Frontline World

LEBANON - Party of God, May 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Party of God"

A History of Hezbollah

Negotiating With Hezbollah

Lebanon Country Profile

Hezbollah, the Region and U.S. Policy




1975-1979: Civil War
Civil WarHezbollah EmergesTarget AmericaGlobal TerrorThe Fate of Hezbollah
Geographical Key

A Delicate Balance

Christians holding crosses

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.

Bombed out building in Beirut

One of the many buildings destroyed in downtown Beirut during the country's civil war. (photo: Robert Zayed)
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 Lebanese militia.

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.


A bronze statute of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad

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.
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.

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.)

The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is greeted by supporters

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)
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 of 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.

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

back to top