History of Lebanon

History of Lebanon

In this article, we shall examine the history of Lebanon with regards to the domestic politics, and the international relations of the country. We shall explore Lebanon during the Ottoman Empire, the interest that France had in the country during and following World War I, and the history of Lebanon following World War II, with particular attention to the civil wars within the country in the 1970s and 1980s.

Lebanon Following World War I

As mentioned in our article on the History of Syria, France was interested in establishing political control in Lebanon. They wanted to do this to challenge British authority in the region, protect economic interests that they had, and also to protect the Christian Maronite community in the country. The believed that Lebanon could be a Christian ally for them in the Middle East. Thus, they began to appropriate Syrian land to the Lebanese state; areas such as the Biqa Valley, as well as adding other “coastal cities of Tripoli, Tyre, Sidon, and Beirut” to the country (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 202).

However, as scholars point out, while the French wanted to to this to provide better farming land for the Maronite Christians, as a result of these actions, “French policy increased the possibilities of sectarian conflict. With the exception of Beirut, the areas added to Lebanon contained a predominantly Muslim population whose members objected to being placed within a Christian-dominated polity” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 202-203). In fact, following the addition of the territories to Lebanon, the Christian community was at roughly 30 percent. This action–by the French–brought about tensions within the country.

For one, “The Maronites viewed Lebanon as their own special Christian homeland and assumed that political and economic preeminence was theirs by rights. With the support for their French patrons, they envisaged the state developing as a Christian enclave with a Franco-Mediterranean cultural orientation The face of Lebanon would point westward toward Europe, and its back would be turned to the Arab world” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 209). However, many of the Syrians–who were now included in the new Lebanese state–were not happy by this development, and hoped to establish political and territorial ties to Syria.

What made the situation in Lebanon more problematic was that religious communities, for the most part, were not concentrated in one particular area. Thus, one had Christians and Muslims within the same districts. This made the idea of territorial divisions based on religions even more difficult. Couple that with the fact that the political leadership in the country was from the various ethnic and religious groups, and, with many of them catering to their respective religious constituents, sadly, there were less focus on them helping those not of their ethnic or religious group.

But despite these issues, the French government went forward to establish a constitution in Lebanon, as well as some form of domestic autonomy. The constitution called for “a single chamber of deputies” where the seats would be divided based on religion. However, the specific allocation of religious seats would not be finalized until the National Pact of 1943.

Post WII Lebanon

Post World War II and the end of French colonialism in Lebanon, cities in Lebanon such as Beirut were experiencing economic development. There were many banking and financial institutions in the city. In addition, Beirut was a tourist attraction for many who wanted to experience casinos or disco-tecs. Moreover, it was also a home for political expression. There was a great deal of the freedom of the press in Beirut, and various political, social, and cultural ideas were being exchanged. However, in addition to these elements of the city, “Beirut stood for something far more important than material prosperity and pleasurable nightlife–the city showed that sectarian pluralism could work. Jews fled Egypt and the Kurds of Iraq were shelled by their own government, but Beirut thrived as a multi religious, multiethnic urban mosaic” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 310).

However, this is not to say that there were no ethnic tensions in the country. Coming off of the 1943 National Pact, there were still some issues, particularly with regards to rising Arab nationalist movement in the region. Part of this tension became evident in 1956 when Camille Chamoun, a Maronite Christian, did not end ties with Britain or France after their invasion of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Egypt. Then, in 1958, some believed that Chamoun was looking to implement policies that would allow to stay in office another term. However, many in the Muslim communities were upset by this, and some began to rebel against the state. And although Chamoun tried to call the military to quell the rebellions, the commander at the time–General Fuad Shihab–did not do so. Chamoun then looked to the United States to help, in which they sent 15,000 US Marines (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). Chamoun did eventually step down after his term, and the new leader Shihab seemed to work towards better incorporating Muslims in the government (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).

However, the pressure by some in the Muslim community to call for Arab nationalism, a policy strongly advocated by Gamal Abdel Nasser–began to put strains on the Lebanese society (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). This outside intervention of ideas became even more prevalent following the Six-Day War in 1967. Many of the Palestinian rebel forces, no longer having access to Gaza and the West Bank, moved into Lebanon to establish their activities. From here, many of the forces began to carry out attacks on Israel, which led Israel to retaliate by hitting Palestinian areas in Lebanon, but also many of the villages in the souther part of the country. Many Arab leaders were upset at the Israeli response, as they “were able to execute commando raids of their own, exemplified by a strike against Beirut International Airport in 1968 and the assassination of three Palestinian elders in Beirut in 1973” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 380). Many of the leaders in the region were hoping to see a military response from Lebanon.

These expectations seemed to fall on religious lines, with many of the Muslims not only upset at the current political situation in the country (and the lack of representation), but also that the effects of Israeli actions, and the lack of the response by the state. This was also coupled with the fact that many knew that the population figures of the 1932 census in which allocated a 6:5 political representation to the Maronite community was not accurate in the 1970s. And thus, some within the Muslim communities were calling to revisit that agreement. However, many of the Maronite Christian leaders were unwilling to do so, as they understood that this would alter their hold on political power in Lebanon. In addition, one also started to see the rise of Maronite Lebanese militia groups that were themselves targeted the Palestinian rebel forces, as they believed that the government was not doing enough to stop their activities in the country (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 381). Then, during the summer of 1975, conflict broke out between the Christian and Muslim forces. 

Then, in May of 1976, when Hafiz Al-Assad “sent his army into Lebanon to rescue the Christian militias from the battering they were taking at the hands of the PLO and the forces of the Jumblatt [a Druze military force]”. The civil war ended on October 18th, 1976. According to the terms of the cease-fire, an outside Arab force would be in Lebanon to monitor the agreement. Much of this force was made up of Syrian troops, which was then used by Al-Assad to further establish himself–and advocate his policies–in Lebanon’s political life (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).

Israeli Invasion of Lebanon

In June of 1982, Israel went into Lebanon to fight the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) forces. For years, the PLO and Israel were fighting one another, and, because many of the PLO were in Lebanon, the country continued to be caught in the conflict. According to scholars, Israeli leadership at the time, Menachem Begin, thought “that if Israel could drive the armed factions of the PLO from Lebanon, then the Palestinians in the West Bank would be isolated and more susceptible to Israeli annexation” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 383). So, Israel, early early as 1978, actually sent in 25,000 troops. And while it did not halt PLO operations in southern Lebanon, it did have many harmful effects to villages and also villagers, many of who left the area. But despite the lack of success, Israeli leaders Begin, as well as Ariel Sharon, who at the time was the Minister of Defense, were looking for an approach that could not only end the PLO as a military organization, but also could cause the removal of Syrian troops from the country, as well as establishing political ties with the Maronite Christian forces (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).

On June 6th, 1982, Israeli leaders sent their forces into Lebanon. There were many bombing campaigns that took place, which resulted in high civilian casualties (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 384-385). And while they continued to speak about their fight against the PLO, there were plans by some to also impact local elections so that ally Bashir Gemayel would be in power. However, he was killed less than a month after being elected. Following this, Israeli forces not only went into West Beirut (what was against the evacuation agreement set force on August 18 of that year), but “the Israeli military allowed units of the Phalange to enter the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila and to massacre over 1,000 men, women, and children who had been left unprotected by the PLO evacuation” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 385).

 Individuals throughout world condemned these actions. But it was not only outside actors; there were many within the Israeli military who were also furious sat what transpired. As a result of the attacks, the Israeli state formed the Kahan Commission, which was tasked to examine what happened at the refugee camps. The commotion found that Israeli leaders were indirectly responsible for the killings. There were a great deal of attention on Ariel Sharon, and as a result, he did step down as the Minister of Defense. Then, Begin resigned in 1983 (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). 

Taif Accord

In 1989, after an inability at domestic peace related to political grievances, the Arab League mediated a long-term peace for Lebanon. As a result of the meeting, in Taif, Saudi Arabia, the Muslim and Christian sides agreed to a political deal in which there would be more powers shifted from the President to the Muslim Prime Minister post, and that the 6:5 electoral split would not be equal seats for the two religious communities, with three of the nine new Muslim sets set aside for the Shia Muslim community. Lastly, the Taif Accord gave Syria additional influence into Lebanon, by allowing them to hep aid the conditions of the Taif Accord (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 387). This was was Hafez Al-Assad wanted, as it furthered his  influence in Lebanese domestic affairs. 



Cleveland, W.L. & Bunton, M. (2013). A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder, Colorado. Westview Press

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