In its brief history as an independent and sovereign republic, Lebanon has experienced an almost never-ending barrage of political violence, terrorism and outright warfare, ranging from car-bomb assassinations and gang-style shootings, to kidnappings and hostage-taking. Recently Hezbollah, terrorist group to some and freedom fighters to others (as is often the case with most armed militias) have made headlines linking them with a slew of the latest political assassinations.
While they are certainly culpable for much of the dissention that has troubled the country since its inception, they are not alone in being responsible for the aforementioned acts of terror that have plagued the country’s short history. Other groups- both nationalist and sectarian in structure and ideology- as well as neighboring nation-states (Syria and Israel, to name just two) are also as much to blame. As are the various Lebanese governments – whose meek responses to countless violent incidents and lack of punishment in response to said incidents- has allowed terrorism to prosper in an already volatile region.
Thus, the argument this paper hopes to present is two-fold. Firstly, it will aim to outline the guiltiness of a variety of different groups when it comes to acts of terrorism, and not just one specific group as modern conventional wisdom would seem to indicate. And secondly, the paper will attempt to explain how the root of the strife and violence that has beset the country can be traced back to its poorly drawn-up constitution, one that badly requires amendment if the country is to have a chance of escaping its violent past.
To accomplish this the paper will, as briefly as possible, attempt to summarize the country’s short but complicated history of civil strife and resulting terrorism, outlining the various actors in play. From there, it will present an overview of the state of modern historical research on the topic and explain whether or not their overall views align or seem agreeable with the arguments of the paper.
Finally, the paper will, with the aid of a number of academic and web resources, attempt to piece together arguments supporting the paper’s thesis statement. Before moving on to describe the topic of the paper- that of political violence and terrorism in the region- it is important to outline the complicated short history of the country since its independence and the disastrous constitution that was drawn up in the aftermath, in order to familiarize the reader with the various players with interests in the country.
Serving as an important part of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries, the northern part of the territory known at the time as ‘Greater Syria’ (modern-day Lebanon and Syria) came under French control after the crushing defeat of the Ottomans after the First World War (the Southern part, modern day Israel and the Palestinian territories, came under British control). 1 Soon after gaining independence in 1946, the ‘National Pact’- which attempted to balance the division of power according to the different confessional sects- was put into place. As a result, sectarian strife would become inevitable, and would soon kick-start a civil war that would come to feature exterior forces such as the PLO, and the nation-states of Syria and Israel, as well as various sectarian and nationalistic groups from within Lebanon. 3 The Ta’if agreement of 1989 would help see out the end of the civil war, but its negligible amendments of the confessional electoral system4 would not put a complete end to the sectarian strife that had plagued the country for years and indeed contained other problems that will be brought up by a critic in a later section of the paper.
It is also worth noting that a proper national census program has not been undertaken in over eighty years5 and that much of the Palestinian refugee population that played a significant role in the country’s civil war, has arguably been one of the biggest victims of the country’s constitution- a fact that will also be explained later on in the essay. Much historical research has been conducted on Lebanon’s terrorist problems- most of it outdated material going back to the civil war, but since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri there has been a steady influx of material, most of it concentrating on Hezbollah.
One such example is Hezbollah: A Short History where author A. R Norton presents an objective account focusing solely on the group. Acknowledging the party as one that has committed its fair share of terrorist acts, he nonetheless absolves them of the act most infamously associated to them- the bombing of the US Marines barracks which ultimately led to the departure of US forces from the country- quoting former CIA agent Robert Baer as saying: “It’s not that Hezbollah is doing the terrorism out of Lebanon.
They didn’t do the US embassy (bombings) in 1983 or the marines. It was the Iranians. It’s a political issue because the Israeli’s want the Americans to go after Hezbollah. “6 Thus, Norton concludes that the party has evolved into a group with defensive aims and genuine political aspirations- not merely the terrorist organization that the world’s governments tend to portray them as7 . This is a view shared by many other historians, to varying degrees of extremity.
Of the more romanticized of the views, Mona Harb and Reinoud Lenders (Hezbollah, ‘terrorism’, and the politics of Perception) assert that the labeling and pre-conceived notions of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization- mainly by US and Israeli and policy makers and various media analysts- has only served to hinder and obstruct the production of educated research and knowledge about the group. 8 This they claim, is contrary to Hezbollah’s own policy when it comes to properly ‘knowing’ their enemy.
When studying US and Israeli foreign policy, political science and nationalistic ideologies (such as Zionism) their students study books and articles written by authors from said countries, and thousands of their supporters and sympathizers are graduates of the American University of Beirut- a secular institution founded by American missionaries- and often as a result of funding made available by the party. In all these endeavors Hezbollah demonstrates a capability to analyze and predict its adversaries’ behavior and intentions that is far superior to that offered by those insisting on the terrorism label,’ they write. 9 A more conservative viewpoint is offered up by Krista Wiegand (Bombs and Ballots) who considers Hezbollah a dual-status group rather than just a defensive resistance group, as the above two authors consider them.
Her characterization is not a crude one however, as she acknowledges their increasing use of non-violent tactics as well in their quest for political legitimacy. This shift she writes, is a result of a movement away from terrorist tactics (she considers the embassy bombings in Argentina their last terrorist attack10 ), though she still considers them a sponsor of terrorism- just not a functioning terrorist group as most of the world’s superpowers consider them.
Describing their actions since 1994 as pragmatic, (“Hezbollah has proven to be a pragmatic and relatively predictable actor that occasionally uses calculated levels of violence,”)11 she also presents their indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israeli land as war crimes- which countless other democratic countries are guilty of- rather than terrorist tactics, citing international law. 2 But while they have slowly become the biggest provider of social services- and a large source of employment- in the country, they are still very much a group modeled under Sectarian guidelines and “its continued armed status means that the organisation should continue to be recognized as a dual status group and be dealt with accordingly. 13 Thus, the bulk of modern research dealing with terrorism in Lebanon it appears focuses on Hezbollah’s role in it, and of the three examples the authors agree that the group’s tag of terrorist only is at the very least slightly overblown.
Significantly less written material however is available on both the role of other internal and foreign actors, as well as the role of the country’s constitution in making political violence an unfortunate inevitability. Acquiescence to Assassinations in Post- Civil War Lebanon? (Are Knudsen) is one of a few such articles and it discusses the most common form of terrorism since its inception, political assassinations, most commonly carried out by the use of roadside or in-car bombs.
The author puts the bulk of the blame (regarding the re-emergence of the tactic post-civil war) on the various governmental institutions that have left these murders un-investigated and failed to try those involved for their crimes. 14 He also places some of the blame on exterior forces (most notably Syria) for their consistent meddling and in some cases, suspicious but unproven activities. 15 Ultimately, the author sees no end to the ‘culture of violence’ that has plagued the country, without ratification of the constitution or transitional justice mechanisms.
Thus, with this basis in mind, the paper will now move onto a more detailed analysis of, first of all clear acts of terror committed since the Civil War in 1975, and second of all an analysis of the country’s constitution and an explanation for why it was doomed for failure from the very beginning. As has already been mentioned, the Shi’ite party Hezbollah can clearly be linked to the hijacking of the Rome-bound flight and the subsequent murder of a sailor, the bombing of Jewish embassies in Buenos Aires and the assassinations of members of the communist party, and depending on who one asks- the bombing of the US embassy and marine barracks.
But what of the other internal players in the country? For example, the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) is seen by many as the fuse that lit the flame, so to speak. After their expulsion from Jordan, the group began to use Lebanon as a base from which to fight Israel- almost like a state within a state. 16 This drew the ire of the Phalangists, a right- wing Christian group and the strongest in the country, who delivered severe blows with massacres at Karantina (1976), and most brutally the Sabra and Shatila Refugee camps, with the PLO retaliating with a massacre of their own at Damour. 7 Most of those who perished, as is usually the case, were civilians and the country was eventually divided across two distinct confessional lines- that of the PLO and its Leftist allies and the various right-wing Christian Maronite groups headed by the Phalangist party.
One famous story holds that pronunciation of the word ‘tomato- typically ‘banadura’ in the Lebanese accent and ‘bandura’ in the Palestinian accent was used to differentiate between individuals at Maronite checkpoints during the civil war, with pronunciation of the latter earning you detention or even death. 8 Neighboring nation-states are also certainly liable to be blamed when discussing the Lebanese terrorist problem. Israel has long been accused of three different incidents all directly relatable to terrorism. Firstly, a natural ally of the Phalangist Part (their priority in entering Lebanon was to wipe out the PLO) they have long been accused of aiding- indirectly or directly- the Phalangist party in carrying out the massacres.
Elie Hobeika, who was found responsible for the massacres, would later be assassinated a day before he was to testify against then Israeli PM Ariel Sharon for his role in the bloodbath. Many have speculated that his assassination was carried out under Israeli orders, as their motive appeared to be the strongest. 20 Finally, attacks on civilian housing or bunkers-often sponsored by the UN (i. e Qana in 1996) have been labeled war crimes but many have argued that they constitute terrorism, particularly in comparison to similar acts by Hezbollah that have been labeled as such (i. acts of terror)21 . Entering the country under the pretext of mediator, they are accused in some quarters of being the most rampant proponent of the use of torture during the civil war.
As well, if one is to consider Hezbollah a fully-fledged terrorist group, then one must also consider Syria a sponsor of terror for their undoubted role in the training and supply of the group since its inception. 22 More recently, all three groups have been accused in various quarters of carrying out a string of political assassinations since 2004, most notably that of former Prime Minsiter Rafic Hariri. *) Most of the assassinations are as of right now unsolved cases, with most fearing that the eventual result of the official UN investigation will kickstart another cycle of political violence and warfare. 23 Finally, any discussion of Lebanon’s terrorist problem cannot be considered complete without brief consideration of the country’s constitution and the insignificant amendments undertaken since then.
Divided up by Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims the (unwritten) pact divided up the parliament in a 6:5 ration based on the populations at the time with the power positions of president and prime minister going to the Maronites and Sunnis respectively. The modern day Shi’ite population is significantly more populous then it was back then (by some estimates, it has now overtaken the country’s Maronite population to become the country’s majority)24 and as a result is severely under-represented in parliament, in large part because an official census has not been undertaken since the 1930’s.
As sects have become means of gaining access to state resources (to establish sect-based welfare networks, schools, hospitals, etc… )25 vastly disproportionate rates of poverty can be seen when going from one area of the country to another. This helps explain why Hezbollah and its approach to political economic development has made it so popular. Thus, if one does indeed consider Hezbollah a terrorist group, then it also makes sense to consider the constitution the root of the problem that helped to allow the group to burst onto the scene.
But the Shi’ite’s of Lebanon are not the only group that has suffered because of a faulty constitution. The Palestinian refugees, many of whom have lived in squalid camps since 1948, have continually been denied citizenship and basic human rights because the country’s hierarchy fears the massive demographic changes that would take place (many of the refugees are Sunni Muslim, and only a minority Christian) if said refugees chose to accept naturalization. 6 Thus, as a result of decades of oppression, young residents of the camp are slowly but surely turning to radical forms of Islam27 – a worrying development. By standing idly by after the conclusion of the Civil War and failing to punish the various perpetrators, murders and terrorist of the war,28 the government at the time wasted an opportunity for post-war reconciliation that it may one day come to regret.
In conclusion, it is clearly evident that unless proper democratic amendment of the constitution takes place, and the confessional system that has helped foster sectarian feelings within the population is abolished then it is difficult to imagine an end to the waves of violence that have seemingly hit the country on a decade to decade basis. There are challenges certainly, exacerbated by over sixty years of deficiency in action, but it it is unquestionably a decision that will at seem point need to be undertaken if ever there will be an end to political violence in Lebanon.