The past of Lebanon weighs heavily on what is happening today

Lebanon has a long history, being one of the cradles of early civilisation, but it has been occupied by many different powers, the last being Isreal and Syria. Last time Israel occupied it it was eventually defeated and forced to leave because of the guerrilla war led by Hezbollah. It was Israel’s Vietnam. This is still a factor in understanding what is happening today.

Lebanon is one of the earliest cradles of civilization with its flourishing Semitic trading cities of Byblos, Berytus (Beirut), Sidon, Sarepta, and Tyre, an area which the ancient Greeks termed Phoenicia more than 2000 years ago. Here we also find the oldest known 24-letter alphabet.

However, for most of its long history Lebanon has been dominated by foreign rulers including the Assyrians, Babylonians, Armenians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, French, Syrians and most recently the Southern part was occupied by Israel for almost twenty years.

It was conquered by the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia, which organized it as a satrapy. It was conquered by the empire of Alexander the Great, and again by the Roman Empire in the first century BC and remained Roman until the Arab rule of the Caliphate. Christianity came to Phoenicia via neighbouring Galilee in the early Christian period. Then the Arab advances brought Islam soon after the death of Mohammed.

During the Middle Ages, Lebanon was occupied by Christian mercenaries during the Crusades. Later Saladin eliminated Christian control of Jerusalem in 1190, but the Crusader states in Lebanon and Syria remained until the late 13th century and before the French took over Lebanon was under the Ottoman Empire as part of the Syrian province.

Roots of sectarian conflict in 19th century colonialism

As we can see, Lebanon has a history of different influences and cultures, but the roots of modern-day sectarian conflicts in Lebanon do not stem from this history. They stem from the European colonialist period of the 19th century. The European powers enhanced and exploited the tensions between the different ethnic and religious groups, applying the old and tested method of "divide and rule".

Thus for example the 1841 conflicts between the impoverished Druze and the Maronite Christians ended up with a massacre of the Christians by the Druze at Deir al Qamar. The fleeing refugees were slaughtered by Ottoman soldiers. To ensure their rule the Ottomans used the tactic of divide and rule splitting up Mt Lebanon into a Christian district and a Druze district, which later pushed the region towards a new civil war and a Maronite popular uprising against the feudal class, which ended in 1858 with the overthrow of the old feudal system. This did not put an end to the sectarian nature of Lebanon as the uprising was not a national bourgeois revolution. It only served to increase the power of the urban Maronites surrounded by Druze villages.

Then in 1860 Napoleon III sent 7,000 troops to Beirut and helped impose a partition: The Druze control of the territory was thus imposed, while the Maronites were confined to a mountainous district, cut off from both the Biqa and Beirut.

Later the French supported the Maronite Christians against the Druze while the British, trying to get a foothold, supported the Druze leadership. This led to a new sectarian conflict between the Maronites and the Druze. Later the Druze were backed by the Ottoman Empire and the Wali of Damascus in an attempt to gain greater control over Lebanon.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, the League of Nations - to use Lenin's term, that thieves' kitchen - handed over the five provinces that make up present-day Lebanon to French imperialism as a mandate, according to the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, which was ratified at the San Remo conference in 1920, and sealed by the League of Nations in 1921. With this agreement Lebanon was cut away from Syria. Syria became a "Class A Mandate", and the rights granted to France were far less than the "B Class" status of Lebanon.

The French imperialists changed the demographics of Lebanon based on a fine balance between the local warlords. Lebanon's constitution, drawn up in 1926, specified a balance of power between the various religious groups, regardless of their actual size. The president had to be a Christian (in practice, a Maronite), the prime minister a Sunni Muslim. On the basis of the 1932 census, parliamentary seats were divided up according to a 6 to 5 Christian-Muslim ratio. The constitution gave the president powers of veto over any legislation approved by parliament, virtually ensuring that the 6 to 5 ratio would not be revised in the event that the actual make-up of the population changed. Finally in 1946 Lebanon became an "independent state". In spite of this, the same political structure remained.

In the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Lebanon became home to more than 110,000 Palestinian refugees displaced from their homeland. By 1960 the Muslims constituted a majority of the population, but they were still legally the "minority" and this would lead to a growing resentment on their part.

In 1958, during the last months of President Camille Chamoun's term, a pro Nasserite uprising broke out, and 5,000 US marines were briefly sent to Beirut to prop up the pro-imperialist regime and the government of former general Fuad Chehab, was imposed.

More Palestinian refugees arrived in Lebanon after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. And following their 1970 "Black September" in Jordan, thousands of Palestinian militiamen regrouped in Lebanon. From southern Lebanon they set up bases from which they attacked Israeli territory.

Israeli occupation and the development of Hezbollah

All this led to the 1975 civil war and the later invasion of Lebanon by Israel in 1982 that lasted until 2000. Prior to the Israeli withdrawal, Lebanese prisoners continued to be detained outside any legal framework in the Khiam detention centre where conditions were cruel, inhuman and degrading, and torture was systematic. After the Israeli withdrawal, the residents of Khiam village stormed the detention centre and released all the remaining 144 detainees.

The horrendous treatment of these detainees is evident, for example in the case of Sulayman Ramadan who was arrested in September 1985. One of his legs was amputated as a result of lack of medical care after his arrest. During his interrogation he was beaten and given electric shocks. He was detained without charge or trial until his release in May 2000. (According to Amnesty International, AI Index: MDE 02/006/2000, 5 June 2000).

On 22 and 23 May 2000, during the withdrawal of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) from south Lebanon and with the collapse of the South Lebanon Army (SLA), Israel's proxy militia, a number of Lebanese were killed by Israeli or SLA fire. Information gathered by Amnesty International - including during a fact-finding visit to south Lebanon - would indicate that in at least four incidents over two days Israeli forces directed tank fire from the Israeli side of the border at Lebanese civilians, killing at least four people.

Israel was in fact eventually defeated and forced to leave Lebanon. This was because of the guerrilla war led by Hezbollah. South Lebanon was Israel's Vietnam. Israel was defeated in part on the home front. The people of Israel could no longer tolerate the huge loss of Israeli soldiers and the people in Israel could see that the people in South Lebanon did not want the Israeli army there.

This outcome established Hasan Nasrallah as the most popular leader in Lebanon, and had it not been for the phoney constitution and the practical arrangements imposed on the people of Lebanon, in any semi-fair elections Nasarallah would have become the Prime Minister of Lebanon, in the same way that Hamas has become the Palestinian elected government.

Since Syria was forced to leave Lebanon in 2005 the tension between the pro-US imperialist wing, led by the Hariri group and the Future Party led to the electoral victory of Siniora and the coming to power of the present government. This government promised many reforms to overcome the economic crisis of Lebanon but failed. As a result the Hezbollah gained greater popularity, which led the US and Israel to intervene in this crisis. And this is the real cause of this war.

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