Lebanon – What is behind the conflict?

There is much myth-making about what is happening in Lebanon. But what is the truth, what really lies behind the periodic breakdown into internecine civil war? Lebanon faces the real danger today of renewed civil war. The source of this conflict, however, lies mainly beyond its borders.

It is very common in the capitalist mass media to present the conflict in Lebanon as a sectarian conflict where on one side we have the good, modern and moderate Christians, the forces of democracy with their reasonable Sunni allies, and on the other side, the extremist Muslims who support the evil leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, a simple extension of Iran.

Yet, this presentation hides many lies and half-truths. The first is that the struggle is simply between religious sects. The government in fact recognizes 17 religious groups in the country. While it is easy to describe their different beliefs, the relative size of the various groups is more difficult to ascertain because for political reasons a census has not been conducted since 1932. Therefore the estimated size of the main groups is largely based on information collected in the 1980s.

The Muslims are about 59.7 percent of the population. The Orthodox Sunni Muslims, regard the Koran, supplemented by the traditions of Mohammed, as the sole foundation of the Muslim faith. Since the French Mandate they were given more power than their actual size. In 1986, it was estimated that there were 595,000 (27 percent of the population) Sunni Muslims in Lebanon, the majority living in urban centres, and the upper stratum of this group belongs to the ruling class - the landlords, bankers and the rich merchants.

The Shiite Muslims in Lebanon have occupied the lowest stratum of Lebanese society and have been concentrated chiefly in the poor districts of Beirut and southern Lebanon. They are mainly workers and peasants. In 1987, the number of Shiites in the country was estimated to be 919,000 (41 percent).

The Druze are an offshoot of a version of Islam whose followers escaped to Lebanon from Egypt, led by a teacher named Darazi in the 10th century. They can be described as traditionally being a military cast. The Druze constituted about 7 percent of the population (153,000) in 1987, the majority residing in rural areas.

The Christian sects constitute approximately 39 percent of the population. The main sect is the Maronites whose church is related to the Roman Catholic Church. Most Maronites are rural people, some of them being landlords, and are scattered around the country. Historically the Maronites have occupied the highest stratum of Lebanese society with the patronage of France and they have had more political power than any other group. In 1986, it was estimated that there were 356,000 Maronites, around 16 percent of the population.

In addition there are Greek Catholics (72,000), and Roman Catholics who comprise less than 1 percent of Lebanon's population. Greek Orthodox Christians constitute 5 percent of the population. There are also Jacobites, who are often referred to as the Syrian Orthodox Church. In 1987 there were only a few thousand of them in Lebanon. There are also Armenian Orthodox Christians, who fled Turkey during and after World War I. In 1987, they resided primarily in Beirut and its northern suburbs.

There is also the Nestorian or Assyrian Church, the remnant of the fifth-century movement that believed Christ was in fact two separate people, one human and one divine, as opposed to the idea that he had two different natures united in one person.

The Protestants in Lebanon emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries from the work of missionaries, primarily English and American. They tend to be professional middle class people. They constitute less than 1 percent of the population and live primarily in Beirut. There are also Evangelical Christians, who emerged in the 20th century from the work of missionaries, primarily American, represented by groups such as the Baptists and the Assemblies of God. Typically, the Evangelicals belong to the middle and lower classes. They constitute less than 1 percent of the population and live primarily in Beirut.

Thus, we can see what a varied ethnic and religious mix exists in Lebanon. And socio-economic conditions have long been used to create friction between Lebanon's different groups. Behind the façade, however, the struggle amounts to one of rich against poor. Better-educated Christians and elite Sunni Muslims tend to dominate the upper and middle classes. One-third of the population is considered poor, but most of these are Shia Muslims. Some of the Christian allies of Hezbollah, like General Aoun, belong to the state bureaucracy, but fearing the partition of Lebanon by the Phalange.

Lebanon was in fact created in such a way as to have a precarious ethnic balance. It was built on the old and tested basis of "Divide and Rule". The imperialists had to abandon direct colonial control of the region and in the case of Lebanon they made sure that by having such an ethnic balance the country could always be controlled from outside. Thus social classes voice their demands through the sectarian prism of religion in Lebanon. The friction in Lebanon therefore cannot be said to be simply a matter of faith, but is at root a class question.

The second lie is that Pierre Gemayel, assassinated last month, was a leader of a party supporting democracy. The Phalange (the Kataeb Party) is a right-wing party that was first established as a youth movement in 1936 by Gemayel's grandfather, Pierre Gemayel. The Party was modelled on European fascist movements after his visit to the Berlin Olympic Games, where he was impressed with the organisation of the Nazi Party. The official name of the Kataeb Party is the "Social Democratic Party" and it is mainly supported by the Maronite Christians. It is a party known for its bloody history and for being a long time ally of Israel. It supports the aim of turning Lebanon into a "Christian state". And to this day party members salute each other with the fascist salute. In the 1970s, the Phalange created a military wing, which by 1976 was led by Bashir Gemayel, Pierre Gemayel's father, who provoked the civil war and was backed by Israel.

The third lie spread by the capitalist mass media is that responsibility for the assassination of Gemayel lies with Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran. They insist on this, despite the fact that his assassination clearly benefits the pro-US coalition. The Bush administration and the Israeli government need political leverage. This is because Syria and Iran are offering to help in Iraq, and pro-government forces have much less popularity than that which Hezbollah commands. The last thing Hezbollah - which could bring down the government with mass mobilizations and demonstrations - needs is a civil war which would allow Israel and the West to come in on the side of the government, under the pretext of defending a democratically elected government.

On Friday, November 24, the leaders of the capitalist class called for a two-day closure of all businesses in support of Siniora's government. However, as the Lebanese newspaper, The Daily Star reported the next day: "Most businesses in Lebanon's capital resumed regular operations on Friday, ignoring a joint call from major business groups for a two-day strike across all commercial sectors. (Lysandra Ohrstrom, Daily Star staff, Saturday, November 25, 2006).

Not only this, but the number of people who participated in the demonstration organized by the pro-imperialist coalition, estimated by the bourgeois media itself, was 200,000. Compare this to the large pro-Syrian demonstrations of up to 1.5 million people in 2005 and it is clear that the balance of power is in reality against the pro-US government.

Demonstrations planned by Hezbollah to force the government's resignation were postponed after the assassination of Gemayel. But Hezbollah is planning on going ahead with its mobilisation. The head of Hezbollah's "Loyalty to the Resistance" parliamentary bloc, Mohammad Raad said in the press that, "Gemayel's assassination was a shock to all Lebanese and had forced the party to postpone its protests. Recent developments delayed our public moves to topple the Government, but we will never terminate them". He then added, "If a true political partnership is not realized we will stick to our peaceful and democratic protests toward overthrowing the government."

The As-Safir newspaper quoted sources close to the Free Patriotic Movement's leader, Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah, saying that, "protests might start early next week". Aoun said during a press conference held following an FPM meeting to discuss Gemayel's assassination that he will proceed with his allies with mobilisations to force the Siniora government to resign.

There have already been demonstrations of hundreds of Shiites in the southern suburbs of Beirut. They were protesting at insults directed at Hezbollah's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, that had been made during the funeral for Gemayel.

However, Nasrallah himself appealed to the protesters to disperse. The situation is ripe for Hezbollah and its allies to stand at the head of the masses and topple the government. But the question is, will they? Or will they provide the break that will give the March 13 coalition more time to regroup its forces?

As to the claim that Iran is seeking a confrontation with the West, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that Iran is ready to help the US and Britain in Iraq, but only if they pledged to change their attitude and withdraw their troops. This was in response to growing calls for the US and Britain to turn to Syria and Iran to help stabilise the situation in Iraq.

For its part, the US government has said that "in principle" the US was ready to discuss the situation in Iraq with Iran, but that when such talks would take place was not clear.

Another common lie is that Israel is simply defending itself from terrorism. In reality, from the very beginning, the Zionist movement has had plans to divide Lebanon and create a Christian state to act as its vassal.

Herzl, the father of the Zionist movement, stated in The Jewish State that the Zionists would assist the imperialists if the Great Powers would grant Palestine to his movement and guaranteed its existence. "We would there form a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral State remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence". (Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State: An Attempt at a Modern Solution to the Jewish Question, p. 30).

The proposed borders of the Zionist State were officially submitted by the Zionist Organization to the Paris Peace Conference in 1922, where the victorious imperialists met to divide the loot. This map included, in addition to the whole of the Mandate of Palestine, southern Lebanon up to the Litani River, the Golan Heights, and an area to the East of the Jordan River which runs from the North to the South parallel to the Hijaz railroad.

Two important sources on the Zionist plans for Lebanon are the diary of Moshe Sharett, who was the Prime Minster of Israel in 1954-1955 and who was considered a "soft Zionist", and Livia Rokach's Israel's Sacred Terrorism: A study based on Moshe Sharett's Personal Diary, and other documents. In the latter we find some very interesting information, and it is worth quoting from Sharett's diary at length:


"Then he [Ben Gurion] passed on to another issue. This is the time, he said, to push Lebanon, that is, the Maronites in that country, to proclaim a Christian State. I said that this was nonsense. The Maronites are divided. The partisans of Christian separatism are weak and will dare do nothing. A Christian Lebanon would mean their giving up Tyre, Tripoli, and the Beka'a. There is no force that could bring Lebanon back to its pre-World War I dimensions, and all the more so because in that case it would lose its economic raison-d'etre. Ben Gurion reacted furiously. He began to enumerate the historical justification for a restricted Christian Lebanon. If such a development were to take place, the Christian Powers would not dare oppose it. I claimed that there was no factor ready to create such a situation, and that if we were to push and encourage it on our own we would get ourselves into an adventure that will place shame on us. Here came a wave of insults regarding my lack of daring and my narrow-mindedness. We ought to send envoys and spend money. I said there was no money. The answer was that there is no such thing. The money must be found, if not in the Treasury then at the Jewish Agency! For such a project it is worthwhile throwing away one hundred thousand, half a million, a million dollars. When this happens a decisive change will take place in the Middle East, a new era will start. I got tired of struggling against a whirlwind. (27 February 1954,)"


The next day David Ben Gurion sent Sharett the following letter:

"To Moshe Sharett the Prime Minister,

Sdeh Boker, February 27, 1954


"Upon my withdrawal from the government I decided in my heart to desist from intervening and expressing my opinion on current political affairs so as not to make things difficult for the government in any way. And if you hadn't called on me, the three of you, yourself, Lavon and Dayan, I would not have, of my own accord, expressed an opinion on what is being done or what ought to be done. But as you called me, I deem it my duty to comply with your wishes, and especially with your own wish as Prime Minister. Therefore, I permit myself to go back to one issue which you did not approve of and discuss it again, and this is the issue of Lebanon.


"It is clear that Lebanon is the weakest link in the Arab League. The other minorities in the Arab States are all Muslim, except for the Copts. But Egypt is the most compact and solid of the Arab States and the majority there consists of one solid block, of one race, religion and language, and the Christian minority does not seriously affect their political and national unity. Not so the Christians in Lebanon. They are a majority in the historical Lebanon and this majority has a tradition and a culture different from those of the other components of the League. Also within the wider borders (this was the worst mistake made by France when it extended the borders of Lebanon), the Muslims are not free to do as they wish, even if they are a majority there (and I don't know if they are, indeed, a majority) for fear of the Christians. The creation of a Christian State is therefore a natural act; it has historical roots and it will find support in wide circles in the Christian world, both Catholic and Protestant...

D.B.G. (27 February 1954)"


Sharett responded a few weeks later with the following:

"Mr. David Ben Gurion, March 18, 1954, Sdeh Boker


"As far as I know, in Lebanon today exists no movement aiming at transforming the country into a Christian State governed by the Maronite community...


"This is not surprising. The transformation of Lebanon into a Christian State as a result of an outside initiative is unfeasible today... I don't exclude the possibility of accomplishing this goal in the wake of a wave of shocks that will sweep the Middle East... will destroy the present constellations and will form others. But in the present Lebanon, with its present territorial and demographic dimensions and its international relations, no serious initiative of the kind is imaginable.


"The Christians do not constitute the majority in Lebanon. Nor are they a unified block, politically speaking or community-wise. The Orthodox minority in Lebanon tends to identify with their brethren in Syria. They will not be ready to go to war for a Christian Lebanon, which is for a Lebanon smaller than it is today, and detached from the Arab League. On the contrary, they would probably not be opposed to a Lebanon united to Syria, as this would contribute to strengthening their own community and the Orthodox community throughout the region... In fact, there are more Orthodox Christians in Syria than in Lebanon, and the Orthodox in Syria and Lebanon together are more numerous than the Maronites...


"... There are also decisive economic arguments against it. We are not discussing the issue in 1920/21... but 30 years later. Mount Lebanon has meanwhile integrated into one organic unit with the coastal plane of Tyre and Sidon, the Valley of Baalbeck and the city of Tripoli. They are commercially and economically interdependent and inseparable. Mount Lebanon was not a self-sufficient unit even before World War 1... The annexation of the three regions plus the city of Beirut to the Lebanese State has rendered possible the creation of a balanced economy. A return to the past would not just mean a surgical operation but also a disintegration leading to the end of Lebanon...


"When all this has been said, [I should add that] I would not have objected, and on the contrary I would have certainly been favorable to the idea, of actively aiding any manifestation of agitation in the Maronite community tending to strengthen its isolationist tendencies, even if there were no real chances of achieving the goals; I would have considered positive the very existence of such an agitation and the destabilization it could bring about, the trouble it would have caused the League, the diversion of attention from the Arab-Israeli complications that it would have caused, and the very kindling of a fire made up of impulses toward Christian independence. But what can I do when such an agitation is nonexistent? ... In the present condition, I am afraid that any attempt on our part would be considered as lightheartedness and superficiality or worse-as an adventurous speculation upon the well being and existence of others and a readiness to sacrifice their basic good for the benefit of a temporary tactical advantage for Israel.


"Moreover, if this plan is not kept a secret but becomes known a danger which cannot be underestimated in the Middle Eastern circumstances-the damage which we shall suffer... would not be compensated even by an eventual success of the operation itself...


"M. S. (18 March 1954)"


At that time Ben Gurion did not convince Sharett. The conditions were not ripe for such an attempt. But the idea never went away and remained in the minds of the leading Zionists as an option. The time to put into practice came in 1978 during the civil war when the "Litani Operation" was launched.

Israel was created at a terrible price. The Palestinians were expelled from their homeland, pushed into refugee camps all around the region. Israel thus came into being in an almost permanent state of war against its Arab neighbours. Israel was envisaged as an outpost of western imperialism, a "safe ally" that could police this oil-rich region. For decades it played that role quite successfully. Part of that task involved trying to get at least one "friendly" regime to its north in Lebanon. But this was easier said than done. Because of its delicate ethnic make up, Lebanon dominated by the Christian elite could never be a stable country. Class conflict would emerge and re-emerge in the form of ethnic conflict due to the lack of a clear working class, socialist leadership, that could cut across the ethnic divide.

Today Israel continues to meddle in the internal affairs of Lebanon. This summer's bombing of the country was clearly aimed at provoking a civil war, at re-igniting the ethnic conflict within the country. After the expulsion of Syria from the country - in actual fact a stabilising element - Hezbollah emerged as even more powerful. As it is based on the poorer sections of Lebanese society, the leaders of Hezbollah could only justify their existence by presenting themselves as a constant threat to Israel and by directing their energies against those within Lebanon seen as backing US imperialism and therefore also Israel. This summer Israel attempted to push the Christians into fighting Hezbollah, thus indirectly provoking also class war.

Unfortunately for the Zionist ruling class, Israel has emerged weakened from that war. It can no longer play the role of trustworthy policeman for the imperialists. In fact it is a destabilising element, but one that has less cards to play than in the past. Israel is clearly against involving Iran and Syria in finding a solution to the mess created by US and British imperialism in Iraq. Involving Syria in Iraq would imply strengthening its position also in Lebanon, where it has traditionally had influence over Hezbollah. This would undo the work of the past years, aimed at removing Syrian influence from Lebanon.

Here we see contradictory interests emerging between the needs of the Zionist ruling class in Israel and imperialism in general. This division also exist within the US ruling class itself. The clique around Bush pushed for the Iraqi invasion, but it is becoming more and more obvious as each day passes that this has been an absolute disaster for US imperialism.

Thus, we see how the conflicts internationally have a direct effect on the internal politics of a small country like Lebanon. And so long as capitalism continues to exist there will be powerful economic interests to defend in this region. Ultimately those who pay most severely in all this are the ordinary working people of Lebanon, of all ethnic groups, the Palestinian people who continue to languish in terrible social and economic conditions, and the Arab masses as a whole.

The other side of the coin, of course, is the situation facing ordinary working class people in Israel. They too suffer. While all their rights are gradually being whittled away, they are asked to continue fighting wars that cannot be won, and to live in what is becoming more and more one big prison house surrounded by hostile forces. This is not the safe haven for Jews that many dreamed of.

To all this there is no solution so long as Israel is governed by the reactionary Zionist bourgeoisie and so long as the Arab countries are governed by equally reactionary local elites, whose only interests are to line their own pockets at the expense of their own peoples.

The problems of a small country like Lebanon therefore can only be solved in the long run in the arena of the international class struggle, a struggle that can only end with the overthrow of all these rotten regimes.

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