Lebanon: History and Civil War, Myths Debunked

The Lebanese movie The Insult re-introduced the Lebanese civil war as a subject of interest. The movie offered the Lebanese right narrative that blames the Palestinians for the civil war. That narrative is important.
I visited Abraham Lincoln’s Presidential Library last weekend and one of the frames read, as to slavery, in part: “At its most personal level, it [slavery] was a demeaning and barbaric institution that destroyed families and lives. Racism was a logical outgrowth of slavery, as slave holders tried to find moral justification for their behavior.” The last part, “moral justification for their behavior” is key. The myths and the lies the Lebanese right, Muslim and Christian, tells and promotes, is anti-Palestinian racism, used as “moral justification” for the butchering, the besieging, the starving as in Tal el- Zaater and Sabra and Shatila or as justification for continuing state violence against them by denying them the most basic of human rights. Below is a number of commonly asked questions and my answers regarding Lebanon, the civil war and the Palestinians:

Q: When was Lebanon created? 

The Lebanese right speaks of a Lebanon that existed for “thousands of years.” That’s ideological drivel. The French declared Greater Lebanon in 1920, the Lebanese Republic was born in 1926 and Lebanon became independent in November 1943. Lebanon is a country that was created from the remnants of the Ottoman state, just like the other states such as Jordan, Palestine, Iraq and Syria. The absurdity of the eternal Lebanon and Lebanese exceptionalism reached comical levels during the war years. On the Lebanese Christian channel, LBC, Fouad Ifram al Bustani, lectured that the lamb is Arab because it eats with its head down while the goat is Lebanese because it eats with its head up. 

Q: But Lebanon is mentioned in the Bible, isn’t that proof that it is special and has existed for thousands of years? 

A geographic name does not make a political entity. Nationalism and nation are fairly recent phenomena in human history. During Ottoman years, the region was divided into units for administrative reasons. The geographic limits of the Ottoman units often included parts of Lebanon, Syria and Palestine in one geographic unit. It was administrative convenience. People freely moved around and mixed. Often the Bible is misused by Lebanese factions for political ends. For example, the Maronites and others in Lebanon are fond of the Biblical saying, Isaiah 60: 13, “the glory of Lebanon shall come unto thee,” and used in reference to the Maronite  Patriarch. The First Testament/Old Testament reference is to Christ, not to the Maronite Patriarch. For those who speak ideologically, facts often do not matter.

Q: Are there good books to read to understand Lebanon, its history and the civil war? 

The late historian Kamal Salibi has two books that are highly regarded- Crossroads to Civil War, Lebanon 1958-1976 and A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered. They are relatively small and a joy to read. I was a student at AUB from 1987-1990 and the closest I got to Salibi was taking a class in a classroom next to a classroom he was teaching in. One of the mistakes of my undergraduate years is not taking one of his classes. I don’t agree with everything he says- he is not sympathetic to the Palestinians- he was very close to the Jordanian regime. In fact, when the odious phenomenon of the suicide bomber, the so-called “martyrdom operations” emerged in Lebanon, borrowed from Iranian martyrdom operations during the Iraq-Iran war, the secular Christian Salibi compared the Palestinian guerrillas unfavorably to the Lebanese suicide bombers. He stated that the real revolutionaries are those who blow themselves up, not those who pose for the media! As if that was the only thing the Palestinians did. They were fighting for international acceptance and legitimacy- a very intelligent policy that alarmed Israel more than the PLO’s military attacks did. And we all know what tragedies have been spawned by the glorification of suicide bombings. But that moral failure does not detract from the immense value of his scholarship. Salibi is forgiven for his error as to the Palestinians and the suicide bomber, he was a historian, not a political scientist.

Q:  The Lebanese Christian right wing claims that the Palestinians wanted to take over Lebanon and that they rose to challenge them? 

The Lebanese political system privileged the Christians, mainly the Maronites. They had dominant positions in the state. In theory, Lebanon was a consociational democracy where power is shared by the different communities. On the face of it, it looked like a consociational democracy. It was built on the premise of a 60-40% Christian demographic advantage that some scholars say never existed. Key positions were reserved for Maronites- such as the Commander of the Army and Head of the General Security. The Christian right saw the Palestinians as a threat and an opportunity. Christian Palestinians were offered Lebanese citizenship, in order to increase Christian numbers. Currently almost all Palestinian Christians have been naturalized. As to the rest of the Palestinians, the Sunnis, they were seen as a demographic threat and, more importantly, an ideological threat. They were mobilizing the Lebanese population and energizing the Arab nationalists and the leftists. That was seen as a threat to the political system and the dominance of the Maronites. To the Christian right, that threat had to be neutralized, regardless of the human toll. The Christian right did not see itself as Arab and did not relate to the Palestinians as fellow human beings because human rights were an alien concept to them. They ideologically belonged to Franco, Mussolini and Pinochet- quintessential human rights abusers.

Q: The right claims the Palestinians were armed and ready to fight and take over the country while they were lightly armed and had to go around buy weapons with their own money and the Lebanese army abandoned them?

 The right was not on the defensive. The right prepared for the war and wanted it. They had the support of the US, Jordan, Syria, Iran, and perhaps Saudi Arabia. A great book to read on the subject is Spheres of Intervention by historian James Stocker. Stocker’s book is based partly on State department declassified records. The record is clear. The right wing sought arms from the US years before the breakout of the war in the 1970s. The US looked away while US entities helped it procure weapons or provided them with arms indirectly by providing the weapons to the Lebanese army as a conduit to them. The record indicates that the US government was aware that the Lebanese army was providing the rightists with weapons.

Q: The Lebanese right claims that it stands for a free and independent Lebanon and the Muslims and leftists gave it away to the Palestinians, is that true? 

No. The compromise that was reached by the Christians and Muslims and gave birth to the Republic is called the National Accord, al Mithaq al Watani. That Accord required that Maronites give up French protection in return for the Muslims giving up on unity with Syria. To counter the left and the nationalists, President Chamoun asked for Eisenhower’s assistance in the 1950s. Stocker’s research shows that the right sought military support and intervention from the US to fight the Palestinians and their Lebanese allies. They were actually hopeful that the US militarily would intervene on their behalf against the left and the Palestinians. The US did aid them, indirectly- through other countries. The US and Jordan helped Syria and Israel reach an understanding for the Syrian army to intervene on behalf of the rightists and put an end to the leftist/nationalist dream of a modern Arab state based on citizenship and that is Arab not only in face but also in body and soul.


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