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History, Independence to 1975

major sects, Maronites, Lebanese army, political foes, Israeli attacks

With independence in 1943, practical Lebanese political leaders forged an unwritten National Pact designed to promote cooperation and conciliation among the rival confessional (religious) groups. The concept of a confessional democracy was unique. The National Pact was partly grounded in the 1932 census, which ranked the major sects in order of population as Maronites, Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Greek Orthodox, Druze, and Greek Catholics. Among the pact’s provisions, Maronites and Sunni Muslims were assured dominant political roles in proportion to their 1932 populations. The agreement faced early stresses in 1948 and 1958. In 1948 the stresses were external: the first Arab-Israeli war broke out, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes as Israeli troops advanced on them. About 150,000 Palestinians became refugees in Lebanon. Embittered and predominantly Muslim, they threatened the fragile confessional balance. In May 1958 internal tensions were high when President Camille Chamoun provoked political foes, especially Druze and Sunni Muslims, by challenging the constitution in an attempt to gain a second term. A short civil war erupted. Outside interference by several neighbors, along with general tensions in the Middle East, again greatly escalated the stresses. The United States, fearing the war’s effect on the wider region, landed 14,000 Marines on beaches south of Beirut on July 15. The Marines’ presence helped stabilize the country, and by early August the fighting was finished. In three months of warfare, an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 people were killed.

Chamoun’s successor, Fouad Chehab (Shihab), restored confidence and advanced Lebanon’s economic boom. Chehab attempted to reform feudal values and bridge sectarian rifts—for example, by increasing membership in parliament from 66 to 99, thereby providing more seats to more sects. His successor in 1964, Charles Helou, continued Chehab’s programs but was thwarted by the severe aftereffects of the 1967 Six-Day War between Arabs and Israel. The war sent another wave of Palestinian refugees to Lebanon. Although Helou kept his country neutral during the war, the fighting and other Middle East tensions triggered complex domestic conflicts which neither Helou nor his successor after 1970, Sulayman Franjiyah, could stop. In most of the conflicts, overlapping groups of Muslims, Arab nationalists, Palestinians, and various leftists were aligned on one side. On the other side were Christians, supporters of the West, wealthy rightists, and supporters of the status quo. Cross-alliances permeated several factions. The most militant Palestinians, including growing numbers of the heavily armed Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) militia, soon developed a state within a state. Since most of the Lebanese army sympathized with the Palestinians, the government could not easily challenge the PLO. In the Cairo Agreement of 1969, Lebanon’s neighbors forced the government to let the PLO use its territory to mount raids on northern Israel. The situation worsened after the PLO was expelled from Jordan in 1970. Most of the refugees from Jordan, including more armed militiamen, regrouped in Lebanon. By this time, the Lebanese government was too weak and vulnerable to impose any significant controls on the Palestinians.

In 1972 the PLO opened its headquarters in Beirut. From southern Lebanon, PLO Fatah fedayeen (commandos) periodically launched hit-and-run attacks on northern Israel. Israel responded with raids on the PLO in Lebanon. The Israeli attacks were often more severe and on a larger scale than PLO attacks on Israel and often impacted civilian areas. The feeble, divided Lebanese government was unable to restrain attacks by either side and watched helplessly as the destruction and death among its citizens mounted. In May 1973 Palestinians and Lebanese soldiers had a brief, sharp clash in Beirut, a foretaste of the civil war to come.

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