Here’s my latest article for Fair Observer: a context piece on the complexities of Lebanon’s modern history from independence to present day. From the Israel-Palestine conflict to Syria’s civil war, Lebanon has found itself embroiled in politico-religious tensions between other Middle Eastern nations for decades.
A background summary of Lebanese domestic and foreign affairs since the end of French colonial rule.
Lebanon has been the battleground for some of the Middle East’s most bitter conflicts. Yet, it has also enjoyed periods of prosperity. Over the past four decades, animosity between the country’s Christian and Muslim populations and influxes of Palestinian refugees has embroiled the country in major internal and external clashes involving Israel, Palestine, and Syria.
Lebanon declared its independence in 1941 following 21 years under the French mandate. In 1943, an unwritten National Covenant laying out the structure of the state distributed parliamentary seats on a six-to-five ratio in favour of Christians. This distribution was based on a 1932 census, when the country had a Christian majority. No census has since been taken, prompting repeated calls from Lebanese Muslims for a new census to bring proportionate parliamentary representation for the increased Muslim population. In 1989, a Charter of National Reconciliation finally redressed the balance of Christians and Muslims in the National Assembly, abolishing the six-to-five ratio.
The 1967 six-day war marked the onset of major conflict in Lebanon. Although Lebanon played no active role in the war, it became entangled in the conflict after Palestinian fighters began using the country as a base for anti-Israeli attacks.
Violent exchanges between Lebanese Phalangist militia and Palestinian guerrillas in 1975, dragged Lebanon into a protracted civil war. Syrian troops invaded in 1976 to restore peace and curb Palestinian groups, resulting in the killing of thousands of Palestinians.
In response to Palestinian assaults, Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1978, but withdrew under UN pressure. However, the assassination of Shlomo Argov, Israel’s ambassador to Britain, by a Palestinian splinter group provoked a full-scale invasion in June 1982. The same year saw the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian civilians by the Lebanese Phalangist militia under the watch of Ariel Sharon, Israeli defence minister at the time.
The civil war ended in 1990 after many years of death and destruction.
Why is Lebanon relevant?
Domestic politics appeared promising in 1990, as Omar Karami forged a government of national reconciliation. The Lebanese government has since become increasingly unstable, with consistent power wrangling between a small cluster of politicians, along with religiously and territorially motivated assassinations.
The National Assembly ordered the dissolution of all militias in 1991, although Hezbollah was permitted to remain active and the South Lebanon Army refused to disband.
Israel has remained determined to end the threat from Hezbollah. This has involved the bombing of Hezbollah bases in southern Lebanon and an attack on a UN base that killed over 100 displaced Lebanese civilians sheltering there.
Meanwhile, Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon in May 2000.
In February 2005, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a car bombing, provoking anti-Syrian protests and increased demands for the withdrawal of Syrian forces. The assassination led to a protracted trial, first by the UN and later at The Hague, which indicted four Hezbollah members in 2011; Hezbollah claims the trial was manipulated by Israel.
As a result of anti-Syrian sentiment, Syria initiated the withdrawal of soldiers from Lebanon in accordance with a UN resolution in 2005.
Furthermore, the seizure of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah led to the 2006 Lebanon war between the armed militant group and Israel. The war caused over 1,000 deaths, mostly civilians, and major infrastructural damage, displacing thousands. After 34 days of fighting, a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah was put in force on August 14.
Meanwhile, as Hezbollah and pro-government skirmishes in 2008 sparked fears of civil war, parliament elected army chief Michel Suleiman as president, ending protracted political deadlock. Politicians then set to work establishing a national unity government – a task successfully completed by newly elected PM Saad Hariri in 2009.
However, this unity was short-lived; the government collapsed in January 2011 after Hezbollah ministers and their allies resigned. A fresh government, led by PM Najib Mikati, awarded a majority of seats to Hezbollah and its allies.
More recently, the ongoing Syrian conflict spilled over into Lebanon earlier this year as several people have been killed in Tripoli in Sunni-Alawite clashes.