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Lebanon's long history of war and violence
A pawn in the games of the "great powers"

July 28, 2006 | Page 7

SW columnist LANCE SELFA looks at Lebanon's history as a pawn in the games of the world's major powers.

THE ISRAELI destruction of Lebanon and the wanton murder of its civilians served to remind the world that Lebanon has long been a site for the bloody machinations of outside powers.

In fact, the country, under its current borders, is largely a creation of outside powers. For centuries, Lebanon was considered a district of the larger area of Syria, under the Ottoman Empire.

At the end of the First World War, Britain and France divided up the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East between them. In order to forestall the development of an Arab nationalist movement that would assert Syria's independence from France, France created Lebanon in 1920, relying on a Maronite Christian elite as its chief source of support.

"The 'State of the Greater Lebanon' proclaimed by the French Gen. Gourand on August 31, 1920 was...a totally artificial, French-created entity," wrote Robert Fisk in his book on Lebanon, Pity the Nation. "Its frontiers, over 20 years later, would become the borders of the independent Lebanese state. It was in defense of the presumed 'sovereignty' of this peculiar nation--a product of the Quai d'Orsay, rather than the creation of any Arab national aspiration--that countless thousands were to die more than half a century later."

What else to read

One of the best books to read on the history of Lebanon is Robert Fisk's Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon, now in its fourth edition. B.J. Odeh's Lebanon: Dynamics of Conflict is a good analysis of the causes and developments of the Lebanese civil war, and subsequent developments, including the Israeli invasion in 1982.

 

In 1943, the French granted Lebanon independence under a "confessional" political system in which all top government jobs were shared out among the country's main religious groups. By specifying that the country's president would always by a Maronite Christian, it hoped to keep Lebanon a reliably pro-Western state.

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WHEN THE French and British colonial empires crumbled after the Second World War and the U.S. moved in to take their places, Washington became the main guarantor of Lebanese independence, as a bulwark against Arab nationalism. The U.S. underscored this commitment when it sent 20,000 Marines to prop up the right-wing government of Maronite Camille Chamoun, when it faced a nationalist challenge inspired by the 1958 revolution in neighboring Iraq.

For the U.S., Lebanon represented a pro-Western state ruled by a religious minority whose identity insulated it from the appeal of Arab nationalism--not unlike Israel.

But the two decades after Israel's founding pushed thousands of Palestinian refugees into Lebanon. The demographic and political balance on which a pro-Western Lebanese government had rested was shifting.

The result of these shifts was the 1975 Lebanese civil war--between the forces of the right, allied with Israel and grouped around the Christian Falange; and the left, involving Arab nationalists, Palestinian and Druze formations, and others.

Originally, Syria backed the left in the civil war. But in 1976, with the left on the verge of capturing power, Syria invaded Lebanon on the side of the right. The Syrian regime concluded that having a right-wing government allied with Israel in power in Lebanon was preferable to having a Lebanon controlled by leftist militias.

Not coincidentally, the U.S. agreed. It acknowledged the "positive role that the Syrian government play[ed] in Lebanon."

But Israel didn't want "stability" in Lebanon. It wanted the expulsion of Palestinian fighters from the country. After occupying a strip of southern Lebanese territory in 1978 and putting a corrupt, pro-Israeli Christian militia, the Southern Lebanese Army, in charge of it, Israel decided to extend its control to the whole country.

Using the pretext of an attempted assassination of an Israeli official in Britain, Israel launched a full-scale invasion of the country. It aimed to drive Palestinian fighters out of Lebanon and install a right-wing pro-Israel government in power in Beirut.

Within two weeks, Israeli troops occupied the whole south of the country and began to lay siege to the capital. Israeli forces killed at least 20,000 Lebanese, most of them civilians.

In the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, more than 2,000 Palestinian men, women and children were slaughtered by far-right Lebanese militias--as Israeli forces, under the command of then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, looked on.

When continuing the war became politically untenable in Israel, the U.S. stepped in to broker a deal--evacuating the Palestine Liberation Organization to Tunis and guaranteeing continued Israeli control of its so-called "security zone" in southern Lebanon.

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THE CIVIL continued for the rest of the decade until an agreement was struck in Ta'if, Saudi Arabia, in 1989. The agreement ended the war, loosened the hold of Christian forces on the government and disarmed many of the country's militias.

Gen. Michel Aoun, a far-right Phalangist with backing from Iraq's Saddam Hussein, staged a "last stand" for Christian power against Syria. But Syria had an important ally against Aoun--the U.S. In a successful bid to win Syrian support for the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, the U.S. gave its tacit approval to a Syrian takeover of the country's government. With help from the U.S., Syria defeated Aoun.

As Newsweek put it at the time, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad (father of the current Syrian president) "has already been paid off handsomely for his stand against Iraq: the gulf Arabs have committed billions in much-needed cash; Washington gave him international respectability and turned a blind eye to his absorption of Lebanon."

One circuit through which these billions passed was Lebanon under Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Prime minister from 1992 to 2005, the billionaire construction magnate undertook to rebuild the damage from the civil war--and no doubt pocketed millions along the way. Despite cultivating an image as "Mr. Lebanon," he was one of Syria's chief allies until 2004.

His mysterious February 2005 assassination--which the U.S. and later the United Nations (UN) blamed on Syrian intelligence--touched off anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon, which Bush State Department official Paula Dobriansky dubbed "the Cedar Revolution."

While Syria had certainly worn out its welcome in Lebanon, those at the core of the anti-Syrian demonstrations were supporters of Christian politicians--most prominently supporters of Aoun--who have been historically the most pro-Western political force in Lebanon.

But all of these pro-Western forces face a new political force that has developed over the past two decades, rooted in the country's poor Shiite population.

Initially founded in the early 1980s as a proxy fighting force for the newly installed Islamic Republic in Iran, the Hezbollah militia grew into a powerful resistance movement that managed to drive out the Israelis and its puppets from Lebanon's south in 2000.

Hezbollah's role in the resistance to Israel won it prestige and respect across the religious and political divides of Lebanon. Today, it is a political party with representatives in government and operates a vast network of social service agencies and television and radio stations. It is far from the ragtag band of terrorists the Bush administration accuses it of being.

With Hezbollah providing the only successful example of a resistance movement defeating the Israelis, it is not about to surrender itself before enemies that openly announce their intention to dominate the region.

To the U.S. government, step one was getting Syria out of Lebanon. Step two is disarming Hezbollah and neutering it as a resistance force.

As Israel carries out the U.S.'s dirty work, Lebanese civilians who last year won praise from Washington for standing up for "democracy" are now being bombed and their country destroyed--with the political and military support of the U.S. government.

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