This month’s missionary spotlight demonstrates that in the past Lebanon has played a unique role in Christian mission in the Middle East – surely a point not lost on Satan either. In this article we chart the conflicts that have raged over the last 60 years as Islamic forces have struggled to take control of Lebanon.
Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943. Five years later the first Arab-Israeli war broke out and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes, 150,000 of them finding refuge in Lebanon. Embittered and predominantly Muslim, they threatened the fragile balance of the country.
In 1958 a short civil war erupted between Druze and Sunni Muslims. In three months of warfare an estimated 2000-4000 people were killed. The United States landed 14,000 Marines on beaches south of Beirut and by early August fighting ceased.
Into the 1960s Lebanon progressed rapidly towards prosperity. During the 1967 ‘six-day war’ it stayed out of the conflict and was spared the defeat inflicted on other Arab countries. The war, however, brought another wave of Palestinian refugees.
Even though neutral, Lebanon was experiencing complex internal tensions from political alignments. On one side were Muslims, Arab nationalists, Palestinians and leftists, while on the other stood ‘Christian’ groups, Western supporters, rightists and those who favoured the status quo.
Meanwhile, militant Palestinians in Lebanon, including the growing Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), were developing as a ‘state within a state’ and mounting raids into northern Israel.
The situation worsened after the PLO was expelled from Jordan in 1970 and more armed PLO militiamen arrived in Lebanon to regroup. The Lebanese Government was too weak and vulnerable to even attempt to impose controls on the PLO.
>From southern Lebanon, PLO Fatah commandos periodically launched hit-and-run attacks on northern Israel, and Israel responded with punitive raids. The Lebanese Government could only look on helplessly.
In May 1973 Palestinians and Lebanese clashed in Beirut and a full-scale civil war erupted in 1975. Months of fighting followed, eventually prompting military intervention by Syria. In November 1976 the sides agreed to a ceasefire. However, PLO attacks on northern Israel continued, leading Israel to send its army into southern Lebanon in March 1978 with the aim of establishing a ‘security zone’. A UN peace-keeping force was also deployed.
The PLO continued to attack, and Israel launched a full-scale invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. Israel withdrew most of its forces in 1985, leaving a small occupying force in the south. By this time the PLO was being joined and replaced in leadership by a new extremist group called Hezbollah (see p.17).
In 1989 a ‘war of liberation’ erupted in Beirut, with Lebanese ‘Christians’ striving to eject Syrian forces from Lebanon. Although they did not achieve this, by 1990 a Government of National Reconciliation and an uneasy peace had been established.
Over the preceding 15 years of war, Lebanon had been devastated and Beirut almost completely destroyed. An estimated 130,000 to 150,000 people had been killed and at least that many wounded. Lebanon had suffered $25-30 billion of damage. Thousands of Syrian troops and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians still remained, while Hezbollah guerrillas operated in the south.
Nevertheless, by the mid-1990s most domestic factions appeared to be living peacefully with one another and in Beirut there was a remarkably rapid recovery of prosperity. Reconstruction proceeded at a pace unmatched since European cities were rebuilt after the Second World War.
But Hezbollah continued to attack Israel, so in 1998 fresh peace talks began between Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Eventually, exasperated by the breakdown of these talks, the Israeli Government unilaterally withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon in June 2000 – despite having received no security guarantees from Lebanon. In Lebanon, Hezbollah received much of the credit for this Israeli withdrawal.
In June 2001 Syria withdrew its troops from Beirut, but still 15,000 Syrian troops remained in Lebanon and tensions remained high. Then in February 2005 former prime minister al-Hariri was killed when a bomb destroyed his motorcade, and his assassination plunged Lebanon into crisis.
The international political pressure resulting from this crisis, and the growing Lebanese domestic unrest, finally forced Syria to withdraw all its military forces. This took place by late May 2006.
However, Hezbollah remained and their capacity to wage war on Israel has been tragically demonstrated by the events unfolding since July.