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Simply... A History Of Beirut And Lebanon


new internationalist
issue 258 - August 1994

Simply... a history of Beirut and Lebanon

Flourishing Phoenician city-states along the Eastern Mediterranean coast dominate the trade of the ancient world before 1000 BC. In the centuries that follow the area is conquered by the Persians, by Alexander the Great and by the Romans. Ancient ruins throughout the area attest to all these different periods. During these times different religious, political and ethnic groups live side by side, sometimes peaceably, sometimes not. The area is still under Roman rule when the Prophet Mohammed begins teaching Islam in 610 AD. From 634 AD various Khalifs rule, culminating in the Ottoman state.

By the 11th century AD most of the communities that live there today have already settled in the area.

In 1516 the Ottomans take over. They are to rule for four centuries until 1918. Ottoman rule is based on economics; Christians and Jews – ‘People of the Book’ – have to recognize Islamic rule but are allowed to practice their own religions. They are freed from conscription but have to pay poll tax.

Rulers are more interested in tax revenues than converts.

The local tax-farmers become the powerful families of their area. Many of these families still dominate politics today. Beirut becomes increasingly important, growing from 6,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the century to 46,000 by 1861.

From 1860 onwards there are repeated clashes between feudal landlords and peasants and between the different groups. In 1860 Druze Muslims massacre Christians.

The Western Powers gain influence from 1840 onwards. Following the defeat of Turkey in the 1914-1918 war and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, the French occupy Lebanon and Syria and obtain a League of Nations mandate to govern them (as does Britain in Palestine). ‘Greater Lebanon’ is created by attaching neighbouring districts which had been part of the former Ottoman provinces of Beirut and Damascus. Many Muslims at first refuse to accept the designation ‘Lebanese’, wanting to remain attached to the Syrian hinterland and seeing the new country as Western- and Christian-orientated. In 1926 the Lebanese Republic is formed and a constitution drawn up – much of which is still in force today. It expressly forbids any of the new country’s territory from being relinquished. Co-existence between the different groups is built into the constitution.

In 1943 Parliament reaffirms the independence of the country. France responds by imprisoning President al-Khoury, Prime Minister Riad Solh and three cabinet ministers. There is a general strike and an uprising. Under pressure from the British and American Governments, France backs down. A new flag with a green cedar tree in the middle replaces the French tricolour.

Amid rejoicing from all groups the Lebanese National Pact is formed. It is a compromise. The Christians renounce the protection of Western powers and the Muslims renounce union with Syria or other Arab states. In intra-Arab conflicts Lebanon will remain neutral.

In 1948 the State of Israel is created, causing an influx of Palestinians into southern Lebanon.

The first outbreak of war in Lebanon begins in 1958. The Lebanese people respond to the pan-Arab call of Nasser, the Egyptian President. The US intervenes for the first time, replacing Camille Chamoun by General Chehab as President. In 1975 the second civil war breaks out between the Christian-Maronite Lebanese Forces and the National Movement backed by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Massacres ensue, notably of the Palestinian inhabitants of Tel-al-Zaater and Karantina by the Christians and of the Christian inhabitants of Damour by the Palestinians. In 1976 Syria is requested to help resolve the crisis and responds by occupying all but the far south of the country. In 1978 the Israeli army invades southern Lebanon after PLO raids into Israel. UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, is sent in to keep the peace. Israel forms a proxy militia in the south of the country. The Syrian army shells Christians in East Beirut.

On 6 June 1982 the Israelis invade Lebanon, marching as far as Beirut in three days and putting the city under siege for three months. PLO troops are evacuated from Beirut under the supervision of a multinational force. Lebanese Christian President-elect Bashir Gemayel is murdered. Under Israeli cover, Christians massacre Palestinian civilians in the camps of Sabra and Shatila. Many strategic foreign buildings are suicide-bombed, including the Israeli military headquarters in Tyre, the US Embassy and the French military headquarters in Beirut. Lebanese and Israeli Governments agree on the terms of Israeli withdrawal on condition that the Syrian army also leaves. Syria refuses to withdraw. US warships shell Muslim and Druze areas of Lebanon. In 1984 President Pierre Gemayel visits President Assad in Damascus to reiterate his demand for Syrian withdrawal. The same year hostage-taking begins, including several Westerners. In 1985 the Israelis withdraw from Sidon and begin their ‘iron fist’ policy of repression in southern Lebanon. The Shi’a Amal militia tries to subjugate the Palestinians by besieging their camps in Beirut.

The failure of the Lebanese Parliament to elect a new President leads to the setting up of rival governments in West and East Beirut. Outgoing President Amin Gemayel appoints Army Chief of Staff General Michel Aoun as interim Prime Minister. Aoun declares war on the Syrian army in Lebanon. East Beirut comes under siege from Syria and its allies. In 1989 all parties agree to a peace negotiated at a meeting of leaders in Taif, Saudi Arabia. The Taif agreement reasserts the belief in a state where the different confessions will co-exist. It gives increased powers to the Prime Minister and fewer powers to the President. The results of the conference have broad international approval but encounter domestic opposition. The first President, Rene Mowad, is assassinated after only a short time in office and replaced by Elias Hrawi. Fighting continues, especially between Christian groups.

The Gulf War brings a rapprochement between Syria and the US. Syrians move in on Aoun and defeat him. Parliament convenes and with Syrian backing dismantles the structures of war, including the Green Line dividing East and West Beirut. After some struggle the main militias (including the Palestinians but not Hizbollah, the Islamic group) are disarmed. By 1991 the rule of the large militias is over. But the economic situation goes from bad to worse, leading to a general strike on 6 May and the resignation of Prime Minister Karami. A poor turnout at the general elections in 1992 is due mainly to a boycott by the opposition – particularly the Christians – in protest against the doctoring by Parliament of electoral law and because elections under conditions of total occupation cannot be free and fair. The main benefactors from this are the more radical Shi’a Muslim parties, including the Hizbollah, which gains seats in Parliament. Rafic Hariri, billionaire and patron of various causes, is appointed Prime Minister and promises new buildings, new jobs and a new Lebanon.

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New Internationalist issue 258 magazine cover This article is from the August 1994 issue of New Internationalist.
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