subsequently divided into Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon. It was there that the first Arab, nationalist secret societies were born. These early groups were distinguished by the participation of both Christian and Muslim Arab intellectuals.

When the years of underground agitation and propaganda promoting Arab national sentiment bore fruit in the Arab revolt during World War I, a central condition the Arab leaders laid down to the British in return for taking up arms against the Turks was the independence of all of Syria. This was agreed to in various statements and promises.

But Britain, France, and tsarist Russia had other plans. In 1916 they signed a secret treaty, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, allocating the southern part of Syria – present-day Jordan and Palestine – to British control, and the northern part – present-day Syria and Lebanon – to the French.

Although the other imperialist powers acquiesced in Paris’s desire to add Syria and Lebanon to its colonial empire, granting it a “mandate” over the area at the San Remo conference in April 1920, problems still remained.

In addition to the overwhelming Arab sentiment favoring independence and national unity for the whole of Syria, the population was violently opposed to any French presence.

The King-Crane Commission, sent to the area by President Wilson to ascertain the wishes of the Arab population, reported a tremendous desire for independence and opposition to any French involvement. More than 60 percent of the petitions presented to the commission strongly protested against mandating territory to France.

In July 1919, a Syrian National Congress met in Damascus. It claimed political independence for a united Syrian state under a constitutional monarchy, rejecting any French or Zionist claims to the area. On March 8, 1920, the congress proclaimed independence for Syria, granting a certain amount of autonomy within the state to the former Ottoman Sanjaq (province) of Lebanon. The area, inhabited mostly by Maronite Christians, had been made a separate province by the Ottomans in 1864 under pressure from London and Paris.

But French imperialism was determined to claim its share of the spoils, and in July 1920 French troops occupied Damascus after bloody fighting. For the Arabs, 1920 became known as the “Year of the Catastrophe.”

The new rulers quickly set about consolidating their position, granting privileges to minority interests and ethnic groups to counterbalance the unifying tendency of the Arab nationalist movement.

Maxime Rodinson, in his book Israel and the Arabs, wrote that “minority religious communities such as the Jews and, above all, the various denominations of Christians were supported against Islam, the majority religion, itself historically linked with Arab nationalism. This was the key to French policy in the Lebanon, in particular.”

Paris carved its mandate into several parts, of which Lebanon was one. The rest of French Syria was divided into three separate states with four distinct administrations. It was not enough, however, to give the Maronite Christians in the Lebanon Mountains a state of their own. Paris had a bigger role reserved for them, as the guarantors of French control in a much larger area.

In August 1920, the French commander, General Gouraud, issued a decree creating the “State of the Greater Lebanon.” The old Sanjaq of Lebanon was expanded by the addition of the predominantly Muslim towns of Beirut, Tripoli, Tyre, and Sidon; southern Lebanon down to the Palestinian border with a population mainly of Shiite Muslims; and the fertile Bika Valley between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon Mountains. The boundaries were drawn to include as much territory as possible without making the Muslims a majority. In May 1926 the country became the Republic of Lebanon.

The new state was about twice the size of the former Sanjaq and had twice the population, George Antonius said in his pioneer work on the rise of Arab nationalism, The Arab Awakening, published in 1937:

“Its new boundaries gave it a considerable accretion of Moslem citizens, thus reducing the preponderance of its Christian element to a bare majority and control of the ports of Tripoli and Beirut which between them served practically the whole of the sea-borne trade of Syria. On both those grounds, the aggrandisement of the Lebanon was a short-sighted act: by depriving Syria of its normal outlets to the sea, it created a movement of irredentism which will have sooner or later to receive satisfaction; and by the annexation of regions inhabited mostly by Moslems, it exposed the Christian majority to the fate of becoming in course of time a minority in a state designed to ensure its predominance. But worse still, it introduced a new bone of contention in a country already rich in motives of dissension; and if the measure is also to be judged in the light of its human consequences, of the passions it aroused, of the bitterness it engendered and of its effect in resuscitating sectarian hatred, then the French deserve condemnation for an act which is as remarkable for its mischievous disregard of moral values as for its inherent short-sightedness.”

The ‘National Pact’

The whole of Syria previously contained a great diversity of religious groups within its borders. The French gerrymandering concentrated a good proportion of these within the enlarged state of Lebanon, accentuating and exploiting antagonisms that existed before.

The largest grouping in the new state was the Maronite Christians, Catholics who look to the pope but have their own patriarch and follow the Eastern rites. The other Christian groups, in order of size, included Greek Orthodox, Greek and Roman Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, and Armenian Catholics.

The largest Muslim grouping was the majority Sunni branch. But not far behind was a large concentration of Muslims adhering to the Shia branch of Islam. Next largest were the Druze, a sect with roots in Islam but also incorporating elements from Christianity and other religions.

With the Maronites no longer in an absolute majority in the new country, however, and with Christians of all sects in only a bare majority, French imperialism and its local allies had to find some way to perpetuate and guarantee Christian – and by proxy, imperialist – control of the country.

France tried to retain direct control for as long as possible. In the spring of 1943, however, it was forced to hold elections, with seats in parliament allocated on the basis of thirty Christian and twenty-five Muslim and Druze members. The most slavish lackeys of French imperialism were defeated.

In response, the leading bourgeois Christian and Muslim politicians reached informal agreement in September on a “national pact,” dividing posts on a religious basis at all levels of Lebanese political life.

In November 1943 the new government also voted a revision of the constitution, removing all French limits to its sovereignty. Three days later, however, the French suspended the constitution, arrested the president and the majority of the cabinet, and installed Emile Edde as a puppet head of state.

The response was a general strike. A remnant of the government established itself in the mountains to gather an armed force to resist the French and French collaborationists. After World War II, the French were finally forced to concede formal independence.

The unwritten “national pact” the leaders of the main religious and political groups agreed to in 1943 has been adhered to up until the present. According to this agreement, all political positions – from cabinet posts and seats in parliament, through the civil service, to local government level – were parceled out in the ratio of 6 Christians to 5 Muslims.

The presidency, a powerful position under the Lebanese constitution, has traditionally been reserved for a Maronite, as has the post of army chief of staff. The agreement provides that the premier be a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of the Chamber a Shiite, and the foreign minister usually Greek Orthodox. All told, seventeen different religious and ethnic groups are officially recognized.

In addition, the different religious groups have control over their own laws concerning such matters as marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance. The state makes no provision for civil marriage or divorce. All state expenditures are also divided according to the 6-to-5 ratio.

But even when it was initiated, this system was based on a French-conducted census whose accuracy is suspect. It was intended to maintain Christian hegemony and imperialist influence when France could no longer rule directly.

The agreement was also a static arrangement. Even if the Christians were a majority in 1932, it is generally agreed that because of a higher birthrate, the Muslims are a majority today. A report in the October 6 Newsweek estimated that Muslims now outstrip Christians 60 to 40. According to Jonathan Randall, writing in the September 28 Washington Post, “Lebanese sociologists now believe that the Shia have become the biggest group by far, followed by the Sunnis and finally the Maronites.”

The holding of a new census has thus become an explosive issue in Lebanon, with the Maronites strongly opposing any suggestion of it. “Such is the Maronite neurosis,” Randall said, “that not only is any mention of a new census taboo, but no new telephone book has been published for fear that it would contain more Moslem names than Christian ones.”

In the past when Western commentators and Lebanese businessmen smugly described Lebanon as the “bankers’ republic,” or referred to Beirut as “this charmed city,” they were not completely wrong. For some people it did provide a comfortable life.

In a five-part series on Lebanon carried in the Paris daily Le Monde September 20 to 25, Eric Rouleau described the Lebanese capitalist class as “a bourgeoisie uninhibited about displaying the signs of its affluence.”

Rouleau continued:

“The privileged lead ostentatious lives: several big cars, preferably American and sometimes fitted with telephones, per family; country homes in the hills with swimming pools, tennis courts, even a golf course, all surrounded by a big estate to which one escapes in the hottest times of the year. Apartments in Paris, Geneva, London, or New York are used for short stays when on business or in search of pleasure. Yachts anchored out at Taslik, off Beirut, make it possible to spend pleasant weekends with friends.

Beirut’s capitalist class does not rub shoulders with ordinary mortals. Their luxurious apartments are in the city’s posh, often as not Christian, quarter, a kind of ghetto where high-society folk converse only in English, French, or, in a pinch, ‘Franbanais,’ an artificial mix of French and Lebanese Arabic. At lunchtime they gather on one of the strictly “members-only” private beaches. By night Beirut offers a vast range of restaurants, nightclubs, and gaming houses where one can live it up at a very high price.”

For most of the population, however, Beirut is a city of slums and misery. After Tokyo, it is the most densely populated city in the world, with a population of 1.5 million now and growing rapidly. Here, in the Middle East’s financial capital where the banks are bulging with cash and the wealthy few arrogantly flaunt their riches, more than a third of the populace are living on the threshold of starvation.

Around downtown Beirut – encircling the homes of the rich and the commercial center – is an almost continuous belt of slums and refugee camps. It is known as the “belt of poverty.”

The Palestinian refugees were the first to move there in numbers, about twenty-five years ago. They were followed by Sunni Muslims (Arabs or Kurds), and then by Shia Muslims, fleeing from southern Lebanon and the Bika in the hope of scraping a living in the city. The Shia now make up the majority of the inhabitants of these areas.

Here the death rate is two or three times higher than the national average. Proper medical care or educational facilities are practically nonexistent. The inhabitants are forced to work for cut-rate wages, if they are lucky enough to get a job at all.

In a city where the cost of living is as high as in New York, 72 percent of the workers earn an average of L£425 (US$193) a month, which is less than half the minimum necessary for feeding and providing relatively decent housing for a family of six, without allowing for clothes, transportation, schooling, and medical care.

Although Lebanon’s per capita income – $700 in 1972 – is one of the highest in the Middle East, its distribution is very uneven. According to one estimate, half, if not more, of the national revenue goes to 5 percent of the population, whereas agricultural, industrial, and construction workers get only between 12 and 15 percent. Last year, moreover, the gross national product recorded zero growth, while inflation reached 15 percent.

The country is a “tax haven” for the bankers and traders, not merely because of the ridiculously light taxes levied on the rich, but also because of the large-scale tax frauds committed with the full knowledge of the government and often with its complicity. One economist has estimated that if the fiscal regulations were strictly applied, income tax revenue would be three to four times higher than is actually collected.

Agriculture has been left to decay, impoverishing the peasantry and forcing them to flock to the cities.

“Bika used to be the Roman Empire’s granary,” an agricultural engineer told Rouleau. “But it’s dying today. Since the country became independent thirty-two years ago, the government has not initiated a single irrigation or hydraulic project, or given any technical or financial assistance to the farmers, who are on the verge of bankruptcy.”

Faced with the tremendous gap between rich and poor it is not surprising that the masses were eventually goaded into action. Nor is it surprising that the wealthy minority sought to defend their privileges by force. This is part, at least, of what the recent fighting has been about.

In the course of this struggle, the inhabitants of the slums and refugee camps surrounding Beirut have taken control of their own communities. Government authorities have not been able to enter the “belt of poverty” for several months. The residents there refuse to pay rent or electricity and gas bills. Instead, they hand the money over to the committees that administer the areas.

If Beirut’s impoverished masses had got the better of it in the recent fighting, they could have cut off the capital. “We are literally besieged,” Raymond Edde, leader of the right-wing Christian National Bloc, told Rouleau. “The poor, the Shia, the Sunni, the Palestinians, and the Communists can choke us off at any time.”

‘A Bastion Against the Muslim Hordes’

The fear of the Arab populace felt by the privileged Christian minority is not new. It was deliberately fostered by the French. This policy has been continued by the main Christian political parties – the National Liberals of President Suleiman Franjieh and former President Camille Chamoun, Raymond Edde’s National Bloc, and the Phalangists, led by Pierre Gemayel.

The Phalangists have taken the lead in fanning the flames of sectarian hatred. They are not the largest of these three parties but they are the most right-wing and the most active in the current fighting. They also have the largest militia, with as many as 10,000 men under arms.

The Phalange party (or Kataeb, as it is known in Arabic) was founded by Pierre Gemayel in 1936, after he returned from the Berlin Olympics. He borrowed the name from Franco’s party, and the ideology and methods from Hitler and Mussolini, complete with squads of green-shirted bully boys. The Western press has delicately referred to the Phalange as “right-wing,” or “conservative.” In its ideology and methods, however a better description would be fascist. Its slogan is God, family, and country.

It presents itself as the bastion of “the Christian West faced with the Muslim hordes.” This is also how it sees Lebanon itself, a viewpoint shared by the other main Christian parties, especially the National Liberals. In defending the perpetuation of Christian minority domination of Lebanon, it argues that there should be at least one state in the Middle East run by Christians. Phalangist leaders have thus drawn satisfaction from the success of the Zionists in carving out their “Jewish homeland” in the same region.

Perhaps also taking their cue from the Zionists, some of the right-wing Christian leaders have tried to discover a historical basis for their “nationalism,” claiming that they are the descendants of the ancient Phoenicians. They have tried at all costs to manufacture a separate Lebanese nationalism distinct from the Arab national sentiment, even though the Christian masses speak Arabic, are of the same racial stock as the rest of the Arab masses, and have few cultural differences apart from religion.

Charbel el-Kassis, president of the Order of Maronite Monks, is quite explicit. For him, Lebanon is a sort of special confederation of nations. No matter that it is widely known that the Muslims are no longer a minority, arguments can always be found to justify the status quo: “The national pact is not based on numbers but on ethnic, cultural, and territorial considerations. The Christians are not privileged, they merely have vested interests.”

Several smaller Christian parties are even more fanatically sectarian than the Phalangists. Among these are the Maronite League, sometimes called the “Christian Rejection Front” because of its uncompromising stand, and the Cedar Defense Front, baptized the “Lebanese Ku Klux Klan” by its opponents. Both of these groups are said to be backed and financed by the Order of Maronite Monks. Both operate their own clandestine militias.

Not all the Christian community, however, most likely not even a majority, has participated in this sectarian campaign against the Muslims and Arabs. One leftwing Maronite intellectual quoted by Rouleau accused some of the Maronites of being “possessed by a Massada (Note 1) complex.”

Monsignor Gregoire Haddad, the former Greek Catholic archbishop of Beirut and founder of the interdenominational Social Movement, says it is “absurd” to speak of a threat of genocide and points out that Islam is basically tolerant:

The irrational fear of many Christians is due to a host of factors, including education and the ghetto existence. But it is exploited by those who defend the interests of big business, the upper ranks of the clergy, and the right-wing parties. The supporters of brute capitalism play upon ambiguities like the imminent threat presented by the left-wing (mainly Muslim) groups, and hammer into the disadvantaged Christian masses the idea that any change would imperil their physical existence.

In January 1974 a new movement was formed by Lebanese Christians, including members of the clergy, called the Assembly of Committed Christians. It took a stand against imperialism and affirmed the historic links of Lebanon with the Arab nation, recalling the role of Christian Arabs in the national liberation movement. The organization held a meeting at the Lebanese University under such slogans as “No to isolationism!” (with respect to the Arab world) and “Capucci (Note 2) is only the beginning!” A representative explained the group’s point of view:

We are unconditionally committed on the side of the oppressed. Monsignor Capucci has furnished the proof that Christianity does not necessarily have to be synonymous with a disregard for the social and national conflict. Instead it can mean a total commitment in this conflict to do away with all forms of oppression....

We Christians are definitely committed on the side of the Palestinian resistance. We denounce all forms of confessional conflict and declare that Christians and Muslims in Lebanon are not in two opposed camps. In reality, it is the forces of stagnation that are opposed to the forces of change. As for us, we are on the side of all those forces struggling for change and progress.

Not only is the Christian community not monolithic, but the Muslim groups also cover the political spectrum from far right to far left. Although the Lebanese bourgeoisie is predominantly Christian, and the Muslim community in its majority consists of workers and poor peasants, there are also Muslim big landowners and businessmen. The Maronites do not have a monopoly on semifascist parties either. The Syrian National party and the Muslim Brotherhood are two others.

In addition to the militias organized by the political parties, there are literally dozens of private militias. The big property owners and the “feudal” heads of clans all have their private armies. At Zghorta, the northern village outside of Tripoli where President Franjieh was born, all five of the big families there (including that of Franjieh himself) have their own militias. Prime Minister Rashid Karami has a militia in his Tripoli stronghold. Former President Camille Chamoun maintains a personal guard of about 100 men.

The most recently formed private army is that of business tycoon Henri Sfeir, Rouleau reported. He said of Sfeir:

An “independent” Maronite with links to the Chamounists, he has set up his 200-man corps of shock troops on his property only a few hundred meters away from his summer home at Reyfoun in the Kesrouane region. Top man there, after Sfeir, is Major Réné Gaudet, a French mercenary and former paratrooper in the Foreign Legion who distinguished himself in the Korean, Indochinese, and Algerian campaigns, before he lent his services to Moise Tshombe in the Congo.

Sfeir is glad he was able to get Major Gaudet to train his men. “Of all the foreign mercenaries working for the Phalangist and other Christian militias,” he told me, “Gaudet is the best. That’s why I’m paying him L£2,000... a month, which is twice the going rate.”

A pistol strapped to his hip and a grenade dangling from his waist, Major Gaudet prodded his men to the attack, screaming – force of habit, no doubt – “Jump to it lads, there’s wogs up ahead....”

The ‘Progressive Front’

In opposition to the right-wing Christian parties and their militias, the main leftwing and Muslim groups have formed a “Front of Progressive Parties and National Forces.” The dominant grouping in the front is the Progressive Socialist party, led by Kamal Jumblatt. Jumblatt recently issued a statement summarizing the main points in the front’s program:

  • Ending of the political system in which posts and parties are determined by religious affiliation.
  • Introduction of comprehensive electoral reforms to replace the existing system with a system of proportional representation (every 1,200 voters to be given the right to have a deputy in parliament) and to extend voting rights to eighteen-year-olds.
  • Creation of an economic and social council to implement a series of economic reforms in accordance with the needs of the country.

Jumblatt, the leader of the Progressive Front, is a feudal aristocrat, the leader of the Druze community, and lord of the Shouf, the mountain stronghold of the Druze southeast of Beirut. He is also a believer in astrology, an admirer of Mohandas Gandhi, a poet, and winner of the 1972 Lenin Peace Prize. He took up his family’s parliamentary seat in 1943.

As minister of the interior in 1970, he was responsible for having a philosopher indicted for criticizing religion. But that same year, he unilaterally issued a decree legalizing the outlawed Communist party and other banned left political groups, and granting amnesty to left-wing political prisoners.

Also included in the Progressive Front are the Communist party, the Organization of Communist Action in Lebanon, Nasserites, and Iraqi and Syrian Baathists. In response to the militias formed by the rightwing parties, the left-wing parties have also armed themselves.

Georges Hawi, secretary of the Communist party, said:

In principle we are against violence and would far prefer a democratic evolution guaranteed by peaceful means. But we are forced to reply in a revolutionary way. Faced with the default of the army, we founded our militia in January 1970 to defend our frontiers against Israeli aggression, as well as the Palestinians against the plots of Lebanese reaction. In the appropriate situation our militia will also be used to protect popular struggles.

Throughout southern Lebanon, the Communist militia is in control, Rouleau reported. It patrols the frontiers, while the Lebanese army is mostly kept to its barracks. At any time it can isolate the region from the rest of the country, as it did by cutting the Beirut-Nabatiyah road to force the government to release three of its members. In Sidon, a committee representing all the “patriotic and progressive” forces runs the town. Tripoli is likewise under control of a similar committee.

Most of the elements of the Lebanese situation outlined so far have been present for decades – the communal antagonisms bequeathed by the French imperialists, the social contradictions, and the impact of Arab nationalism. To be sure, the contradictions have grown more acute year by year. Nothing offered by the Lebanese bourgeoisie comes close to presenting a solution, as indeed no measure can within the present capitalist setup. But these issues were the same ones that in 1958, for example, touched off a virtual civil war, leading Washington to send in the marines.

At that time, the fighting was also described by some in purely confessional terms, that is, a religious conflict between Muslims and Christians. Muslim pressure for a greater say in parliament had been growing, and it exploded into large-scale fighting after President Camille Chamoun tried to take a second consecutive presidential term, in defiance of the rules.

But the incident that sparked the explosion was the assassination by the right of a prominent opposition journalist, who happened to be a Maronite Christian. The opposition established their control over three-quarters of the territory of the country. Then on July 14 the revolutionary overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq sent an exultant wave of nationalist feeling throughout the Arab world.

The imperialist powers and their local puppets were terrified at the ramifications of the Iraqi events. In Lebanon in particular, coming on top of a popular rebellion, the crisis was acute. On July 15, President Eisenhower ordered in the marines to “restore order,” maintaining as many as 14,300 U.S. troops in the country at one point.

Although the underlying causes of the civil strife that has erupted in Lebanon since April this year are similar to those in 1958, there are also important differences. In the first place, as James M. Markham pointed out in the October 24 New York Times, the fighting is on an even larger scale than in 1958, with many more dead and wounded.

But the biggest change is the presence of the Palestinians.

Although Palestinian refugees have lived in Lebanon since the Zionists established their state in 1948, they were not a major political factor until the new growth of the Palestinian resistance movement after the 1967 war. The brutal assault on the Palestinians in Jordan by the Hashemite regime in September 1970 made Lebanon even more important as a refuge for the freedom fighters.

Exact figures are not known, but it is estimated that there are more than 300,000 refugees in Lebanon today, including about 20,000 fedayeen. A third of them are concentrated in about fifteen camps on the outskirts of Beirut and in the south, which are generally under the control of the Palestinians themselves.

The Israeli army has carried out repeated raids across the Lebanese border. The aim is to terrorize the Palestinian refugees and pressure the Lebanese government to curb the Palestinian commandos.

In 1969 a major offensive against the fedayeen was launched by the regime of President Charles Helou. Demonstrations in April urged the government to lift restrictions it had placed on the activity of the fedayeen, forcing the resignation of Premier Rashid Karami (who has since been reinstalled in that post during the current crisis).

In October 1969 the regime ordered the army to escalate its attacks on the fedayeen, resulting in large-scale clashes. A truce was negotiated in Cairo under the urging of Egypt’s President Nasser, giving the Palestinians the right to control their own camps.

Heavy fighting between the army and the Palestinians again broke out in May 1973. The army launched a strong offensive following mass demonstrations by 250,000 persons protesting government inactivity over an Israeli raid on Beirut that killed three leaders of the Palestinian resistance.

The Zionists looked on approvingly. “I am afraid the situation in Lebanon is too confused to result in the final, all-out confrontation that occurred in Jordan,” an Israeli official said, recalling the September 1970 slaughter in which as many as 10,000 Palestinian civilians were killed. “But at the same time, the Lebanese seem more determined than ever to gain a greater control over the guerrillas. From our point of view, that is all to the good.”

Although quick to attack the Palestinian resistance, the Lebanese army has done little to patrol the borders and defend the population against Israeli raids. In many cases it has been only the Palestinian commandos and the local militias that have mounted any resistance.

Although the army is relatively weak – an estimated 18,000 men under arms – the main reason for the default in face of the Israeli attacks is the conscious policy of successive Lebanese governments and the army officers themselves, who are predominantly Christian.

The Phalangists have even codified this into a theory, holding that Lebanon must remain a weak state to avoid inviting Israeli attacks. As for the Zionists, they are not content just to try to wipe out the resistance. They have their eye on a chunk of southern Lebanon as well, regarding the Litanie River as an advantageous “natural border.” This would involve annexing the southern fifteen miles of Lebanon, including the city of Tyre.

During the current crisis, the Zionists have done their best to heat up the tensions, continuing their border raids and sending fighter planes over Lebanese cities, especially whenever a cease-fire seemed to be in sight.

The Israeli attacks and the default by the Lebanese army have not only led to a flight by many of the inhabitants of southern Lebanon but have also served to radicalize the population and strengthen the ties with the Palestinians.

A young member of the Progressive militia quoted in the September 26 Le Monde, speaking about the refugees from southern Lebanon, said:

It’s not hard to win these people to our cause. After the Israelis, the actions of the Kataeb suffices to convince them. The Phalangists first organized an army with the aim of keeping us down by force. Because of the default of the authorities, we in turn have to arm to defend ourselves. As we had neither arms nor money, clearly the Palestinian resistance came to our assistance.

The actions of the Lebanese army also impel the population toward the Palestinian resistance, as is indicated by the following experience related by Rouleau:

At midnight on July 23 of this year, Israeli commandos sneaked into the Lebanese frontier village of Kafr Kila, where they blew up several houses and withdrew, taking seven villagers with them. It was a routine operation in this daily war of attrition between Israel and the fedayeen. The skirmish lasted several hours, and the Lebanese army, as, usual, did not step in. The kidnapped villagers, all Lebanese citizens, were subjected (according to them) to a “tough” interrogation before being released two weeks later at the frontier station of Naqoure.

That wasn’t the end of their ordeal, however. They were then seized by the Lebanese army and grilled night and day, just as they had been by the Israelis, for information about the fedayeen camping out not far from there with – and this was the height of irony – the Lebanese government’s permission. The seven captured men were suspected of collaborating with the Palestine resistance. “Why else would the Jews have seized you?” screamed one of the questioners.

“We were treated far more harshly by the Lebanese soldiers,” Mohamed Hammoud, one of the men involved, told me, “than we were on the other side of the border.” And Abou Omar, a mason and local leader of the People’s Watch (Communist militia) who directed the resistance to the Israeli commandos, concluded, with the unanimous approval of the villagers standing around us: “We have two foes: Israel and the Lebanese state, which both have the same interests.”

Both the Palestinians and the Lebanese masses, Rouleau said, “feel they belong to the same ‘fellowship of wretchedness,’ to borrow the phrase of Ghassan Tueni, labor and social affairs minister. ‘It is a communion of hate for the Lebanese state, the army, and the Maronite bourgeoisie, which are considered enemies.’“

The Palestinians have served as a catalyst in the current crisis, but it has been the Christian bourgeoisie, with the Phalangists in the lead, who provoked the armed clashes. The Phalangists’ aim was either to smash the Palestinian resistance or force the Lebanese army to step in and do the job. They want the guerrillas disarmed, so as to facilitate the dismantling of their “state within a state” in the refugee camps and the countryside (or even their complete expulsion from the country, since they tip the religious balance even further in favor of the Muslims).

After the October 1973 war, Lebanese leaders nursed the hope that the Palestinians would quit Lebanese soil to set up their own “ministate.” But they were disappointed in this. On January 12, 1975, the Lebanese border village of Kfar Shouba was bombed and destroyed by the Israelis. Many villagers were killed, and 166 of the village’s 202 houses were destroyed.

The left responded by organizing protest demonstrations. The religious leader of the Shia Muslims, the Imam Moussa Sadr, declared that “Lebanon has to mobilize a force to protect the south from Israeli occupation, and I will be the first to sign up for military service if there is a national defense plan.”

The response of the Phalangists, however, was to intensify their attacks on the Palestinians, accusing them of “abusing our hospitality and democracy” with the aid of the “international subversive left.” At first, on January 20, Gemayel demanded that the state reestablish its authority over all parts of the country. Then on February 20 he demanded that a referendum be held on the Palestinian presence in Lebanon.

In February, Palestinian workers in Sidon went into the streets with Lebanese fishermen who were demonstrating against the government’s granting a fishing monopoly to the Protein Company, an enterprise formed by two prominent Christians – Tony Franjieh, the president’s son, and Camille Chamoun, the former president and current interior minister.

Eleven demonstrators were killed by the army, including a former Nasserite deputy for the area. Lebanese and Palestinians erected barricades, seized the town, blocked the road to Beirut, and called a general strike. In Beirut, the Phalangists with Gemayel at their head paraded through the streets acclaiming the heroism of the soldiers, five of whom were killed in the fighting in Sidon.

On April 13, with tensions increasing throughout the country, the Phalangists carried out a cold-blooded massacre that was to set off general hostilities, first in the capital and then throughout the country. A bus carrying Palestinians home from a rally was ambushed by the Phalangist militia, and twenty-seven Palestinians were gunned down.

Premier Rashid Solh resigned May 15, accusing the Phalangists of bearing “full responsibility” for the massacre. On May 23, President Franjieh appointed a military cabinet, the first in Lebanon since independence. This was seen as a clear gain for the Phalangists, who had stepped up their demands for the army to intervene against the Palestinians. But the formation of the military cabinet touched off an explosive upsurge among the masses, and on May 24 the country was shut down by a general strike. The regime was forced to resign after three days.

An Impasse for the Bourgeoisie

The Syrian regime, the leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and most of the bourgeois politicians are all desperately looking for a solution to the crisis that would not fundamentally change the status quo. But they are at an impasse. Despite numerous attempts to restore stability, all the “truces” negotiated so far have quickly broken down.

The Lebanese regime is operating under a severe handicap, since it is extremely difficult to use the army to intervene. In the first place, its troops are outnumbered by the different militias. More importantly, because of its predominantly Christian officer corps and the well-founded suspicions on the part of the Muslim masses that they would order the troops to fight alongside the Phalangists, use of the army could prove very dangerous. It could set in motion a popular upsurge far surpassing anything that has occurred so far.

In addition, although the officers are mainly Christian, many of the ranks are Muslim. The army itself could prove unreliable, particularly in view of the polarization of Lebanese society.

So far the regime has taken only tentative steps to test the army. It first sent it to separate the popular forces in Tripoli from the Christian militias in the nearby town of Zghorta. Then on October 24 it deployed about 100 soldiers in some areas of Beirut.

If events show the helplessness of the regime, several forces waiting in the wings have indicated their readiness to step in. In the wake of the steep domestic and international price Washington paid for its Vietnam debacle, the White House has to be more cautious than it was in 1958 about direct military intervention, relying more on regional supporters to keep things in check.

But the Zionists have repeatedly warned that they would have no hesitation about invading if events begin favoring the Palestinians. The head of the Israeli army, General Mordechai Gur, sensing that the Phalangists might be losing ground, declared June 27: “If a modification of the internal structure of Lebanon occurs, the consequences would be very serious for Israel, in that it affects the activities of the fedayeen which are launched from that territory against Israeli settlements.”

In an interview October 14, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin accused Syria of trying “to exploit the unstable situation in Lebanon to achieve its purposes.... Any attempt to conquer Lebanon would create a situation which will adversely affect Israel’s security.”

Paris is also concerned. The French government issued a statement July 2 declaring that “it is essential that the independence, unity, and integrity of Lebanon be preserved.” The French imperialists said they were ready to give Lebanon “the help that it might want to receive in the difficult circumstances through which it is passing.”

Although eighteen members of the Arab League meeting in Cairo October 16 adopted a resolution warning they would use “all their resources” in concerted action if Israel used the civil strife in Lebanon as a pretext for taking over southern Lebanon, Egypt’s position has been ambiguous.

In an interview with Le Monde in January, President Sadat went out of his way to say that Egypt’s commitment to go to war in case of an aggression against Syria did not apply to Lebanon, even if Israel sought to occupy the southern part. In a speech October 16 he warned all countries to keep their “hands off Lebanon,” but observers interpreted this as being directed more toward Syria and Libya than Israel.

A twenty-member “National Dialogue Committee” representing most of the major political trends in Lebanon has been meeting since September 25 in an attempt to work out a solution but without success. The Phalangists have insisted that the state reestablish its control in all parts of the country – i.e., disarm the Palestinians and popular militias – before they will agree to any reform of Lebanon’s political structure.

But many of the more astute Christian politicians are beginning to realize that methods less blatant than the “national pact” or naked force are required. Some are now in favor of “deconfessionalizing” the conflict.

However, while “deconfessionalization” and a series of measures to reform Lebanon’s political structure might have been able to defuse the situation a few years ago, such reforms by themselves are unlikely to dampen the militancy of the Muslim masses.

In addition, there is the issue of the Palestinians. As long as the Palestinians insist on their rights, the Zionists and the Lebanese bourgeoisie are faced with an explosive and radicalizing issue.

In face of these circumstances, there is little prospect the Lebanese bourgeoisie and its imperialist backers can clamp a permanent lid on the powder keg that is Lebanon today.


1. Massada was a fortress on the Dead Sea where the Jewish group, the Zealots, made their last stand against the Romans in 70 A.D. The last survivors killed their wives and children and then each other so that none were left alive to fall into the hands of the Romans.

2. Monsignor Hilarion Capucci is the Greek Catholic archbishop of East Jerusalem. He was arrested by the Zionists in December 1974 on charges of smuggling arms to Palestinian guerrillas.

Source: https://www.themilitant.com/Intercontinental_Press/1975/IP1340.pdf#page=13&view=FitV,3