The modern boundaries of Lebanon were drawn under the French Mandate, which replaced Ottoman rule after the latter’s defeat in World War I. Under Ottoman rule,
Lebanon had been limited to the area of Mount Lebanon, which was inhabited by two major religious communities—Maronite Christians and Druze. With the conception of “greater Lebanon” in 1920, predominantly Sunni Muslim coastal cities such as Tripoli, Beirut, and Sidon, and the predominantly Shi’i Muslim south were annexed to Mount Lebanon, yet the 51 percent majority remained Maronite Christians. The Maronites and Sunnis made an agreement in 1943 in the National Pact, which distributed the presidency of the republic, the parliament, and the government posts according to religion in a confessional system that favored the Christians in a 6 to 5 ratio.
In the 1970s, the demographics changed in Lebanon, and the Maronites made up around one-third of the population, with two-thirds of the population being Muslims. When the Muslims called for more constitutional power to reflect the population change, the Christians refused. To complicate matters, the influx of Palestinians into Lebanon following the events of Black September in Jordan in 1970 served to exacerbate Maronite fears of an Arab-Muslim takeover. The National Front, the umbrella organization representing left-wing organizations and Muslim groups, endorsed the Palestinian cause and used the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to pressure the Maronite-oriented right-wing groups. The confessional government receded into a state of paralysis that undermined public confidence. This resulted in the formation of militias on both sides: Christians aiming to keep the status quo and Muslims and leftists fighting for change.
On April 13, 1975, the date marking the beginning of the Lebanese civil war, unidentified gunmen fired on a church in Ain El Rimmaneh, a Christian suburb of Beirut, killing four people, including two men from the Phalange militia, a Maronite armed group. The Phalange accused the Palestinians, and later that day, the Phalange massacred 26 Palestinians traveling on a bus in Ain El Rimmaneh. The incident sparked full-scale hostilities between the Lebanese Front militias and National Movement. Between April 1975 and October 1976, when the Arab summits in Riyadh and Cairo dispatched the Arab Deterrent Force, Lebanon broke down into its sectarian parts. As the Lebanese army disintegrated, Christian militias massacred Palestinian inhabitants of Debayeh, Karantina, and Tel El Zaatar, and the Palestinians massacred Christians in Damour. The Lebanese president Sleiman Franjieh then asked the Syrian army to intervene. In 1978, under the pretext of increased PLO attacks from Lebanon, the Israeli army invaded southern Lebanon but withdrew the same year, creating a security zone controlled by proxy through the
South Lebanon Army (SLA). Meanwhile, alarmed by the hostilities in southern Lebanon, the United Nations (UN) created the UN Interim Force in Lebanon.
In 1982 Israel reinvaded Lebanon; this time its troops reached Beirut and laid siege to the city. Through international mediation, the PLO left Beirut, and the pro-Israeli Bashir Gemayel was elected president. After Gemayel’s assassination in September 1982, under the watch of the Israeli troops, Gemayel’s supporters entered the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila and massacred around 1,500 Palestinian civilians. After the massacre, the American-French-Italian Multinational Force (MNF), which had overseen the PLO evacuation, returned to Beirut.
In 1983, as the IDF unilaterally withdrew to southern Lebanon, French, U.S. military headquarters, and the U.S. embassy in Beirut were bombed. The first “reconciliation” conference held in Switzerland failed. Hostilities between the Lebanese factions escalated, and the MNF left Beirut. Lebanon descended into chaos as various groups battled for dominance, radical Shi’i groups kidnapped Western nationals, and the Shi’i Amal movement laid siege to the Palestinian refugee camps.
In 1988 the term of Lebanese president Amin Gemayel (Bashir’s brother) expired without the parliament electing a new president. In East Beirut, Gemayel assigned the commander of the army, General Michel Aoun, as the head of an anti-Syrian caretaker military government. In West Beirut, Syria set up a rival government. General Aoun declared war on Syria and Syrian troops, with the help of their Lebanese allies, and laid siege to East Beirut. In November 1989 the Lebanese parliament met in Taif, Saudi Arabia, and agreed on a formula to end the war. General Aoun rejected the Taif Agreement and the election of President René Moawad and claimed the authority of the prime minister, issuing a decree dissolving the parliament. In November President Moawad was assassinated, and President Elias Hrawi was elected. Early in 1990 the Lebanese parliament approved the constitutional amendments that embodied the political reforms of the Taif Agreement.
In 1991, the year that the fighting ended, the Lebanese government gained legitimacy and approval from most Lebanese; it then ordered the disarmament and dissolution of militias and the release of the Western hostages taken during the 1980s. The fragile peace continued to hold during the following decade.
Lebanon was the site of years of civil war and external invasions, creating turmoil in an already troubled part of the world. Above: U.S.
Marines prepare to leave at the conclusion of a multinational peacekeeping operation in the mid-1980s.
See also Arab-Israeli War (1982).