[An English translation of the article that was first published in French in Khamsin no. 3, June 1976]

It would take a book, much more than a magazine article, to retrace and analyse the war in Lebanon, which has lasted for a year now and whose roots reach down into innumerable sources. I would like to avoid unwarranted over-simplification of the sort that reduces everything to a few key facts and thereby helps to swell the already extensive distortion of information about the subject. I will therefore use a somewhat unusual method. This article will be no more than a kind of barely developed outline, hopefully a prelude to other studies and analyses of greater depth. Many passages may seem too laconic. Some parts will be even less developed than others, for they equire concentration on facts that are quite elementary. Nevertheless, even at this cost, a comprehensive overview of the war is surely necessary if we are to arrive at a picture that approximates reality.

I. The Forces in Conflict

The warring parties, foreign observers, and more especially the local news media, linked as they are to varying interest groups or torn between them, have all been guided by a priori assumptions taken for profound truths. A serious reading of the press is therefore quite difficult, for it requires a constant struggle against the news, an effort to untangle facts from sheer politics, and to follow the thread of what is left unsaid. It is therefore necessary to start with a simple list of the forces in conflict, within Lebanon itself, in the Arab world, and internationally.

A. Inside Lebanon

1. The Lebanese

I will distinguish the Lebanese from the Palestinians, even though the cogwheels of the Lebanese political system on the one hand and of the Palestinian resistance on the other have certainly meshed, and some characteristics of the former have infected the latter, which has itself affected the balance of forces in Lebanon.

a. The Traditional Leaders

Many of the ‘ruling’ families of independent Lebanon have been the descendants of the muqata’jis, who were responsible for levying taxes for the sultan during the Ottoman epoch. Others owe their political status to their role in the state apparatus, more particularly during the period of the French mandate. All of them have maintained a patronage system, exchanging the votes of families or villages for posts ‘granted’ one or more of their members.

Such were the foundations of Lebanese parliamentary democracy. This caste has been a hardy one indeed: despite the reform of Shehab,1  who instituted a merit system for the selection of civil-service employees, it managed to sustain its patronage system by bringing pressure to bear on the executive branch, and in the end succeeded completely in breaking with twelve years of Shehabism after the election of the present president of the republic, Sulaiman Franjieh.

Among the pillars of the civil war we find Franjieh; Camille Chamoun, a former president; Pierre Gemayel, the head of the Phalangist Party; and Kemal Jumblatt. The latter, hailed as a marvel by a good part of the Lebanese left (‘chief and spokesman of the left, socialist and humanist philosopher’), is in reality one of the rare leaders who still maintains, virtually intact, a sort of feudal relation with the masses of his region, Druze and Maronite alike.

b. The Religious Communities

Lebanon is the only Arab country in which the various religious communities have been strong enough to gain ascendancy over the state.

The Maronite patriarch acquired a certain degree of political power from the Ottoman system of millas, which distinguished among the various religious communities in its law on citizenship.2 With independence, this power was consecrated. Since then it has been extended to the heads of the other religious communities. The Sunni mufti, for example, acquired an enhanced political role soon after the bloody events of 1958. With the internal migrations of the Shi’is and the Israeli attacks on southern Lebanon, it was the turn of Imam Musa Sadr, leader of the Shi’is. During the 1975–76 civil war, stardom has also been attained by the Druze Shaikh Akl, the Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic patriarchs, the Roman Cardinal, and so on.

These communities have very powerful institutions of their own, which are entirely responsible for all legislation and jurisdiction concerning the personal status of their members (marriage, divorce, family laws, and so on). They are also responsible for the greater part of education and health services. Finally, they own immense properties, a good part of which are exploited with modern capitalist methods.

The really aggravating circumstance of the power of these communities, however, is the confessional distribution, dictated by custom and once again enshrined in the new national pact, of the three principal posts in the state apparatus. The president must be a member of the (Christian) Maronite community, the prime minister a member of the Sunni (Muslim) community, the head of parliament a member of the Shi’i (Muslim) community. The National Assembly (parliament) is likewise partitioned according to religion, six-elevenths of the seats being allotted to Christians, five-elevenths to Muslims.

This confessional structure – described as a ‘unique and marvellous state form’ by the choristers of ‘the inspired Lebanese formula’ – has in fact warped democracy and politics in Lebanon, helping to imbue the members of the two large communities with a sense of identification with those of their coreligionists who hold power. The president of the republic has thus become the president of the Christians, the prime minister the prime minister of the Muslims, each seeking to gain ground against the other, with the backing of supporters divided among the two major confessions.

It is this ‘unique formula’ that has sustained the power of the traditional leaders, any threatened change mobilizing the masses into a bloody confessional schism. Indeed, one of Shehab’s major mistakes was to have generalized the so-called confessional balance through all the public services. Although he was determined to combat the traditional leaders, Shehab accorded the heads of the communities an even more important role, in exchange for their acquiescence in his plans. In so doing, he afforded even greater scope for the old game of confessional patronage, and thus indirectly bolstered the power of the traditional leaders. Thus it was that little by little the confessional cancer came to devour all political life in Lebanon, infecting even the parties of the left, as we shall see.

c. The Political Parties

My intention here is not to offer a detailed study of the various parties, but simply to highlight their essential features, the extent of their base among the masses, and their confessional polarization.

Because of the patronage system, most of the parties played a minor role in political life. Before the war, no more than about 2 per cent of the population were members of any party. During the war, affiliation fluctuated widely: membership levels were most often related primarily to the financing of the war, with little ideological content. It seems quite unlikely that any real quantitative change occurred.

1) Right-Wing Parties (or parties of religious ideology).

The right-wing, or religious, parties include the large Christian parties and some of the Muslim groups.

  • The Kata’ib, or Phalangists, constitute Lebanon’s largest party in both numbers and influence; the majority of the Phalangist Party members are Maronites.
    The party has been part of nearly every government over the past seventeen years. In the absence of any genuine popular base, it managed to identify itself with Maronite, and more generally with Christian, confessional sentiment. Moreover, of all the Lebanese parties, it comes closest to being a political party in the modern sense, since it is genuinely guided by a group policy, determined by a political bureau, and not by a purely personal policy.
    Because of its close alliance with the Church, it approximates the fascist parties of the Iberian peninsula. Populist in the manner of fascist parties, it has been able to attract fresh layers of members or armed sympathizers during periods of crisis. According to some estimates, this party, which had twelve thousand members before the war, has assembled as many as seventy thousand armed sympathizers on the waiting list for combat.

  • The National Liberal Party. Although less numerous than the Phalangists, the National Liberals boast a significant number of adherents. This party is dominated by the personal policy of its chief, Camille Chamoun, and therefore by the alliances he chooses to cement. This explains why certain party notables are Shi’i Muslims or Druze, despite the organization’s Maronite majority. It is due essentially to the alliances and electoral patronage of Chamoun.
    ‘Lebanese’ nationalists as opposed to the ‘Arab’ nationalists and their allies, the Phalangists and National Liberals command more or less the same reservoir of sympathizers, with the Phalangists holding a slight edge. Sympathizers of the two parties move readily from one to the other.
  • The other right-wing parties have few members and are rather ill-organized. Little is known about some of the extremist Christian groupings, like the Front of the Guardians of the Cedar or the Zghortiot Liberation Army, the latter based in the village of Zghorta; indeed, they surround themselves in a deliberate air of mystery. Some small Muslim parties of religious bent, like the Najjadés or al-Tahrir, are of similar type. Two other regional Christian confessional groupings, the Zghortiot Assembly and the Zahliot Assembly, both hatched during the war, played a significant role in the fighting.

2) The ‘Front of National Progressive Parties and Forces’.

This front, formed in the mid-sixties under the leadership of Kemal Jumblatt, went through some hard times after the Arab defeat in the 1967 war, actually suspending its activities at the behest of its leader. And it was again Jumblatt who presided over the rebirth of the Front two years later.

Composed of parties, groupings, and small organizations ranging from right to left (including the Communist Party and the Communist Action Organization of Lebanon), from Syrian nationalism (Greater Syria) to Nasserism, Arab nationalism, and internationalism, this Front is marked by many a contradiction and no few weaknesses. Although it lacks a well-defined form, it does have a few characteristic features:

  • A ‘mushroom’ appearance. Despite the large number of participating organizations – there are more than fifteen of them – all the components actually arose in the wake of just two main currents, Nasserism and the Palestinian resistance, and they remain intimately dependent upon them. The Lebanese Communist Party, for instance, which is more than fifty years old and therefore contemporary with the Chinese Communist Party, has nonetheless never managed to work out a policy of its own or to mobilize masses behind it.
  • The many parties and organizations still compete among themselves and have few actual members relative to the size of the population on the one hand and to the number of groups on the other.
  • They have not succeeded in breaching the wall of confessionalism, even among their own adherents. Among the Muslim population – or at least in the areas these groups have been able to penetrate – attachment to the Front remains vague, often linked to confessional interests. An aggravating circumstance in this has been their failure even to attempt to gain a foothold among the Maronite masses, the poorest and most numerous of the Christian population. The rare places in which the left had won some support, in the early decades of the twentieth century (such as Bikfaya or Hadeth), were entirely lost, not as a result of fighting, but because of the policy of the Communist Party; the Maronites there thus threw themselves into the arms of the Phalangists and National Liberals. Nevertheless, the few instances in which independent leftists have made the attempt indicate that political activity among Maronites can be particularly fruitful.
  • The Front soon abandoned any national policy – in the sense scale – in favour of the personal policy of Jumblatt , its leader. During the war, the Front therefore appeared as in solidarity with the Muslim confessional group, and distinguished itself from the line of Muslim confessionalism only in a programme of reforms that thoroughly avoided the most acute problem of the Lebanese political crisis, namely confessionalism itself. The Front, like the Muslim leaders, was content to demand a policy of de-confessionalization that would have affected neither education nor the laws on personal status. Here Christian confessionalists went further, at least in words, also demanding de-confessionalization of personal status laws. In reality, however, the Christian confessionalists linked their willingness to accept secularization of the public services to the establishment of secularism in the personal code as well, which they knew very well the Muslims would not accept; they were thus also acting for confessional reasons.

All these characteristics can be traced back to two essential roots. First, in their great majority, the ideological parties are groupings of managers, teachers, journalists, and students, who have often spottily assimilated liberal and Marxist Western culture and who, in addition, are isolated from the popular sources of local culture. Second, they are often the local pendants of larger parties of the Eastern bloc or of the Arab regimes.

d. The Army

The Lebanese army, with its eighteen thousand men, found itself far less well equipped and also less numerous than the various armed groups taken together. A victim of its politicians – both Christian confessionalists, who never tired of insisting that ‘Lebanon’s strength is in its very weakness’, and Muslim confessionalists, who had ‘no confidence in the army, which is a threat to the Palestinian resistance’ – Lebanon found itself with a ludicrous army despite its location along the Israeli and Syrian borders, in the heart of one of the world’s most inflammable regions, its security threatened from without and within alike. Confessionalism contributed to the disappearance of the state in the vital sector of defence.

The Lebanese army is characterized by three main features.

First, the middle- and lower-ranking officers are imbued with a caste spirit and feel repugnance for politicians, as was shown by the members of the military government constituted for a few weeks during the war.

Second, the military spirit has been devoured by the spirit of bureaucratism in this army that has never fought a war, scorned by politicians and exploited by them whenever it suits their purpose.

Third, the army’s ideology floats in an uneasy twilight zone between patriotism and confessionalism. The ‘confessional balance’ enshrined as political law recurs in the army as well, with an accent on the Christian leadership. Tradition and ‘balance’ have it that the army commander is always a Maronite, and Christian confessionalists have never failed to exploit this state of affairs, picking the commander in chief from among their own clientele. Thus it was that sharp tensions emerged both between the army and the politicians and within the army itself. Those tensions were reflected in violations of military discipline by the army’s Christian and Muslim confessionalists, not only in the fighting, but also in desertion, collaboration between politicians and officers, and so on.

All the political forces of the country lined up along the two sides of the confessional schism, which split the country vertically without regard to class affiliation. Lebanese Muslims and Christians belong from birth to a confessional group. Each has its own legal registries, its own schools, hospitals, and political parties. Although the latter had once promised a different future, in the end they were tamed. Political institutions and even living quarters are confessionally divided. Mixed regions or neighbourhoods are rare.3 The only ones to escape this cleavage are the caste of traditional politicians, whose interests have hardly been threatened, as we shall see. The elements that upset the balance were grafted onto this precarious confessional equilibrium, this absence of national identification. We will see this in the second part of this article, in the section dealing with what set the tinderbox alight.

2. The Palestinians

The Palestinians constitute the second grouping of forces within Lebanon, whose territory includes the most powerful Palestinian concentration of any Arab country – demographically, militarily, and ideologically.4

a. The Palestinian People in Lebanon

Having arrived in the country in two great waves (the first in 1948, after the establishment of the Zionist state, the second in 1970, after Black September in Jordan), the Palestinians in Lebanon now number some three hundred and fifty thousand. Except for a tiny number of exceptions (generally Christians who were granted Lebanese citizenship and have been integrated into normal national life), they have retained their status as refugees, living in camps administered by international organizations, in particular the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Uprooted, deprived of any identity other than ‘refugee’, and lacking any firm link to the soil, the Palestinians constituted a pool of cheap labour available for exploitation; to a large extent, it was their presence that permitted the prosperity of some of the agricultural and industrial installations of Lebanon. They exert powerful social pressure, a result of their economic role and their numbers (the total Lebanese population is only about 2.5 million).

b. The Palestinian Organizations

The profound injustice of the fate of the Palestinians, the proximity of the usurped homeland, and inter-Arab politics all lay at the origin of the creation of the Palestinian resistance. The latter, born in its present form in the countries of the Gulf and subsequently financed essentially by them, soared into prominence after the Arab defeat of 1967, raising the call for a war of national liberation. Open to the Arab masses, it recruited Arabs of various nationalities, especially Lebanese. It likewise promoted the formation of satellites in the Front of National Progressive Parties and Forces.

Linked to the Arab regimes either directly (as are some of the Palestinian organizations, like Saiqa, the Arab Liberation Front, and so on) or indirectly through its sources of finance and its political commitments, the Palestinian resistance is subdivided into various organizations whose interests or objectives differ and sometimes run at cross-purposes. For this reason, its struggle wavers between overt subordination and awkward independence, between dependence on and autonomy of the Arab regimes. Likewise, the various Palestinian fronts and groupings have an ill-developed popular organizational structure and remain dominated by the traditional structures of alignment by tribes or villages.

c. Palestinian Ideology

Palestinian popular ideology, like its Lebanese counterpart, remains essentially tribal, although with a somewhat more prominent national dimension (I will return to this question of tribalism later). The spread of Marxism has been superficial, or worse, Marxism has been deformed into neo-religious dogmas. Indeed, this tends to be the case even with the average Arab intellectual. Nevertheless, the various centres of Palestinian studies – whose objective is twofold: on the one hand, to investigate questions directly related to Palestinian, Arab, and Israeli affairs, and on the other to influence world public opinion, misled as it is by Zionist propaganda – do approach some Palestinian problems scientifically. But the Palestinian organizations themselves rarely feel the need to avail themselves of this ideological weapon, for they have taken too readily to political manoeuvres.

The slogan of a democratic secular Palestine, for instance, has been used as an international slogan for quite a while, without affecting the Palestinian masses themselves. The resistance is a virtual state without a country, dealing with military and international affairs, information, finance, and so on. In Lebanon, where the state in the national sense has been forsaken by politicans more interested in their own personal quarrels and alliances, the Palestinian resistance was sorely tempted to fill the vacuum, and in practice succumbed to the temptation, with the encouragement of the Muslim masses. The latter were painfully aware of this default of the state, and came to identify it with default of the state’s national mission. They therefore turned increasingly to Arab nationalism, embodied, in the event, by the Palestinian resistance.

For its part, the ‘ruling’ caste manipulated the Palestinians by exploiting what might be called the ‘Jordan complex’. Fear of being liquidated in Lebanon as they had been in Jordan fuelled the Palestinian desire for a popular ‘security belt’. Muslim confessionalists offered them internal alliances tailored to fit the needs of their own political engagements, while Christian confessionalists eulogized the ‘justice and sanctity of the Palestinian cause’ while shunning any actual solidarity with the Palestinians.

In the Lebanese cauldron, the great majority of the Palestinians cast their lot with a confessional policy, the Muslim confessional policy, and fell into the trap of the powers that sought to exploit the ‘Lebanese contradiction’.

B. Forces of the Arab World in Lebanon

The Arab nationalist movement, born under Ottoman occupation, sought to unite all the Arab countries and emphasized their cultural links, rising up (especially among Christians) against the religious link represented by the Ottoman Empire. But the movement soon found itself facing a multiplicity of countries divided up more or less arbitrarily by the mandatory and colonial powers that took control of the Arab East after the First World War.

Later, the state of Israel was created on the ashes of Palestine and at the expense of the Palestinian people. Apart from the intrinsic injustice it represented, the state of Israel was a powerful slap in the face to Arab civilization delivered by the West. It defied the Arabs despite their numerical superiority, humiliated them with its advanced technology, and aroused a sentiment of cultural self-defence of wounded Islam and Arab national identification.

The process that had hitherto tended to unravel the bond connecting Arab nationalism to Islam was thus halted. At the same time, when the regimes that had presided over the defeat of 1948 fell, it was not under the blows of popular revolt, but through a sequence of military coups d’etat carried out under the dual slogans of ‘national honour’ and the Palestinian cause, now dubbed the ‘Arab cause’. The ideological foundations of these coups, however, were gradually whittled down, thanks in part to the flow of oil money.

Arab unity was henceforward a chimera. As a result, the Arab regimes and the masses that they are able to manipulate are mobilized by two essential themes: first, the Palestinian cause, the state of Israel, and the question of recognition or non-recognition of that state; second, the pole of religion or its opposite, atheism, which is itself understood in a quasi-religious manner. It was thus ‘natural’ that as a negotiated solution of the Palestinian problem drew near, both the ‘Rejection Front’ (which opposes any such solution) and the group supporting negotiations (and here the official attitudes are slightly disingenuous) sought to bring pressure to bear on the freest, most numerous, and most influential Palestinians of the Arab world, the Palestinians of Lebanon.

Many of the ruling regimes owe their stability to the silence or violent reaction of the Palestinians of Lebanon, since their own masses feel strong solidarity with them. This applies most particularly to the countries on Israel’s eastern front. At the same time, the Arab regimes were also able to fan the flames of civil war in Lebanon by fuelling the sentiment that the Muslims of Lebanon were being ‘despoiled’. The conditions of confessional turmoil offered each of these regimes broader possibilities of political manoeuvre.

Even if this turmoil did not fully account for the war – as would be shown by later studies – it did provide the essential part of the fuel. Some of the new militias were entirely financed by the various Arab states. The irony is – but it is irony with some logic, after all – that the most religiously inclined of the Muslim Arab states encouraged Christian fanaticism and lined the pockets of the combatants of both sides. One of the essential reasons for the precarious nature of the current ‘peace’ in Lebanon is the uncertainty of the solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As was the case in the war in Spain, the various states of the region are fighting one another in Lebanon, using Lebanese and Palestinian cannon fodder.

C. Super-Power Détente and Lebanon

The détente between the super-powers, which in no way excludes struggles by each to expand its influence in various parts of the world, has had its effects on the Lebanese war. Hard information on this subject is still hazy, and the accusations hurled by both sides compel the analyst to behave as a detective. Nevertheless, it is incontestable that the Lebanese situation was one of the factors in this détente. The figures on the cost of arms and ammunition used in the war suggest that the total may exceed the country’s gross national product by a factor of seven, which means that there has been international financing.

Accusations have been made in the US Congress against Godley, the American ambassador to Lebanon and a specialist in anti-guerrilla struggle. In the context of the campaign against the CIA, Godley has been accused of training militia officers and of having pulled some of the strings in the war. The role played by American and European mercenaries in the training of the militias and in directing some of the fighting is also well known.

The East bloc has likewise financed resistance groups, as well as the militias of left parties. Aid from the East has gone well beyond the military uniforms delivered in great numbers to the combatants, especially those of the Lebanese Communist Party, whose financial situation flourished throughout the period of the war. And probably still does.

There has been no lack of ideological justifications: in the West, the struggle against the ‘international left’, an expression often used by the right in Lebanon; in the East, the struggle against reaction, against religious and ethnic minorities. In the predominantly Muslim Arab world, these minorities [were] regarded as necessarily swimming against the stream of history and therefore doomed to submission or extermination in the long run.

In any event, the country that harbours the strongest concentration of Palestinians could not escape the manoeuvres of the patrons of the Middle East peace negotiations. Nevertheless, it seems that the specific calculations have turned around one main alternative:

  • Either the partition of Lebanon and the establishment of a Maronite state whose dependence on the United States would be almost complete. Soviet influence would then be dominant in the remaining part of the country, the USSR gaining, through the left and the Palestinians, compensation for the losses recently suffered in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.
  • Or the reconstruction of the present Lebanese state with an international balance of forces, the parties engaged in the fighting emerging victorious internally. The Phalangists and their allies would he strengthened, the parties of the left represented in the government by a member of the ‘Front’, and Soviet influence thereby augmented among the Lebanese and the Palestinian resistance; this might at least ensure that the billions were not invested in vain.

This second solution now seems to have priority, although there is no reason to rule out ultimate resort to the first.

II. The War

The passages dealing with the war itself will be less developed, for two main reasons. To begin with, the profusion of phenomena that emerged during the war and the changes they brought about are so important that they alone merit a detailed study going well beyond the possibilities of a mere article. Moreover, foreign readers are perhaps more familiar with this aspect of the war, for it was covered extensively, within certain limits at least, by the news media.

I hope that the emphasis of the first part of this article on the political forces will allow for a better understanding of the ins and outs of the war itself. Before proceeding to that subject, however, let me recall the explosive situation that prevailed at the beginning of 1975 and say something about the spark that detonated the explosion.

A. An Explosive Situation

1. Economic Problems

The year 1974 in Lebanon was tougher for consumers than it was in Western Europe and the United States. Indeed, in a country in which nearly everything is imported, international inflation was compounded by powerful groups that enjoy a de facto monopoly on imports, and by merchants more generally. The real rate of inflation exceeded 30 per cent, although official figures underestimated it by about a third.

The mask of the Lebanese ‘miracle’ was slipping, increasingly revealing a less alluring reality:

  • Impoverishment of the rural areas and the gradual abandonment of agriculture. In southern Lebanon, in the North (the ‘Akkar), and in the East (the Beqaa), the impoverishment of farmers was aggravated by the monopoly on fertilizers, insecticides, and the commercial channels of agricultural products.
  • The foreign grip on the circulation of capital. Influxes of capital, for the most part from the Gulf, were protected by ‘banking secrecy’, which encourages uncontrolled transfers. Although banks in Lebanon are Lebanese corporations, for the most part they actually act as foreign companies pumping the capital of the region around. Speculation on the Lebanese pound was one of the main reasons for the currency’s loss of buying power. 
  • The complete absence of any policy of national development. The postponement of irrigation projects for more than twenty years (as a result of corruption) limited the annual per capita income to $150 in some regions. Popular housing and planned cooperatives were similarly delayed, while income tax was levied exclusively on wage-earners.
2. Social Problems

a. The Rural Exodus

With the impoverishment of the countryside and the insecurity prevailing in southern Lebanon, labour-power was attracted to industry in the suburbs of Beirut. The city was ringed by a belt of poverty comprising some four hundred thousand inhabitant. A good number of them, uprooted and frequently unemplboyed, lived in or alongside Palestinian camps.

b. Confessional Spoliation

Basing himself on the poor of southern Lebanon and the migrants to the city of Beirut, Imam Musa Sadr became the spokesman of ‘Shi`i discontent’. His movement polarized social discontent on a confessional basis – and succeeded far better than the ‘progressive’ parties into the bargain. On this subject, it might be appropriate to say a word about the legitimacy of the claim that it is a matter of ‘poor Muslims against rich Christians’. Actually, about 45 per cent of the working-class population of the Beirut suburbs is Christian, and more than half of these are Maronites (27 per cent of the work-force in all).

These figures, when compared to the demographic distribution of the communities in the country as a whole, show that there is no notable social differentiation between the confessions. The Maronite villages far from Beirut are among Lebanon’s poorest. The irony is that very rich Sunni and Shi`i Muslims were assimilated to the disinherited, and played the card of confessional spoliation

c. Confessional Ideology

The power of the religious communities described earlier has had its most pernicious effects in education. Two ideologies, apparently contradictory but actually similar in essence, have arisen in the schools and in the neighbourhoods that surround them.

The Christians – all of them ‘oriental’ by the way, not converted to Christianity by colonizers – consider themselves superior to the Muslims, especially Christians of the middle and lower classes. Monogamous, they scorn the polygamy of the Muslims, as well as their lack of concern for the education of their children. They also believe themselves more ‘developed’, because of their religious links to the West, and refer to France as their tendre mère.

The Muslims, meanwhile, scorn the Westernization of the Christians and their frequent use of French expressions in daily conversation, words like au revoir and merci. They also resent them for the ruthlessness of their quest for diplomas and for their hankering after ‘positions above their station’.

In reality, on both sides the prevalent ideology is no more than a fundamentally identical feeling of belonging to a clan, in this case extended to the confession as a whole, the sort of sentiment that for centuries has distinguished between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

3. The Press

The Lebanese press, financed by Arab and other regimes (of which each newspaper or magazine is a quasi-official mouthpiece), was quite active in the social turmoil, each organ attempting to act in the interest of the state it represented, and secondarily in the interest of the editorial board and the cliques of journalists that have grown up around them.

4. The Personality of the Lebanese

The real tragedies were played out on the individual level, in particular among individuals who have been urbanized for a generation or less. The peasants, on the contrary, are generally still governed by coherent and fairly harmonious social structures.

Exploited by his family (who in the absence of any social security system regard him as an investment for the future), stifled by a highly authoritarian educational system and employer, having hastily assimilated some ‘cultural’ notions thought to be of some potential mercantile use, and scorned by the press and the other mass media, the average Lebanese often has an unfavourable self-image. Indeed, it is among the middle-class and poor masses that the latest fads are most tapidly adopted, and exaggerated to absurd lengths.

Granted, this description is over-simplified, but it is above all this social group that saw its salvation in the war, a sudden chance to display heroism, to ‘redeem’ their ‘honour’. Honour in this case, however, is not personal, for personal growth has been stunted: it is the honour of the clan extended to the confession that is at issue. And it was in the hastily urbanized suburbs that the fighting was fiercest, and the acts of barbarism committed with the greatest gusto. It was upon this socio-economic foundation that political events ignited the explosion.

5. The Political Events

Apart from the Arab and international situation already mentioned, the armed presence of Palestinians in Lebanon aroused a twofold confessional reaction. The Muslims had a sense of having gained protection, and of being able to defy the others; the Christians, meanwhile, felt threatened by the ‘Muslim tide’. Indeed, demographic growth, and access to Lebanese and Arab universities encouraged the Christians in their retrenchment.

The Cairo accords of 1969 between the Lebanese state and the Palestinian resistance, which granted the Palestinians sole control of the camps and allowed them to acquire heavy weapons, represented a rupture of the confessional balance. In the absence of a powerful state, which the Christian leaders had themselves contributed to undermining, the Christian parties formed militias and trained them to ‘protect the sovereignty of the state and the freedom of the Christians, and to demand equality with the Muslims’, whom they saw as an undifferentiated mass striving to drive the Christians back to the millas system of the Ottoman Empire and to reduce them to dhimmis.5

For their part, the Muslims were convinced that the Christians were going to ‘liquidate’ the Palestinian resistance, a number armed clashes having meanwhile erupted.

The incident in the Christian neighbourhood of ‘Ain a-Rummaneh on 13 April 1975, when Phalangist and National Liberation militiamen, retaliating for the murder of two of their members killed twenty-seven Palestinian passengers on a bus returning from meeting, was the spark that ignited the conflagration.  During the night, Dekwaneh, a Maronite suburb, was shelled by mortars dug at Tel al-Za’tar, the Palestinian camp situated close by.

The fighting was waged according to the policy of ‘inflicting the greatest possible damage on the enemy’. The decision of the Front of National Progressive Parties and Forces and of Yasser Arafat to ‘eliminate the Phalangists’ cut off any possible path of retreat. It was the first time that Arafat had come to an agreement with some Lebanese leaders to exclude another Lebanese party from the political life of the country. It was followed, later, by the participation of the Palestinian leader in most of the ‘Islamic summits’ assembling the traditional pillars of the Lebanese Muslim community.

B. The Vicious Fighting

The war in Lebanon – which has cost more than twenty thousand dead (most of the victims being people not engaged in the fighting), ruined a good part of the national economy, and caused the exodus of tens of thousands of people and the emigration of several hundred thousand others – has been striking in its despicability. It has seen all the horrors of the worst civil wars while lacking their one advantage: that which enables the victor to blame all the horrors on the vanquished.

In analysing the form taken by the fighting, we can take note of the scope of the devastation and glimpse the path to national redemption.

1. The Form od Fighting

a. Positional Warfare

Unlike wars of liberation, and even the majority of civil wars, the Lebanese civil war was not a mobile war. Two observations are appropriate here.

First, if the Palestinians had wanted to isolate the Phalangist party from the Lebanese masses because of that party’s fascist and counter-revolutionary politics, they would have attacked the party’s headquarters and armed positions, and not the entirety of the Christian neighbourhoods (peopled by peaceful inhabitants) in which these headquarters were located. These attacks caused the Christians to rally to the Phalangists and their allies for sheer self-protection.

Second, if the Phalangists had wanted to ‘restore Lebanese state sovereignty in all of Lebanon’s territory’, including the Palestinian camps, they would not have attacked the Muslims, causing them to rally around the armed organizations of the resistance and thus removing more than half of Lebanese territory from state control.

The inescapable conclusion is that the Lebanese war was not waged in pursuit of victory, but rather in order to consolidate the control of the various parties over the regions they ‘protected’, at the smallest possible cost to themselves. This, moreover, was the modus vivendi sanctioned by the Syrian intervention.

b. The Snipers

In all the ‘border’ regions, in other words, along the fringes of the Muslim and Christian neighbourhoods, snipers posted atop the tallest buildings and covered by artillery fire would shoot at anything that moved in the opposite neighbourhood.

After the initial days of the war, the victims were generally poor people, most of them peddlers, who were on the streets because they were hungry. Of course, since a sniper across the way was doing the same thing to your own neighbourhood, terror spread, and the people of the neighbourhoods no longer dared to venture out into the dangerous zones. They were thus at the mercy of the local organizations, which protected them, fed them, and warned them to stay inside.

c. Kidnappings

Even more horrible, if possible, were the confessional kidnappings, which wreaked the greatest devastation among the population. The Lebanese have been so traumatized by the people kidnapped, beaten, mutilated and then murdered, their bodies thrown under bridges or onto garbage heaps – simply because they had the wrong religion listed on their identity cards – that it is difficult to imagine that they will ever get over the automatic nervous twitch that seize them whenever they find themselves on a route that passes through an area controlled by members of the ‘other’ religion.

The phenomenon of kidnapping spread like wildfire, and persisted even after the ‘return to normality’. Some of the victims were taken as hostages and exchanged for other victims. But the organizations of both clans indulged systematically in the most repugnant acts of this kind, sometimes deliberately to provoke fighting, to induce mass flight, and so on. Here more than anywhere else the real confessional face of the war was revealed, as militiamen at the Christian barricades sported huge wooden crosses around their necks, while the Muslim militiamen spurred one another to holy war with cries of Allahu akbar! even when this bit of folklore was not strictly necessary for the accomplishment of their foul job.

d. Scorched Earth

The combatants departed from the strategy of positional warfare only when ‘enemy’ corridors or enclaves in ‘their’ regions were ‘liberated’. Like Qarantina, Damour, Jyeh, Dbayeh, the Christian villages of the ‘Akkar and the Beqaa.6 At times like these a scorched-earth policy prevailed. Nothing was to be left, even at the cost of hundreds or thousands of deaths.

2. On the Fringes of the Fighting

a. Theft

Most, if not all, of the organizations on both sides engaged in systematic plunder, more than filling their treasuries, with the chiefs garnering the lion’s share of the booty. Poor people also stole, of course, because they had to survive, but that was no more than small change. The organizations also extorted money from shopkeepers, landlords, and neighbourhood inhabitants who displeased them, something that continues even now.

b. Immunity for Leaders

Although the political leaders are universally recognized as primarily responsible for the massacre and destruction, they themselves have remained generally undisturbed, except for Chamoun, whose residence at Saadyat was destroyed. Jumblatt, in any case, denied that he had had anything to do with it. These gentlemen are always always able to arrive at an understanding when their own interests are at stake. And the people go along, because the leaders have held themselves up as larger than life, and this has been completely accepted by the combatants. Some big capitalists also owe the safety of their person and property to the organizations of the left and the right alike.

c. The Mercenary Spirit

As the months of unemployment caused by the war dragged on, the population became accustomed to being maintained by organizations whose resources come either from abroad, or from various forms of theft. Many people joined the militias for material reasons, and the parties did not bother to provide them with even rudimentary ideological training. No disinterested public action will be possible until these financial resources are exhausted.

d. Fear of the Gunman

The gunman strikes fear into the population on both sides, because he has become a sort of institutionalized outlaw. It is not anarchy that prevails in Lebanon, for there is no absence of authority, but rather a multiplicity of absolute authorities, none of which possesses the slightest legitimacy or is subject to any popular control.

These, of course, are just a few of the war’s essential characteristics, and their after-effects will long be felt. But the real – and thoroughly negative – results of this war lie much deeper.

3. De Facto Partition

The war has aggravated confessionalism by rallying the masses even more closely around ‘their’ confessional protectors. A de facto partition has been brought about in which the big winners are the confessional leaders and the system based on religious communities.

The role these latter have played in dealing with refugees is noteworthy. Each community has also produced its own war literature, newspapers distributed daily, reeking from top to bottom with religious fanaticism. The major organizations of both sides have reaped the fruit of their efforts. These, of course, are not the results expected by sincere combatants on both sides: instead of the re-establishment of state sovereignty over all of Lebanese territory, three-quarters of the country is under the de facto authority of the Palestinian organizations, and more especially of those organizations that have won Syrian approval; on their side, the Phalangists and their allies control the territories north of Beirut and south of Tripoli, where they impose their own law in a virtually official manner.

Instead of the united Lebanon for which they were supposedly struggling, the Palestinian and ‘progressive’ organizations have achieved a de facto partition to which they contributed with their confessional behaviour.

Finally, the state today is non-existent, parliament ineffective, the army in ruins, the executive paralysed, the judicial system absent. The Lebanese no longer know whether they have any national identity. And although the document announced by the president of the republic on 14 February 1976 acknowledged that Lebanon was ‘Arab’, and not merely a country ‘with an Arab face’ (as the National Pact of 1943 had said), this will hardly heal the breach opened by the war as far as the average Lebanese is concerned.

In any case, this document sanctioned confessionalism yet again. Except for functionaries below the highest levels, the confessional division of the state posts is maintained, as if competence were irrelevant in the selection of top functionaries.

For all its horrors, the war at least helped to unmask the ‘national progressive’ left in the eyes of the masses, and thus to strip away slogans and fictions and to uncover the reality underneath. No genuinely patriotic spirit can distinguish between poor masses supposedly progressive because they are Muslim and reactionary because they are Christian. It is intolerable for gangsters and murderers sheltered by the political parties to annihilate democracy and treat the people like servants who owe them even their very lives. It is intolerable for human beings to be killed – in the name of liberty and humanism on the one side, and of progressivism on the other – simply because they were born to Christian or Muslim parents.

Until a third force arises – one that is not besmirched by the horrors of the fighting – the complex of parties must be abandoned. A new ideological current must take shape, returning to the roots of the courageous people and respecting the popular culture. Muslim or Christian, that culture is in reality Arab. Nonetheless, it must be linked to a genuinely secular state. That, perhaps, may ultimately be Lebanon’s contribution to severing the bond between Arabism and Islam.

  1. Fu’ad Shehab, a former commander in chief of the army, became president of the republic after the bloody clashes of 1958, as the country emerged from a near civil war. He had considerable contempt for the country’s politicians, whom he referred to as ‘the pocket-liners’.
  2. All non-Muslims living under the Ottoman Empire were organized into groups, each of which was called a millet in Turkish (milla in Arabic). P.M. Holt, in his Egypt and the Fertile Crescent 1516–1922 (London 1966), has described these (p. 32) as ‘in effect corporations with their own officers, their own systems of domestic law, and a large degree of internal autonomy’. As a concurrent part of this status, however, non-Muslims were also ‘excluded… from the body politic and placed… at a fiscal disadvantage’.
  3. In many of these regions and neighbourhoods, the majority assaulted the minority in the course of the war, in a deliberate effort to drive them out.
  4. With the exception of Jordan. Figures on the Palestinian presence – in particular in Lebanon, where the last census was taken in 1932 – are notoriously vague and subject to wide fluctuations in time.
  5. Second-class, non-Muslim citizens in a Muslim state, living under the protection of Muslims in exchange for their acquiescence.
  6. The list is of Christian and Muslim villages in which indiscriminate massacres were committed by militias of the opposing side, most often against unarmed civilian populations.