A Delicate Balance
Christians have traditionally held
more political power than Muslims in Lebanon, despite constituting
a smaller percentage of the overall population. This disparity
helped to spark Lebanon's civil war.
At the time of Lebanon's independence from French colonial rule
in 1943, its population had already suffered through a century
of religious conflict. The new republic sought to end strife between
Muslims and Christians by granting each group equal political
power, apportioned according to their roughly equivalent populations
at the time. This political resolution seemed satisfactory until
important demographic shifts took place in the 1970s.
Higher birth rates in the Shiite community, coupled with the
influx into Lebanon of some 300,000 Palestinians (King Hussein
of Jordan expelled them in 1970), caused the Muslim community
to swell. By 1970, Muslims comprised 60 percent of the total
population, and by 1975, their leaders were pressing for government
representation that matched their larger numbers.
The situation was exacerbated in the mid-1970s by the war between
Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Having
created a state within a state in southern Lebanon, the PLO
began launching guerrilla attacks against Israeli positions
at the border. To strike back at the PLO, Israel helped supply
and train the Christian Phalangists, a right-wing Christian
One of the many buildings destroyed in downtown Beirut during the country's civil war. (photo: Robert Zayed)
Then on April 13, 1975, unidentified gunmen killed four Christians
in Beirut during an attempt on the life of Pierre Gemayel, the
leader of the Christian Phalangists, and the conflict boiled
over. The Phalangists retaliated by attacking a busload of Palestinians,
killing 26 innocent people. The situation deteriorated further,
and Lebanon was soon engulfed in war.
The toll of all-out civil war was a fragmentation of the country
along religious lines. Mixed neighborhoods disintegrated as
civilians moved to areas dominated by their own religious group.
The political machinery of the country, only precariously balanced
along religious lines, was also pulled apart.
By 1976, Beirut -- once known as the Paris of the Middle East
-- had been reduced to rubble and cracked in half, with the
Christian and Muslim communities officially separated on opposite
sides of the city.
A bronze statute of Syrian President
Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for nearly 30 years
until his death in 2000. Syria, a supporter of Hezbollah,
has occupied Lebanon since 1976.
Syria Steps In
Syria was soon drawn into the fighting, in a development with
important repercussions for the evolution of Hezbollah. President
Hafez al-Assad, fearing that the war would spill across Syria's
borders, sent his army into Lebanon in May 1976. Al-Assad's troops
sided with Christian forces, crushing the Muslim militias.
In October 1976, the war was officially ended during a conference
of the Arab League. Syria secured a mandate to maintain some
40,000 troops in Lebanon. (These Syrian forces would
later prove instrumental in backing up Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.)
Although the factionalism that had ignited the civil war was
suppressed by the Syrian occupation, it was not extinguished.
Tensions gained new life in 1979 when the Islamic revolution
Ayatollah Khomeini swept through Iran. The example of Khomeini's
insurrection in Iran inspired 900,000 Lebanese Shiites, many of
them poor farmers and laborers, to political activism.
The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, center, is greeted by supporters after arriving at the airport in Tehran Iran in this Feb. 1, 1979, photo. Khomeini returned from exile to lead the Islamic revolution in his country. (AP/Wide World Photos)
Amal, a key organization that preceded Hezbollah, was formed
in 1975 by a Shiite cleric named Imam Musa Sadr. Sadr had been
raised in Iran and trained at the same religious schools attended
by Khomeini. He helped to found the Higher Shiite Council as
a lobbying force for the Shiite community in Lebanon. This council
was later enlarged by Sadr's Movement of the Deprived, which
pressed for social and economic development in Shia villages.
Shiite resistance emerged as a formidable force for the first
time in modern Lebanese history.
NEXT - 1980-1983: Hezbollah Emerges
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