Daniel Bensaid

The 1976 Lebanese civil war

(4 October 1982)

From International Viewpoint, No. 14, 4 October 1982, pp. 7–8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Commanding a state barely as big as two French departements (or a couple of American counties or British counties), the Lebanese bourgeoisie has played a profitable role of intermediary between the Western market and the Arab hinterland.

While agriculture accounts for only 17% of the national income and industry for 20%, the services (commerce, banks, transport, tourism) – which employ only 10% of the economically active population make up the preponderant share – 58%. And Lebanese industry is mainly light industry, serving as an appendage of the service sector.

The result of these facts is that a heterogeneous petty bourgeoisie constitutes the absolute majority of the population, and this helps to perpetuate the confessional character of the Lebanese state.

Since it was established, the state has remained very weak, torn by family rivalries and tribalism and undermined by corruption. It is organized on an openly confessional basis. In a 99-seat parliament, 30 seats are allotted to the Maronite Christians; 20 to the Sunni Muslims, 19 to the Shiite Muslims, 11 to the Greek Orthodox, 6 to the Greek Catholics, 1 to the Armenian Catholics, 1 to the Protestants, and one is variable. The president of the republic is always a Maronite, the premier a Sunni, the chairman of the parliament a Shiite, and the vice premier a Greek Orthodox.

The presence of 400,000 Palestinian refugees, the majority of them in camps, could not help but shake the unstable equilibrium of this structure.

Since 1969, the Lebanese bourgeoisie has sought continually to rid itself of the Palestinians. In 1973, the failure of an attempt by the official Lebanese army to wipe out the camps led to the formation, arming, and growth of the Christian Phalange, the Kataeb. In 1975, the leader of this body, Beshir Gemayel openly proposed holding a referendum to decide whether or not the Palestinian resistance could remain in Lebanon.

On March 1 of the same year, a repressive operation by the Lebanese army against the Arab fishermen in Saida gave rise to fraternization between the poor Arab population and the Palestinian resistance, despite the proclaimed determination of the Palestinian organizations not to interfere in Lebanese affairs. The Lebanese bourgeoisie, five years after the Jordanian one, came to fear an interlocking of the Palestinian resistance and the class struggle in Lebanon itself.

In April, the Christian militias made an initial move, massacring 27 Palestinians. There was an immediate response. Things started to escalate. The right armed frantically, with the help of the U.S. In September, it launched a general offensive that proved fruitless. In January, it organized a new systematic massacre in the shantytown of la Quarantaine outside Beirut. The Muslim forces, Lebanese progressives and Palestinians, retaliated by a similar massacre in the village of Damour.

With the war stalemated, Syria proposed to intervene to “safeguard the unity of Lebanon and prevent new massacres.” On January 22, 1976, an accord was signed under its patronage. There were supposed to be “neither victor nor vanquished.”

The confessional ism of the Lebanese system was reinforced, and no substantive reform was envisaged. From January to March 1976, the Christian right, the Muslim right, the Lebanese left, and the Palestinian organizations all proclaimed their support for the Syrian intervention. The only discordant note in this chorus of approval was the denunciation of the Syrian regime and its role in Lebanon by some small far left groups.

However, immediately after the January 22 accords the Lebanese regular army began to break up. Dissident Arab officers formed an “Army of Arab Lebanon,” which started to snowball. The Christian officers responded by forming a Lebanon liberation army. Along with the army, the Lebanese state itself was coming apart.

The clashes increased and the progressive forces advanced. On March 21, they occupied the center of Beirut. On March 24, President Frangieh fled and took refuge in Jounieh, the new capital of Christian Lebanon. In two weeks of bloody battles, the left and the Palestinian resistance movement gained control of more than two thirds of the country, and were in a position to achieve a military victory. This outcome, however, was to be blocked by Syrian intervention and the attitude of the leadership of the Palestinian-Progressive bloc.

On March 11, the Syrian mediators declared that they were helpless in the face of the new deterioration in the situation, and they left the country. They were called back by the Lebanese right, which was facing a military defeat that would have led either to a partition of Lebanon (with the Christian ministate losing its advantageous economic relations with the Arab countries) or by political concessions that would establish a new relationship of forces within the country.

Syria responded to this appeal, and at the beginning of April threatened to close its borders to all arms shipments for the Palestinian resistance. The forces of the Saika, the Palestinian organization organically linked to the Syrian regime, tried in vain to block the offensive against the reactionaries. Then, 2,000 Syrian soldiers moved into Lebanese territory. The population of the Muslim areas raised the cry of treason. Yassar Arafat went to Damascus. Syria withdrew its troops in exchange for the left and the Palestinian resistance accepting a ceasefire at a moment when victory was in their grasp.

On May 8, the Syrians showed their determination to assure that the election of a president took place in Lebanon, despite the continuation of the fighting. Sarkis was elected by 66 votes, with three abstentions, in an election that intimidation and corruption made into a more grotesque masquerade than ever.

The main rival of Sarkis – who was the candidate of the Christian right, the Syrians and the Americans – was Raymond Edde, former leader of the Maronite right, this time supported by the left, the Palestinian resistance, and French, imperialism.

The left was disoriented and paralyzed by the accords concluded by Arafat in Damascus on the eve of the election. In the wake of the election, the same Arafat sent a message of congratulations to the new president. But the Palestinian organizations of the Rejection Front resumed the military offensive. Al-Fatah was forced to go along. Syria tried to negotiate a new agreement. The week that followed the election was marked by bloody battles.

On May 31, Syria intervened again, sending a corps of 20,000 soldiers (as against a mere 2,000 in April). The Palestinian-progressive forces resisted this intervention. Many Syrian tanks were destroyed. The uncertainty of the outcome led to the sending in of “Green Helmets” from the Arab countries. On June 23, the meeting in Ryad of representatives of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, and Syria confirmed the isolation of the Palestinians.

The relationship of forces began to turn to their disadvantage. On June 12, following bloody fighting, the Palestinian camp of Tell el-Zatar fell, under the assaults of the Christian militias backed up by the Syrian army. During this period, the Israeli army helped to encircle the Palestinians by putting military pressure on southern Lebanon. On October 18, the Ryad accords sanctioned the Syrian occupation.

From the 1975–76 civil war several lessons emerge that maintain all their force today.

The confessionalist system made it possible to present the civil war as a religious war and cover up its real antiimperialist and class character. The counterposition of poor Muslims and rich Christians is true only in a general way. The leaders of the Muslim big bourgeoisie were smart enough to line up with the Muslim camp to hold on to their clientele and work for a compromise that would safeguard the social structures of the Lebanese state.

On the other hand, a section of the Christian poor masses were forced to join the Phalange by the fear of religious massacres. The military methods used by both sides reinforced this partly deceptive confessional polarization.

The Palestinian-progressive front operated as a defensive front. Faced with the breakup of the Lebanese state, it was led to take on more and more tasks in provisioning, administering, and providing public health and police services in the Palestinian camps. But it was careful not to challenge the official state bodies. It patched up the cracks in the legal governmental system without ever offering itself as an alternative power. In so doing, it was conforming to the limits it set itself:

“The program of reforms presented by the national movement is not a socialist or communist programme ... It in reality constitutes a program for moving from the most backward sort of feudal regime toward a liberal and democratic capitalist system, in which the term democratic is to be understood in the bourgeois sense.” (George Haoui, member of the Lebanese CP Political Bureau, in an interview with Agence France-Presse, December 29, 1975.)

Finally, the PLO leadership held to its official position of “non-interference in the internal affairs of the Arab regimes.” But it could not prevent the Jordanian or Lebanese Arab masses from being confronted with the same threats and the same problems as the Palestinian refugees – the threat represented by Israel and the repression exercised by their own bourgeoisies.

Regardless of the intention of the Palestinian leaders, there is an inevitable tendency for these struggles to interlock. And if they try to avoid interfering in the internal affairs of the countries in which they have taken refuge, it is just as inevitable that the regimes in these countries in order to maintain their power will interfere in the affairs of the Palestinian resistance in the most brutal way, as was the case in Jordan in 1970, in Lebanon in 1975–76, and now once again.

Last updated on 22 January 2020