Throughout the years, Lebanon’s demographics have experienced periodic influx. But particularly in the last two years, the demographic shift has been so overwhelming due to the flood of Syrian refugees in desperate need for shelter. The situation is highly charged, if not perilous, considering Lebanon’s unmanageable sectarian balances, let alone the direct involvement of Lebanese parties in the brutal Syrian war. If not treated with utter sensitivity and political wisdom, Lebanon’s vastly changing demographics will not bode well in a country of exceedingly fractious sectarian politics.
The numbers speak for themselves. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 790,000 Syrian refugees have crossed into Lebanon since the beginning of the conflict. The number is constantly increasing, as an estimated 75,000 make the difficult journey from Syria to Lebanon every month. Those refugees also include tens of thousands of Palestinians that have borne the brunt of the war in the last two years.
In addition to approximately 250,000 Syrians working and living in Lebanon, the country already hosts hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who were driven out of Palestine in several waves, starting with the Nakba, or Catastrophe in 1947-48. While the refugees were initially welcomed by their host country – as Syrians were initially welcomed in Lebanon – they eventually became a party in Lebanon’s war of numbers, as each sect was terrified by the prospect of losing political ground to their rivals. It was only a matter of time before the Palestinian presence in Lebanon became heavily politicized, thus thrusting Palestinian factions into the heart of Lebanon’s sectarian brawl. The weakened and fragmented Lebanon was an easy prey for Israel, which has jumped at every opportunity to invade the small country, leaving behind a trail of blood and destruction. And with every Israeli military onslaught came an attempt at rearranging the power paradigm in favor of Tel Aviv’s allies at the expense of the rest.
This bloody legacy is making a comeback due to the sectarian nature of the Syrian war, and Israelis are already on the lookout for a possible future role. Aside from the flood of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, legions of Lebanese fighters from Hezbollah and other groups are fully engaged in the Syrian strife based on clear sectarian lines. Eventually, the fight crossed over into Syrian borders and made it into Lebanon in the form of cars bombs, mortar shells, hostage taking and occasional street fighting. If tension continues to build up, there is little question that Lebanon will become embroiled in its own civil war.
All of this is, of course, welcome news in Israel, which prefers to wait until the warring parties exhaust each other in every way before Israel decides the time and place of the new confrontation. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was quoted in the Jerusalem Post on October 24 saying that a civil war between Hezbollah and ‘Global Jihad’ had erupted in Lebanon. “To those who are not yet aware, there is already a civil war in Lebanon. Global Jihad, which has infiltrated Lebanon and is attacking Hezbollah, is blowing up car bombs in Dahia and is firing rockets at Dahia and the Beka’a Valley,” he said.
This is a win-win situation for Israel, which continues to navigate the Syrian war so very carefully, so that it is not directly involved in the war, but ready to deal with its consequences whenever suitable.
History is of the essence here. The Israeli attitude towards the war in Syria and the fledgling civil war in Lebanon is similar to its attitude towards Lebanon a few decades ago in the lead up to the Israeli invasion of 1978 and again in 1982, mostly aimed at destroying the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Lebanon’s political and social upheaval dates back to the pre-existence of both the PLO and Israel, to the years of French colonialism in the Middle East. In 1920, France separated Lebanon from greater Syria, which was under French mandate. The country was then run by various Christian sects who represented a slight majority according to a 1932 consensus.
When Lebanon became completely independent in 1945, a political arrangement on how to run the country was reached. Christian Maronites were given the seat of presidency, Sunnis the premiership, and a Shiite was installed as the speaker of parliament. Other sects received less consequential positions, but the parliament control ratio still favored Christian sects.
The PLO’s arrival to Lebanon in the early 1970’s – following its departure from Jordan – worsened an already difficult situation. The PLO represented Palestinians who were largely Sunni Muslims, and its existence and growth in Lebanon complicated the extremely delicate demographic balance.
The fiasco in Lebanon, however, was not a simple tit-for-tat action, but reflected internal and external balances and calculations. On one hand, the ruling Maronite leadership was greatly challenged by the presence of the PLO and the alliance between the latter and Lebanese opposition groups. The routine Israeli raids on Lebanese territories undermined the Lebanese army’s role as a protector of the country. Israel was determined to eradicate the “terror infrastructure” in Lebanon; i.e., PLO factions, thus using the civil war as an opportunity to intervene in 1976 by arming Christian militias. Additionally, Syria, who also intervened in 1976, did so first on behalf of the Palestinians, then on behalf of the Maronites, when it appeared that they were losing the fight.
A brief lull in the fighting in 1976, was soon interrupted by violence that engulfed Lebanon for nearly 15 years. In 1978, Israel occupied South Lebanon, driving away thousands of PLO fighters from the area, whose arrival to Beirut had shifted the balance of power, altering the alliances, and, once again Syria’s position. Tens of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian civilian casualties, however, paid the heavy price of the fighting.
The PLO remained in Lebanon until the Israeli invasion of the country in the summer of 1982. Ultimately, the civil war achieved little for the warring parties except that it fit perfectly into Israel’s strategic goal of removing the PLO from South Lebanon, and eventually the country altogether. When Israeli forces finally occupied Lebanon in 1982, as PLO fighters were being shipped by sea to many countries around the Middle East, a triumphant Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon permitted his Christian Phalangist allies to carry out a notorious massacre in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps.
Yes, the circumstances are not exactly identical, and history cannot repeat itself in a carbon copy fashion. But these historical lessons should not escape us as we watch Lebanon descend into another abyss. Judging by the brutality of the Syrian war, Lebanon’s own bloody history, and Israel’s familiar military tactics, another Lebanese war is very much possible. Such a war will revive old animosities and establish new military alliances, but as always the most vulnerable will pay the price as they already have in Syria’s unending bloodbath.