Tensions Converge: A Brief Look at the Lebanese Civil War

Acting as a sort of focal point for various political and military affairs in the Middle East, the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990 greatly informs our understanding of the region during the second half of the 20th century. It can be directly tied to the events of the Six-Day War, Black September in Jordan, the reaching of the Camp David Accords, and the general decline of Arab nationalism. Furthermore, the constant tension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict spilled over the borders into the tiny nation of Lebanon, and although not direct neighbors, events in Iran also helped shape the country during its long period of conflict.

Just before the civil war erupted, discord was spreading in nearby Jordan as to who would have control of the government. Thousands of Palestinian refugees had taken up residence in Jordan as a result of being evicted from their homes in the Israeli-occupied territories. Around this time the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was formed on the basis of Nasserist ideals of Pan-Arabism and the necessity of right of return and self-determination for all Palestinians. The PLO had gained significant power in Jordan, and after the Hashemite King Hussein suspected a coup was not far off, the PLO and thousands of Palestinian refugees were forced to flee Jordan into Lebanon, re-establishing themselves in Beirut. With the politically active PLO exciting tensions in the nation’s capital, fighting broke out between the Western-aligned (and Israeli-aligned) Maronites and the Leftist Arab factions. The influx of Palestinians into Lebanon upset the fragile demographic balance of the small country and was a boon to Sunni and secular aspirations for a redesigned political system, thus sparking the Lebanese civil conflict.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Source.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Source.

While not heavily involved at first, the Shia populations of Lebanon eventually joined in after being inspired by the uprising in Iran in 1979, led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a Shia Muslim cleric who engineered the overthrow of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. Part of Khomeini’s plan for the revolution was to expand it to the Shia all over the Middle East. It also lead to the creation of Hezbollah in Lebanon when Israel invaded in 1982. Iranian Revolutionary Guards deployed in eastern Lebanon began carrying out attacks on U.S. and French peacekeeping troops for siding with the Maronite-dominated government. Hezbollah served a dual purpose for Iran, not only influencing Lebanese policy and legislation through its seats in parliament, but also acting as a powerful deterrent for Israeli involvement in Lebanon, which Iran strongly condemned.

With Yasser Arafat’s PLO planted firmly in Beirut, the Israeli government could find no way of rooting them out. That was, until the attempted assassination of Israeli diplomat Shlomo Argov provided the casus belli needed to invade Lebanon in hopes of bringing them down once and for all. Later it was revealed that the unsuccessful assassins were not actual members of the PLO, but this information was kept quiet by top officials in Israel, and in June of 1982, defense minister Ariel Sharon ordered the invasion of southern Lebanon.

CampDavid1

Carter, Sadat, and Begin at Camp David. Source.

Important to note however, is the fact that Israel’s choice to invade Lebanon might not have happened if the signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty had not taken place just three years prior. Following discussions that took place at Camp David in the U.S. under the supervision of President Jimmy Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and President of Egypt Anwar El Sadat signed a treaty which prevented the two nations from carrying out military operations against each other and which demilitarized the Sinai Peninsula. If this had not happened, Israel might very well have reconsidered its choice to hunt down Arafat in Lebanon, as they most likely would have had to defend against a front in the South from the pro-Palestinian Egyptian army.

All things considered, the Lebanese Civil War mirrored a gradual trend that would come to shape the politics of the Muslim world for many decades to come. When the 1967 War ended, the Arab armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan had all been easily defeated by Israel despite the attempt to unite Arabs under Nasser’s urgings of Pan-Arab unity. In a sense, this was the swan song of Arab nationalism. No longer was the future of the Arab world dictated by charismatic nationalists like Mohammad Mosaddegh and Gamal Abdel Nasser. But it didn’t take long for a new ideology to begin to take its place. The success of Hezbollah, both as a politico-religious faction and as a militia, showed that while Pan-Arab nationalism might be on its last leg, Islamism was on the verge of becoming something big, anticipating the role that groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood would come to play in the region later on.

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