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Causes of the Lebanese Civil War

Info: 2487 words (10 pages) Essay
Published: 17th Aug 2018 in History

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The Middle Eastern region has always been a symbol of regional instability; much like a leaky propane tank in an area prone to wild fires, just one spark in the wrong place can create an inferno. The subject of this investigation is to determine the primary causes for the Lebanese Civil War, why the fighting persisted for the better part of two decades, and how it finally ended. Using books written at the time of the war from scholarly sources and examining the firsthand accounts of individuals affected by the war, we will be able to at least draw some conclusions of how and why history unfolded the way it has.

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For fifteen years (1975-1990), Lebanon was embroiled in a vicious civil war that ultimately resulted in de facto Syrian military control over the small Middle Eastern state and left thousands of people dead—many non-combatant civilians. Most civil wars are fought between two religious or political factions, but the belligerents included the Lebanese Front, Syria, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), Israel, and the Lebanese National Movement (LNM), though it can be argued that this was a battle of control between the region’s Muslim and Christian populations though the scope of interests involved would make it far more significant. Thus, it would not be entirely accurate to refer to this conflict as a ‘civil war’, but an ideological struggle of an entire region fought on a very small piece of land. According to David C. Gordon in his book Lebanon, the Fragmented Nation, ‘It has been a war between haves and have-nots, Christians and Muslims, Lebanese nationalists and non-Lebanese Palestinians, as well as a war between rival Arab states and ideologies on Lebanese soil, and part of the confrontation between Israel, the Arabs, and more.’[1]

Summary of Evidence: A Timeline

  1. Lebanon obtains her independence in 1946.[2]
  1. The state of Israel is formed in 1948.
  1. Palestinian refugees are driven from Israeli territory to neighbouring countries.
  1. Lebanon attempts to absorb more than half a million Palestinian refugees, not really welcoming them into the society.
  1. Stability is compromised during the 1960s and power shifts several times ultimately leading to civil war in 1958.[3]
  1. During the 1960s and 1970s, the PLO violates Lebanese sovereignty to attack Israel.
  1. Lebanese society is polarized as the Muslim minority feels powerless and allies itself with more powerful Muslim forces such as the PLO and the Syrians.[4]
  1. Christian majority allies themselves with the nationalist forces. Open warfare breaks out in 1975 and becomes a microcosm for the rest of the conflict in the Middle East.[5]

An Evaluation of Sources

Itamar Rabinovich’s The War for Lebanon 1970-1985 was a source of basic information. It identified the various factions and their objectives and provided a summary of the major events in the war and the tensions leading up to it. A valuable source for someone that needs to familiarise themselves with the general situation, though it does not adopt a particular perspective. This would be a good place to start when beginning research.

In Syria and Iran by Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Raymond A. Hinnebusch, the subject of discussion focused on the growing hegemony of Syria and Iran as an opposition to Israel’s growth in the Middle East. At first glance, the subject matter had very little to do with the Lebanese Civil War, however, the books sixth chapter introduces the theory that the war in Lebanon was critical to the interests of many factions in the region rather than being a simple resolution of sovereignty and government representation. ‘The struggle for Lebanon is most usefully understood, not as part of a civilizational conflict between Islam and the West, but as a conflict of national interests: if Israel could control Lebanon, it could smash Syrian and Palestinian resistance to its hegemony. Syria and Iran sought to make Lebanon, respectively, a buffer and a front in the struggle with Israel.’[6] This book was critical to understanding how a delicate situation was pushed into civil unrest by external forces. In this case, Iran and Syria were threatened by an Israel backed by the superpower that was the United States of America and much of the Shi’a Muslims in the region became more energized to resist that influence. Of special interest was the alliance of the Lebanese Shi’a Muslims with Syria and Iran, and their ultimate success. ‘The USA and Israel withdrew from Lebanon. Syria and Amal had forged an alliance in opposition to the USA, the Phalanges and Israel which would prove remarkably enduring.’[7]

In contrast Lebanon, the Fragmented Nation by David Gordon was indispensable to understanding the internal issues that precipitated the war, focusing on the diverse nature of Lebanon and its inability to decide whether to become a part of a ‘greater’ Syrian society or remain the Arab World’s link to the West. When asked, the Christian and Muslim population offered radically different visions of the society that Lebanon should become.[8] This may suggest that religious diversity is not possible, especially when the religions involved tend to be expansionist and the practitioners themselves extremist, albeit co-existence is possible in a society where the diverse groups were moderate and non-expansionist (i.e. believe that everyone should abide by the mores of their particular group). While the first source couched the war in terms of Islam vs. Christianity and Zionism, this source explored the fundamental division between Christians and Muslims in Lebanese society, which could never lead to a lasting peace.

The personal account provides a most important perspective for this investigation: the individual soldier or civilian whose life was impacted by the hostilities. Scholarly historical books and documents offer a bird’s eye view of the social and political forces that led to this outcome, however, it does not capture the personal element of how the individual is pushed into fighting for a particular cause. According to Lebanese writer Fawaz Gerges, the Civil War was a grand struggle ‘for the soul and future of the Muslim and Arab world.’[9] This is not an exaggerated statement given that the causes for the war and the parties involved originated beyond Lebanon’s borders, but the writer of this story wanted to express how the interference of the West and the extremism of the Christian soldiers began to inflame the passions of young jihadists. This source was chosen for its historical relevance because the jihadist movement is more powerful than ever in the twenty-first century and Lebanon is considered more an ally of the Muslims than a Christian state even as it retains a sizeable Christian population. Although this does not show the origin of the war per se, this book highlights the origin of Muslim extremism and how a climate embroiled in religious strife can polarise the most moderate reasonable people.


From the sources that were gathered for this study, it is clear that the seeds of the conflict were sown in 1948 when the Jewish state of Israel was formed. With its alliance with the Western world and a new religious influence in the area, it challenged the existing balance of power in the Middle East. As we know, the Palestinians already inhabiting the territory ceded to Israel were strongly opposed and began to attack the newly formed nation because there was a resentment against having to give up land that was theirs to begin with, and that they had done nothing wrong to merit its loss. When the Israelis won and expanded their borders, many Palestinians were forced to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. When Jordan expelled many of the Palestinian refugees for reasons of national security, the refugees (along with PLO forces) began to migrate into Lebanon in greater numbers. Political asylum seekers that could not have easily assimilated into Lebanese culture were absorbed into the population resulting from Israel’s treaty with Lebanon. ‘One result of Israel’s creation was that Lebanon became host to many of the some 700,000 Arab Palestinian refugees. Most of the Diaspora was Muslim, and so in this predominantly Christian state, it was inconceivable that they should be given citizenship and assimilated. To do so would have been to undermine the statistically based legitimacy of the Establishment to continue to rule. Muslims of course took full note of the fact that when thousands of Christian Armenians had poured into Lebanon after the First World War they had been quickly provided with the rights of citizenship.’[10] Lebanon had only been independent of France for two years and a nation is most vulnerable in the first years of formation as the stronger factions seek to overcome the minority groups and the new order overturns outdated power structures, and attempted coups by ambitious power brokers were rather common.[11] With the influx of Palestinian refugees, the balance of power began to shift. The Lebanese government was created to empower both Christians and Muslims. The President of Lebanon must be a Maronite Christian and the Prime Minister must be a Muslim. However, the balance of power strongly favoured Christians. When Muslims began agitating for more influence because they believed they were in the majority, a mini-civil war was fought in 1958, which claimed 4,000 lives leaving the region even more fraught with religious tension.

The rise of religious extremism in general and Muslim fundamentalism in particular characterised the 1970s social and political climate, and many hard line members of the Abrahamic religions believed that their sect should be in control of the Holy Land, with the city of Jerusalem at its centre. While this in and of itself was not enough to spark the war in Lebanon per se, Palestine’s insistence on using its adopted country as a staging ground for an attack on Israel polarised the Lebanese people into two camps. The Muslim faction supported Palestine’s military efforts while the Christians were strongly opposed, and many Christians commonly support the Jewish claim to the city of Jerusalem. Considering Lebanon’s religiously and politically diverse population, it is not difficult to imagine that obtaining a consensus on foreign relations would be extremely difficult. This was especially true once the United States and Europe were intervening on behalf of the newly formed Jewish state that most of the Arab nations in the region wished to destroy. Tensions between the Lebanese and Palestinians escalated as the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) sought to fight Israel from Lebanese territory, which suggests that the root of this conflict was the seizure of Palestinian lands when Israel was founded in 1948. ‘It was not the Lebanese that started the violence; rather, Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians was the root of the Lebanese civil war and the civil war was greatly exacerbated by the 1982 Israeli invasion which was supported by the USA in order to smash the PLO and the Islamic movement and reinforce Israel.’[12]


After Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Shi’a Islamic group Hezbollah was created as a political group that provides social services to the Shiites living in Lebanon, however, it is considered a terrorist organisation in the West. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in Iran inspired and influenced the development of radical and powerful Islamic political groups in Lebanon, and eventually the small nation had become an enemy of Israel and the West. The Lebanese Civil War was a historically significant event because it led to a revival of Islam centred on Jihad. The growing influence of the West in the Middle East caused moderate Arab Muslims to turn to religious extremism, which is evident in the acts of terrorism taking place in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and North America. Would the war have taken place had the United Nations never introduced the state of Israel into the region? It is rather unlikely, as the Palestinians would have remained in their homeland and many speculate that there would not be a radical Muslim movement except at the fringes of society, much in the same way that hard line Christian sects are on the fringes of European society. However, it is usually quite difficult to predict what would happen on an alternate timeline because who would have known that the assassination of two aristocrats in Austria-Hungary would have led to one of the worst wars of all time?


Ehteshami, A & Hinnebusch, R A (1997) Syria and Iran: Middle powers in a penetrated regional system Routledge, London

Gerges, F A (2006) Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy Harcourt Trade, Orlando, Florida USA

Gordon, D C (1980) Lebanon, the Fragmented Nation Croom Helm Ltd, London

Rabinovich, I (1985) The War for Lebanon, 1970-1985 Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York USA



[1] D C Gordon (1980) p. 234

[2] Gordon (ibid.) p. 49

[3] Rabinovich (1985) p. 42

[4] A Ehteshami & R A Himmebusch (1997) p. 116

[5] Gerges, F A (2006) p. 61

[6] Ehteshami & Hinnebusch (ibid.) p. 116

[7] Ehteshami & Hinnebusch (ibid.) p. 122

[8] Gordon (ibid.) p. 145

[9] Gerges (ibid.) p. 61

[10] Gordon (ibid.) p. 49

[11] Gordon (ibid.) p. 50

[12] Ehteshami & Hinnebusch (ibid.) p. 127


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