Lebanon is a mountainous coastal country that is surrounded by water on one side, and engulfed by Syria and Israel on the other. In Neolithic times, Phoenicians lived in the region now called Lebanon. These people were known for their maritime abilities and were renowned for trading. Historically, before roads and aircraft, the largely mountainous region was a place where persecuted people found it easy to hide. In the Middle Ages the Crusaders discovered the value of the region and built forts there, but not before the Romans, Greeks, Persians and Byzantines, and a whole host of other cultures had taken a turn at occupying the area. The most recent rule pre-World War I had put Lebanon under the Ottoman Empire for almost four hundred years, a microscopic period when you consider how many cultures had come and gone by then.
With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire post WWI, the five Ottoman provinces that made up what is now Lebanon were given to France by the League of Nations, an intergovernmental organization that had just been formed. The League’s mandate was to maintain world peace, but as an organization it was unsuccessful and was ultimately replaced by the United Nations after WWII, at which time the U.N. inherited several League subgroups.
France held Lebanon until the 1940s, at which time Lebanon gained independence and French troops ultimately left. Also during this period the state of Israel was formed after a U.N. “Palestine Commission” made recommendations that would assign a larger portion of land to the new state of Israel, who had half the population of Palestinians, and a lesser amount to the larger Palestinian population.
Contrary to popular belief, the U.N. did not have the final say in the creation of Israel. Before they had come up with a way to implement their recommendations without having to militarily enforce them, Israel self-declared the state of Israel, citing the U.N. commission’s recommendations as validity for their constitutional right to self-govern. War ensued, and ultimately Israel has maintained that right, which Palestine was not recognized as having until the present “interim” self-governing body allowed under the Oslo accord of 1993. To the present day, that government is not officially recognized.
After the state of Israel was formed, roughly one hundred thousand displaced Palestinians entered Lebanon, permanently changing the religious demographic of the country to majority Muslim. There was then a period of peace and prosperity, with tourism and banking as the country’s biggest trades. Finally out from under the microscope of constant occupation, Lebanon flourished. It was known as the jewel of the Middle East, and was often compared to Monaco. The wealthy went there to vacation and relax. Having had the influence of the French, Lebanon was considered highly chic and sophisticated. A mere fifteen years later, the nation had its first civil war.
In 1955 a Middle East Treaty Organization (METO), also known as the Baghdad pact, was formed between the United Kingdom and Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan, with a central part of the negotiations being the promises of military and economic aid from the U.S. These negotiations were central to the pact and the U.S had representatives attend the signing, but did not themselves sign at that time.
The pact was purportedly formed to stop the spread of Soviet communism, and all Arab nations were invited to join. In 1956 Britain and America offered to fund the building of Egypt’s Aswan Dam. The dam was pivotal for Egypt’s growth and industrialization, and it seemed clear the offer of funding was in return for access to Egypt’s Suez Canal, which Britain had just years before lost control of. When Egypt instead decided to nationalize the canal and was seen to be forming ties with Russia, Israel invaded Egypt. Britain and America then issued a public warning to both Israel and Egypt, and began bombing Egyptian soil. It was later alleged that the invasion had been orchestrated between America, Israel and Britain, although these three countries never publicly admitted this. The invasion was only partially successful, with Israel retaining shipping rights within the canal. Then Egyptian president Nasser was not deposed, though this had been a main intent.
Because the Lebanese president at that time, Camille Chamoun, did not end relations with the West as a show of solidarity for the Suez crisis, Nasser of Egypt was displeased with Lebanon. Chamoun, a Christian, seemed to favor the Baghdad pact, which was seen by many as the West’s attempt to ensure their access to oil in the Middle East. Egyptian president Nasser’s stance was Arab nationalism, and Egypt and Syria aligned forces, creating the UAR, or United Arab Republic. Lebanon’s Muslim prime minister supported Nasser. Lebanon’s Muslims wanted to join the UAR, while the country’s Christians and Christian president, identifying more with the West, wished to remain aligned with Britain and the U.S.
Watched through an international microscope, about 14,000 American army and marine personnel entered Lebanon under Eisenhower in 1958. They were there to take control of the Beirut airport and seaport, and were supported by 70 ships and sailors numbering close to 40,000. In the end, the U.S. removed its troops that October and Chamoun stepped down when his term ended soon after. An intermittently rocky period existed between 1958 and 1975, when the second and more long-lasting civil war broke out in Lebanon.
This country with a population of around 5 million is made up of several Muslim sects (Sunni, Shia, etc.), several Christian sects (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Druze, etc.) and Judaism. There are half a million or more Palestinians living in Lebanon, 80 percent of whom have been in refugee camps for already two generations. There is also a significant Armenian population, and recently with the war in Syria, countless Syrian refugees have been added to Lebanon’s numbers. People from different sects have not been legally allowed to marry since the French put a system in place in 1936 making sectarian leaders the legally appointed persons to perform marriages. If neither party wished to convert, there was no marriage.
Add to this mix the long-time occupation of southern Lebanon by Israel and correlating northern occupation by Syria, both those countries attempting to protect their borders from infiltration and attacks by the other. Although these occupations have been given up at various times in the last twenty years, their presence was constant for decades, and has never been entirely relinquished. Each border town and village in all three countries are wary of the other, with sympathies shifting back and forth over the years. Hezbollah and Hamas have grown amidst this sectarianism. The only true solidarity that exists in the region may be among the Jewish people, who have been the strongest both financially and militarily, and who have had constant Western support.
In November 2013 the very first non-sectarian child was born in Lebanon. After a long legal battle, baby Ghadi Darwish was born to Nidal Darwish and Kholoud Sukkarieh, who did not enter anything in the field on Ghadi’s birth certificate marked “sect.” Kholoud indicates much support from family and friends in Lebanon, but admits she also feels her baby is constantly being scrutinized by the larger community and fears he will live his childhood under a microscope. A suicide car bomb exploded in north-eastern Lebanon on Saturday, near a military checkpoint close to Syria, which still has ongoing warfare. One civilian and two soldiers were killed. On Monday, February 24, Israeli warplanes struck near the border of Syria and Lebanon, reportedly on the Syrian side. According to American intelligence Israel has struck three times in the past year hoping to stop shipments of Hezbollah weapons from Syria to Lebanon. Each time, including this latest one, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu refuses to answer to whether or not Israeli planes were those responsible for the assaults, saying only that he will do what is necessary to protect Israel’s citizens. So far, neither Syria nor Lebanon has retaliated.
By Julie Mahfood