The History of Lebanon
Below is a brief history of Lebanon. To find information other than history for Lebanon then visit
the Lebanon Country Page.
Lebanon is the historic home of the Phoenicians, Semitic traders whose maritime culture flourished there for more than 2,000 years (c.2700-450 B.C.). In later centuries, Lebanon's mountains were a refuge for Christians, and Crusaders established several strongholds there. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the League of Nations mandated the five provinces that had comprised present-day Lebanon to France. Modern Lebanon's constitution, drawn up in 1926, specified a balance of political power between the various religious groups. The country gained independence in 1943, and French troops withdrew in 1946.
Lebanon's history from independence has been marked by periods of political turmoil interspersed with prosperity built on Beirut's position as a regional center for finance and trade. In 1958, during the last months of President Camille Chamoun's term, an insurrection broke out, and U.S. forces were briefly dispatched to Lebanon in response to an appeal by the government. During the 1960s, Lebanon enjoyed a period of relative calm and Beirut-focused tourism and banking sector-driven prosperity. Other areas of the country, however, notably the South, North, and Bekaa Valley, experienced increasing impoverishment.
In the early 1970s, difficulties arose over the presence of Palestinian refugees, many of whom arrived after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and "Black September" 1970 hostilities in Jordan. Among the latter were Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Coupled with the Palestinian problem, Muslim and Christian differences grew more intense.
Beginning of the Civil War--1975-81
Full-scale civil war broke out in April 1975. After shots were fired at a church, gunmen in Christian East Beirut ambushed a busload of Palestinians. Palestinian forces joined predominantly leftist-Muslim factions as the fighting persisted, eventually spreading to most parts of the country and precipitating the President's call for support from Syrian troops in June 1976. In fall of 1976, Arab summits in Riyadh and Cairo set out a plan to end the war. The resulting Arab Deterrent Force, which included Syrian troops already present, moved in to help separate combatants. As an uneasy quiet settled over Beirut, security conditions in the south began to deteriorate.
After a PLO attack on a bus in northern Israel and Israeli retaliation that caused heavy casualties, Israel invaded Lebanon in March 1978, occupying most of the area south of the Litani River. In response, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 425 calling for the immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces and creating the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), charged with maintaining peace. Israeli forces withdrew later in 1978, turning over positions inside Lebanon along the border to a Lebanese ally, the South Lebanon Army (SLA) under the leadership of Maj. Saad Haddad, thus informally setting up a 12-mile wide "security zone" to protect Israeli territory from cross border attack.
An interim cease-fire brokered by the U.S. in 1981 between Syria, the PLO, and Israel was respected for almost a year. Several incidents, including PLO rocket attacks on northern Israel, as well as an assassination attempt on the Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom, led to the June 6, 1982 Israeli ground attack into Lebanon to remove PLO forces. Operation "Peace for Galilee" aimed at establishing a deeper security zone and pushing Syrian troops out of Lebanon, with a view toward paving the way for an Israeli-Lebanese peace agreement. With these aims in mind, Israeli forces drove 25 miles into Lebanon, moving into East Beirut with the support of Maronite Christian leaders and militia.
In August 1982, U.S. mediation resulted in the evacuation of Syrian troops and PLO fighters from Beirut. The agreement also provided for the deployment of a multinational force comprised of U.S. Marines along with French and Italian units. A new President, Bashir Gemayel, was elected with acknowledged Israeli backing. On September 14, however, he was assassinated. The next day, Israeli troops crossed into West Beirut to secure Muslim militia strongholds and stood aside as Lebanese Christian militias massacred almost 800 Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Then-Israeli Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon was held indirectly responsible for the massacre by the Kahane Commission and later resigned. With U.S. backing, Amin Gemayel, chosen by the Lebanese parliament to succeed his brother as president, focused anew on securing the withdrawal of Israeli and Syrian forces. The multinational force returned.
On May 17, 1983, Lebanon, Israel, and the United States signed an agreement on Israeli withdrawal that was conditioned on the departure of Syrian troops. Syria opposed the agreement and declined to discuss the withdrawal of its troops, effectively stalemating further progress. In August 1983, Israel withdrew from the Shuf (southeast of Beirut), thus removing the buffer between the Druze and the Christian militias and triggering another round of brutal fighting. By September, the Druze had gained control over most of the Shuf, and Israeli forces had pulled out from all but the southern security zone, where they remained until May 2000. The virtual collapse of the Lebanese Army in February 1984, following the defection of many Muslim and Druze units to militias, was a major blow to the government. With the U.S. Marines looking ready to withdraw, Syria and Muslim groups stepped up pressure on Gemayal. On March 5, 1984 the Lebanese Government canceled the May 17 agreement; the Marines departed a few weeks later.
This period of chaos witnessed the beginning of terrorist attacks launched against U.S. and Western interests. These included the April 18, 1983 suicide attack at the U.S. Embassy in West Beirut (63 dead), the bombing of the headquarters of U.S. and French forces on October 23, 1983 (298 dead), the assassination of American University of Beirut President Malcolm Kerr on January 18, 1984, and the bombing of the U.S. Embassy annex in East Beirut on September 20, 1984 (9 dead).
It also saw the rise of radicalism among a small number of Lebanese Muslim factions who believed that the successive Israeli and U.S. interventions in Lebanon were serving primarily Christian interests. It was from these factions that Hizballah emerged from a loose coalition of Shi'a groups. Hizballah employed terrorist tactics and was supported by Syria and Iran.
Worsening Conflict and Political Crisis--1985-89
Between 1985 and 1989, factional conflict worsened as various efforts at national reconciliation failed. Heavy fighting took place in the "War of the Camps" in 1985 and 1986 as the Shi'a Muslim Amal militia sought to rout the Palestinians from Lebanese strongholds. The Amal movement had been organized in mid-1975, at the beginning of the civil war, to confront what were seen as Israeli plans to displace the Lebanese population with Palestinians. (Its charismatic founder Imam Musa Sadr disappeared in Libya 3 years later. Its current leader, Nabih Berri, is the speaker of the National Assembly.) The combat returned to Beirut in 1987, with Palestinians, leftists, and Druze fighters allied against Amal, eventually drawing further Syrian intervention. Violent confrontation flared up again in Beirut in 1988 between Amal and Hizballah.
Meanwhile, on the political front, Prime Minister Rashid Karami, head of a government of national unity set up after the failed peace efforts of 1984, was assassinated on June 1, 1987. President Gemayel's term of office expired in September 1988. Before stepping down, he appointed another Maronite Christian, Lebanese Armed Forces Commanding General Michel 'Awn, as acting Prime Minister, contravening Lebanon's unwritten "National Pact," which required the Prime Minister to be Sunni Muslim. Muslim groups rejected the move and pledged support to Salim al-Hoss, a Sunni who had succeeded Karami. Lebanon was thus divided between a Christian government in East Beirut and a Muslim government in West Beirut, with no President.
In February 1989 'Awn attacked the rival Lebanese Forces militia. By March he turned his attention to other militias, launching what he termed a "War of Liberation" against the Syrians and their Lebanese militia allies. In the months that followed, 'Awn rejected both the agreement that ultimately ended the civil war and the election of another Christian leader as president. A Lebanese-Syrian military operation in October 1990 forced him to take cover in the French Embassy in Beirut and later into exile in Paris, where he remains.
End of the Civil War--1989-91
The Ta'if Agreement of 1989 marked the beginning of the end of the war. In January of that year, a committee appointed by the Arab League, chaired by Kuwait and including Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Morocco, had begun to formulate solutions to the conflict, leading to a meeting of Lebanese parliamentarians in Ta'if, Saudi Arabia, where they agreed to the national reconciliation accord in October. Returning to Lebanon, they ratified the agreement on November 4 and elected Rene Moawad as President the following day. Assassinated in a car bombing in Beirut on November 22 as his motorcade returned from Lebanese Independence Day ceremonies, Moawad was succeeded by Elias Hrawi, who remained in office until 1998.
In August 1990, parliament and the new president agreed on constitutional amendments embodying some of the political reforms envisioned at Ta'if. The National Assembly expanded to 108 seats and was divided equally between Christians and Muslims. In March 1991, parliament passed an amnesty law that pardoned all political crimes prior to its enactment. The amnesty was not extended to crimes perpetrated against foreign diplomats or certain crimes referred by the cabinet to the Higher Judicial Council. In May 1991, the militias (with the important exception of Hizballah) were dissolved, and the Lebanese Armed Forces began to slowly rebuild itself as Lebanon's only major nonsectarian institution.
In all, it is estimated that more than 100,000 were killed, and another 100,000 left handicapped, during Lebanon's 16 year civil war. Up to one-fifth of the pre-war resident population, or about 900,000 people, were displaced from their homes, of whom perhaps a quarter of a million emigrated permanently. The last of the Western hostages taken during the mid-1980s were released in May 1992.
Postwar Reconstruction--1992 to Present
Postwar social and political instability, fueled by economic uncertainty and the collapse of the Lebanese currency, led to the resignation of Prime Minister Omar Karamiin May 1992, after less than 2 years in office. He was replaced by former Prime Minister Rashid al Sulh, who was widely viewed as a caretaker to oversee Lebanon's first parliamentary elections in 20 years.
By early November 1992, a new parliament had been elected, and Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri had formed a cabinet, retaining for himself the finance portfolio. The formation of a government headed by a successful billionaire businessman was widely seen as a sign that Lebanon would make a priority of rebuilding the country and reviving the economy. Solidere, a private real estate company set up to rebuild downtown Beirut, was a symbol of Hariri's strategy to link economic recovery to private sector investment. After the election of then-commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces Emile Lahoud in 1998, following Hrawi's extended term as President, Salim al-Hoss again served as Prime Minister. Hariri returned to office as Prime Minister in November 2000. Although problems with basic infrastructure and government services persist, and Lebanon is now highly indebted, much of the civil war damage has been repaired throughout the country, and many foreign investors and tourists have returned.
If Lebanon has in part recovered over the past decade from the catastrophic damage to infrastructure of its long civil war, the social and political divisions that gave rise to and sustained that conflict remain largely unresolved. Parliamentary and municipal elections have been held with fewer irregularities and more popular participation than in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, and Lebanese civil society generally enjoys significantly more freedoms than elsewhere in the Arab world. However, there are continuing sectarian tensions and unease about Syrian and other external influences. Lebanese Forces (LF) leader Samir Ja'ja, convicted in 1994 on civil war-related charges, remains imprisoned, and the LF is still banned, although Ja’ja supporters carry out periodic demonstrations and participate in local elections.
In January 2000 the government took action against Sunni Muslim extremists in the north who had attacked its soldiers, and it continues to act against groups such as Asbat al-Ansar, which has been linked to Usama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, and other extremists. On January 24, 2002, Elie Hobeika, a former Lebanese Forces figure associated with the Sabra and Shatila massacres who later served in three cabinets and the parliament, was assassinated in a car bombing in Beirut. An estimated 16,000 Syrian troops remain in position in many areas of Lebanon, notwithstanding Ta'if stipulations that called for agreement between the Syrian and Lebanese Governments on their redeployment by September 1992. Syrian troops did not leave greater Beirut until mid-2001. Israel withdrew its troops from south Lebanon in May 2000, where armed elements of Hizballah are still present.