Lebanon lies at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, north of Israel and west of Syria. It is four-fifths the size of Connecticut. The Lebanon Mountains, which run parallel to the western coast, cover most of the country, while on the eastern border is the Anti-Lebanon range. Between the two lies the Bekaa Valley, the principal agricultural area.
After World War I, France was given a League of Nations mandate over Lebanon and its neighbor Syria, which together had previously been a single political unit in the Ottoman Empire. France divided them in 1920 into separate colonial administrations, drawing a border that separated mostly Muslim Syria from the kaleidoscope of religious communities in Lebanon, where Maronite Christians were then dominant. After 20 years of the French mandate regime, Lebanon's independence was proclaimed on Nov. 26, 1941, but full independence came in stages. Under an agreement between representatives of Lebanon and the French National Committee of Liberation, most of the powers exercised by France were transferred to the Lebanese government on Jan. 1, 1944. The evacuation of French troops was completed in 1946.
According to the unwritten National Pact, different religious communities were represented in the government by a Maronite Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister, and a Shiite national assembly speaker. This arrangement worked for two decades.
Civil war broke out in 1958, with Muslim factions led by Kamal Jumblat and Saeb Salam rising in insurrection against the Lebanese government headed by President Camille Chamoun, a Maronite Christian favoring close ties to the West. At Chamoun's request, President Eisenhower, on July 15, sent U.S. troops to reestablish the government's authority.
Warring Factions Within Lebanon and Regional Conflicts Make Peace Impossible
Clan warfare between various religious groups in Lebanon goes back centuries. The combatants include Maronite Christians, who, since independence, have dominated the government; Sunni Muslims, who have prospered in business and shared political power; the Druze, who have a faith incorporating aspects of Islam and Gnosticism; and Shiite Muslims.
A new—and bloodier—Lebanese civil war that broke out in 1975 resulted in the addition of still another ingredient in the brew, the Syrians. In the fighting between Lebanese factions, 40,000 Lebanese were estimated to have been killed and 100,000 wounded between March 1975 and Nov. 1976. At that point, Syrian troops intervened at the request of the Lebanese and brought large-scale fighting to a halt. In 1977, the civil war again flared and continued until 1990, decimating the country.
Palestinian guerrillas staging raids on Israel from Lebanese territory drew punitive Israeli raids on Lebanon and two large scale Israeli invasions, in 1978 and again in 1982. In the first invasion, the Israelis entered the country in March 1978 and withdrew that June, after the UN Security Council created a 6,000-man peacekeeping force for the area called UNIFIL. As the UN departed, the Israelis turned their strongholds over to a Christian militia that they had organized, instead of to the UN force.
Continuing Conflict with Israel Leads to the Formation of Hezbollah
The second Israeli invasion came on June 6, 1982, after an assassination attempt by Palestinian terrorists on the Israeli ambassador in London. As a base of the PLO, Lebanon became the Israelis' target. Nearly 7,000 Palestinians were dispersed to other Arab nations. The violence seemed to have come to an end when, on Sept. 14, Bashir Gemayel, the 34-year-old president-elect, was killed by a bomb that destroyed the headquarters of his Christian Phalangist Party. Following his assassination, Christian militiamen massacred about 1,000 Palestinians in the Israeli-controlled Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, but Israel denied responsibility.
The massacre in the refugee camps prompted the return of a multinational peacekeeping force. Its mandate was to support the central Lebanese government, but it soon found itself drawn into the struggle for power between different Lebanese factions. The country was engulfed in chaos and instability. During their stay in Lebanon, 241 U.S. Marines and about 60 French soldiers were killed, most of them in suicide bombings of the U.S. Marine and French army compounds on Oct. 23, 1983. The multinational force withdrew in the spring of 1984. In 1985, the majority of Israeli troops withdrew from the country, but Israel left some troops along a buffer zone on the southern Lebanese border, where they engaged in ongoing skirmishes with Palestinian groups. The Palestinian terrorist group Hezbollah, or “Party of God,” was formed in the 1980s during Israel's second invasion of Lebanon. With financial backing from Iran, it has launched attacks against Israel for more than 20 years.
In July 1986, Syrian observers took up a position in Beirut to monitor a peacekeeping agreement. The agreement broke down and fighting between Shiite and Druze militia in West Beirut became so intense that Syrian troops mobilized in Feb. 1987, suppressing militia resistance. In 1991, a treaty of friendship was signed with Syria, which in effect gave Syria control over Lebanon's foreign relations. In early 1991, the Lebanese government, backed by Syria, regained control over the south and disbanded various militias, thereby ending the 16-year civil war, which had destroyed much of the infrastructure and industry of Lebanon.
Israeli Attacks and Syrian Meddling Continue
In June 1999, just before Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu left office, Israel bombed southern Lebanon, its most severe attack on the country since 1996. In May 2000, Israel's new prime minister, Ehud Barak, withdrew Israeli troops after 18 consecutive years of occupation.
In the summer of 2001, Syria withdrew nearly all of its 25,000 troops from Beirut and surrounding areas. About 14,000 troops, however, remained in the countryside. With the continuation of Israeli-Palestinian violence in 2002, Hezbollah again began building up forces along the Lebanese-Israeli border.
In Aug. 2004, in a stark reminder of its iron grip on Lebanon, Syria insisted that Lebanon's pro-Syrian president, Émile Lahoud, remain in office beyond the constitutional limit of one six-year term. Despite outrage in the country, the Lebanese parliament did Syria's bidding, permitting Lahoud to serve for three more years.
Syrian Occupation Ends, but Syrian Influence Continues
A UN Security Council resolution in Sept. 2004 demanded that Syria remove the troops it had stationed in Lebanon for the past 28 years. Syria responded by moving about 3,000 troops from the vicinity of Beirut to eastern Lebanon, a gesture that was viewed by many as merely symbolic. As a result, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (1992–1998, 2000–2004), largely responsible for Lebanon's economic rebirth in the past decade, resigned. On Feb. 14, 2005, he was killed by a car bomb. Many suspected Syria of involvement and large protests ensued, calling for Syria's withdrawal from the country. After two weeks of protests by Sunni Muslim, Christian, and Druze parties, pro-Syrian prime minister Omar Karami resigned on Feb. 28. Several days later, Syria made a vague pledge to withdraw its troops but failed to announce a timetable. On March 8, the militant group Hezbollah sponsored a massive pro-Syrian rally, primarily made up of Shiites. Hundreds of thousands gathered to thank Syria for its involvement in Lebanon. The pro-Syrian demonstrations led to President Lahoud's reappointment of Karami as prime minister on March 9. But an anti-Syrian protest—twice the size of the Hezbollah protest—followed. In mid-March, Syria withdrew 4,000 troops and redeployed the remaining 10,000 to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, which borders Syria. In April, Omar Karami resigned a second time after failing to form a government. Lebanon's new prime minister, Najib Mikati—a compromise candidate between the pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian groups—announced that new elections would be held in May. On April 26, after 29 years of occupation, Syria withdrew all of its troops.
In May and June 2005, Syria held four rounds of parliamentary elections. An anti-Syrian alliance led by Saad al-Hariri, the 35-year-old son of assassinated former prime minister leader Rafik Hariri, won 72 out of 128 seats. Former finance minister Fouad Siniora, who was closely associated with Hariri, became prime minister.
On Sept. 1, four were charged in the murder of Rafik Hariri. The commander of Lebanon's Republican Guard, the former head of general security, the former chief of Lebanon's police, and the former military intelligence officer were indicted for the Feb. 2008 assassination. On Oct. 20, the UN released a report concluding that the assassination was carefully organized by Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officials, including Syria's military intelligence chief, Asef Shawkat, who is the brother-in-law of Syrian president Bashar Assad.
A Failed Israeli Attack Increases Hezbollah's Power
On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah fighters entered Israel and captured two Israeli soldiers. In response, Israel launched a major military attack, bombing the Lebanese airport and other major infrastructures, as well as parts of southern Lebanon. Hezbollah, led by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, retaliated by launching hundreds of rockets and missiles into Israel (Iran supplies Hezbollah with weapons, which are transported through Syria). After a week of fighting, Israel made it clear that its offensive in Lebanon would continue until Hezbollah was routed. Although much of the international community demanded a cease-fire, the United States supported Israel's plan to continue the fighting until Hezbollah was drained of its military power (Hezbollah is thought to have at least 12,000 rockets and missiles and had proved a much more formidable foe than anticipated). On Aug. 14, a UN-negotiated cease-fire went into effect. The UN planned to send a 15,000-member peacekeeping force. About 1,150 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and 150 Israelis, mostly soldiers, died in the 34 days of fighting. More than 400,000 Lebanese were forced from their homes. Almost immediately, Hezbollah began organizing reconstruction efforts, and handing out financial aid to families who had lost their homes, shoring up loyalty from Shiite civilians.
In November, Pierre Gemayel, minister of industry and member of a well-known Maronite Christian political dynasty, was assassinated, the fifth anti-Syrian leader to be killed since the death of Rafik Hariri in Feb. 2005. Pro-government protesters blamed Syria and its Lebanese allies, and staged large demonstrations following the assassination. These protests were then followed by even larger and more sustained demonstrations by Hezbollah supporters. Beginning Dec. 1, tens of thousands of demonstrators, led by the Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, occupied the center of Beirut and called for the resignation of the pro-Western coalition government.
About 60 people were killed in May 2007 in battles between government troops and members of Islamic militant group Fatah al-Islam, which is based in a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli in Lebanon. The group is similar in philosophy to al-Qaeda.
Terrorism Within Lebanon Leads to a Troubled Government
In June 2007, anti-Syrian member of Parliament Walid Eido was killed in a bombing in Beirut. In Sept. 2007, another anti-Syrian lawmaker, Antoine Ghanem of the Christian Phalange Party, which is part of the governing coalition, was assassinated. Those assassinations were followed in December with the killing of Gen. François al-Hajj, a top general who was poised to succeed army chief Gen. Michel Suleiman.
In Sept. 2007, Hezbollah legislators boycotted the session of Parliament at which lawmakers were to vote on a new president. The Hezbollah faction had wanted the governing coalition to put forward a compromise candidate. Parliament adjourned the session and rescheduled elections. A caretaker government, led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, took over on November 24 after President Émile Lahoud's term expired and Parliament for the fourth time postponed a vote on his successor.
Hezbollah Flexes Its Muscle and Gains a Greater Stake in the Government
Tension in Lebanon peaked in February 2008, after the assassination of top Hezbollah military commander, Imad Mugniyah. He was killed in a car bombing in Damascus, Syria. Mugniyah is thought to have orchestrated a series of bombings and kidnappings in the 1980s and 1990s, and he was one of America's most wanted men with a price tag of $25 million on his head. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who accused Israel of arranging the assassination, called for an "open war" against Israel.
Sectarian violence between Hezbollah, a Shiite militia, and Sunnis broke out in May. Fighting began when the government said it was shutting down a telecommunications network run by Hezbollah, calling it illegal, and attempted to dismiss a Hezbollah-backed head of airport security. Members of Hezbollah took control of large swaths of western Beirut, forced a government-supported television station off the air, and burned the offices of a newspaper loyal to the government. The government accused Hezbollah of staging an "armed coup." After a week of violence, in which 65 people died, the government rescinded its plans concerning both the telecommunications network and the head of airport security. In return, Hezbollah agreed to dismantle roadblocks that had paralyzed Beirut's airport. The government concessions were seen as a major victory for Hezbollah.
After several days of negotiations, Hezbollah and the government reached a deal that had Hezbollah withdrawing from Beirut. In return, the government agreed that Parliament would vote to elect as president Gen. Michel Suleiman, the commander of Lebanon’s army; form a new cabinet, giving Hezbollah and other members of the opposition veto power; and pursue passage of a new electoral law. Parliament went ahead and elected Suleiman as president. He's considered a neutral figure, and his election ended 18 months of political gridlock. Prime Minister Siniora formed a 30-member cabinet in July, with the opposition holding 11 positions.
Lebanon and Israel took part in a prisoner exchange in July. Israel released five Lebanese prisoners, including Samir Kuntar, who killed an Israeli policeman, a man, and his young daughter in 1979. Lebanon, in turn, returned to Israel the bodies of two soldiers who were captured in the 2006 cross-border raid into Israel.
Suleiman met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in October 2008, and the two agreed that Lebanon and Syria would establish full diplomatic relations—for the first time since both countries gained independence from France in 1943.
Pro-Western Coalition Maintains Its Majority in Parliament
On March 1, 2009 an international court at The Hague was set up to investigate the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. The move generated hope that progress was being made in the case. However, in May the court freed four pro-Syrian generals who had been linked to the murder, claiming it lacked evidence to convict them.
In June 2009 parliamentary elections, the March 14 coalition, led by Saad Hariri, son of the slain former prime minister, retained its majority in Parliament by taking 71 of 128 seats. The Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition won 57 seats. After nearly five months of negotiations with the opposition Hariri finally assembled a 30-member government of national unity in November. His coalition received 15 cabinet posts, Hezbollah and its allies 10, and President Suleiman selected the remaining five.
Lebanon's government fell apart in January 2011, when Hezbollah's ministers resigned from the cabinet to protest Prime Minister Hariri's refusal to reject the UN tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of his father, Rafik Hariri. The tribunal released a sealed indictment to a judge that is expected to include members of Hezbollah. In fact, Hezbollah said its members were included in the indictment, yet continued to deny responsibility for Hariri's murder. Two weeks after the government's collapse, Hezbollah won enough support in Parliament to form a new government with Najib Mikati, a billionaire businessman, as prime minister. Mikati, a Sunni and former prime minister, said even though he was backed by Hezbollah, he will govern as an independent. After five months of negotiations, Mikati assembled a cabinet in June, with 16 out of 30 seats going to Hezbollah and its allies. The main reason for the delay was the opposition's insistence that the government abide by the tribunal's recommendations; Hezbollah had refused to comply with them. The cabinet, however, agreed to cooperate with the tribunal as long as the country's stability was not at risk. Later in the month, the tribunal issued arrest warrants for four high-ranking members of Hezbollah in connection wtih the murder of Hariri and 21 others. Hezbollah refused to turn the suspects over to authorities.
Lebanon Dragged into War in Syria
When anti-government protests broke out in Syria in early 2011, prime minister Mikati declared he intended to disassociate from Syria to avoid being drawn into the conflict. The policy was largely effective until May 2012, when battles broke out in Lebanon between pro- and anti-Assad groups. Hezbollah supports President Bashar Assad, while most Sunni groups would like to see him deposed. Tensions increased in August during a sectarian, cross-border kidnapping spree between Shiite and Sunni groups. Then, on October 19, intelligence chief Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, a foe of Syria who was an ally of slain prime minister Rafik Hariri, was killed in a bombing in Beirut. Hassan was the driving force behind the arrest of former Michel Samaha, Lebanon's former information minister who had close ties to Syria, on charges of orchestrating attacks and assassinations of Sunnis in Lebanon. Many people suspect Samaha was taking orders from Assad, who sought to destabilize the region by fomenting sectarian violence in Lebanon.
Prime Minister Mikati Resigns
On March 22, 2013, Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned in protest over parliament's failure to agree on how to oversee upcoming elections. Mikati was also unhappy with the cabinet's refusal to consider extending the police chief's tenure. Tammam Salam was asked to form a government in April 2013. After 10 months of negotiations, Salam formed a cabinet represented equally by members of the pro-Syria, Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition and the Western-backed March 14th group headed by Saad Hariri. Salam assumed office as prime minister in Feb. 2014. Salam previously served as minister of culture from 2008 to 2009.
Civil War in Syria Spills over into Lebanon
In May 2013, Syria's civil war spilled into Lebanon, mainly due to Hezbollah's increased involvement. On May 25, 2013, Hezbollah and Syrian forces bombed the rebel-controlled town of Al-Qusayr in the Syrian province of Homs. Dozens were killed. The following day, multiple rockets hit Beirut, mainly striking Shiite suburbs, also strongholds of Hezbollah. The ban against arming the Syrian rebels was lifted by the European Union on May 27, 2013.
Fighting also erupted in Tripoli in late May 2013. The battles occurred between Sunnis and Alawites, allies of Hezbollah. The fighting between the two militias was so intense that schools and businesses in Tripoli were closed for a week. At least 24 people were killed. Sectarian violence broke out again in June when an armed, extremist Sunni group led by Sheikh Ahmed Assir attacked an army checkpoint in Sidon. Government troops, backed by Hezbollah, retaliated. About 35 people were killed in the fighting.
On May 31, 2013, Parliament voted to delay elections in Lebanon for at least 17 months, citing indecision over a new electoral law and the deteriorating security in the country as a result of the Syrian crisis spreading into Lebanon. Parliamentary elections were supposed to take place on June 16, 2013. It was the first time an election had been delayed since Lebanon's civil war ended in 1990. A national unity government was formed in Feb. 2014, ending 10 months of deadlock caused by a power struggle between blocks led by Hezbollah and Sunnis. Tammam Salam took office as prime minister. He cited improving security and dealing with Syrian refugees as his top priorities.
The European Union declared the military wing of Hezbollah a terrorist organization in July 2013. The move makes it illegal for Europeans to send money or arms to Hezbollah and freezes the assets held in European institutions by the group's members. The U.S. has long considered Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
A double suicide bombing outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut killed at least 23 people in November 2013. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an affiliate of Al Qaeda, takes responsibility for the attack, which is seen as retribution for Iran's support of Hezbollah and the Syrian government.
The former Lebanese finance minister and U.S. ambassador, Muhammad Shatah, was killed by a car bomb, along with seven others in Beirut in December 2013. Shatah was a leading Sunni and his death, coupled with the Syrian crisis, has served to exacerbate existing tensions within Lebanon's religous communities; about a third of the population are Sunni Muslim, a third Shia, and a third Christian.
By April 2014, more than 1 million Syrian refugees had entered Lebanon, exacting an economic burden on the country of 4 million.
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