In ancient times the area of Lebanon and Syria was occupied by the Canaanites, who founded the great Phoenician cities and later established a commercial maritime empire (see Phoenicia). Lebanon's cities as well as its forests and iron and copper mines (since exhausted) attracted the successive dominant powers in the Middle East. The Phoenician cities occupied a favored position in the Persian Empire and were conquered by Alexander the Great. The region came under Roman dominion starting in 64 BC (there are notable Roman ruins at Baalbek) and was Christianized before the Arab conquest in the 7th cent. By then the Maronites had established themselves—a cardinal fact in the history of Lebanon, which long remained predominantly Christian while Syria became Muslim. Later (11th cent.) the Druze settled in S Lebanon and in adjacent regions of Syria, and trouble between them and the Christians was to become a constant theme in regional history.
The Crusaders (see Crusades) were active in Lebanon (late 11th cent.) and were aided by the Lebanese Christians. After the Crusaders, Lebanon was loosely ruled by the Mamluks (c.1300). Invasions by Mongols and others contributed to the decline of trade until the reunification of the Middle East under the Ottoman Turks (early 16th cent.). Under Ottoman control, Lebanon had considerable autonomy, and powerful families ruled the country.
Many Western religious missions and businesses were established in the area in the 19th cent. Conflict among the religious communities, culminating in massacres of the Maronites by the Druze in 1860, led to intervention by France (1861), and the Ottoman sultan was forced to appoint a Christian governor for Lebanon. The French were given the mandate of Syria after World War I by the League of Nations; Lebanon was a part of that mandate.
The French, being Catholic, separated Lebanon (home of most of the Maronite Catholics) from Syria, thus creating a new state. There was much discontent and, among the Muslims, a desire for independence within a wider Arab state. In 1926 the mandate was given a republican constitution. A treaty with France in 1936 provided for independence after a three-year transition period, but it was not ratified by France. In World War II the French Vichy government controlled Lebanon until a British–Free French force conquered (June–July, 1941) the Lebanese coast. The Free French proclaimed Lebanon an independent republic. Elections were held in 1943, and, after considerable controversy, Lebanon became independent on Jan. 1, 1944.
In 1945, Lebanon became a member of the United Nations, and all British and French troops were evacuated by the end of 1946. As a member of the Arab League, Lebanon declared war on Israel in 1948 but took little part in the conflict. In 1952, after the election of Camille Chamoun as president, Lebanon formed closer ties with the West. In the spring of 1958, opposition to Chamoun's pro-Western policies and his acceptance of U.S. aid under the Eisenhower Doctrine erupted in rioting in Tripoli, Beirut, and elsewhere. The rioting grew into full-scale rebellion, and Chamoun called in U.S. forces (July, 1958). Gen. Fouad Chehab, a nonpolitical personality who had kept the army out of the civil strife, was elected to succeed Chamoun, and the rebellion ebbed. By autumn U.S. forces had left the country.
Lebanon subsequently steered a course closer to that of the other Arab nations. The secession of Syria (1961) from the United Arab Republic revived once again the rift between pro-Western and pan-Arab elements in Lebanon. In 1962 a military coup was attempted in Beirut but was crushed. Chehab was succeeded in 1964 by Charles Hélou; Suleiman Franjieh was elected president in 1970.
During the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Lebanon gave verbal support to the Arab effort against Israel but did not become involved in any military action. After that, however, Lebanon's position became increasingly difficult because of the activities against Israel of Palestinian terrorists based in Lebanon. Israel repeatedly accused Lebanon of not doing enough to control the terrorists, and in 1968 Israeli forces began a series of reprisals against Palestinian strongholds in Lebanon. In 1969 fighting broke out between the Lebanese army and the Palestinian commandos after the government had threatened to limit the latter's activity.
After the bloody suppression in 1970–71 of the guerrillas in Jordan, large numbers of Palestinians fled into S Lebanon and Beirut. Again in 1972 heavy fighting took place between the Lebanese army and the Palestinians. Anti-Israeli terrorist attacks continued into the 1970s, and Israel continued its attacks on Palestinian guerrilla bases in S Lebanon. Lebanon did not enter the Oct., 1973, Arab-Israeli War, nor did the Lebanese army interfere with Palestinian guerrillas operating in S Lebanon.
Lebanon became embroiled in civil war among the Christians, Muslims, and Palestinians from early 1975 to late 1976. At the request of Lebanon's president, Syrian forces entered Lebanon (Apr., 1976), halting Muslim and Palestinian advances. An estimated 50,000 Lebanese were killed and twice that number wounded. The country became devastated, the economy crippled, and tourism plummeted to a standstill. A cease-fire in Oct., 1976, proved unstable, and hostilities resumed full scale in 1977. In response to guerrilla attacks by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Israel occupied S Lebanon in Mar., 1978, but withdrew in June. This came with the installation of a UN peacekeeping force of 6,000, which was unable to effectively maintain control of Lebanese militia activity.
In 1981 fighting continued between Christian and Syrian forces, and Beirut was subjected to Israeli air raids in reprisal for PLO attacks. In June, 1982, Israeli forces invaded Lebanon, primarily to eliminate Palestinian guerrilla bases. Nearly 7,000 Palestinians were forced to leave Lebanon, which was accomplished under the supervision of a Multinational Force (MNF) comprised of U.S. and European-allied troops, who left immediately afterward. On Aug. 23, Bashir Gemayel (see under Gemayel, family) was elected president of Lebanon, but he was killed three weeks later by a bomb. In the wake of his death, Christian Phalangist forces entered the Palestinian refugee camps in Israeli-controlled areas and massacred some 1,000 civilians, provoking an international outcry.
Bashir Gemayel's brother, Amin, was elected president a few days later on Sept. 20. Another multinational force, of U.S. Marines and British, French, and Italian soldiers, returned to Lebanon to monitor the Lebanese militias. A U.S.-aided peace treaty, concluded with Amin Gemayel and Israel in May, 1983, called for the removal of foreign troops. Syria rejected the peace agreement, refusing to evacuate its holdings. As Israeli troops slowly left the Beirut and southern area, Lebanese militias fought among themselves in the wake of the Israeli withdrawal. In Apr., 1983, a terrorist bombing partially destroyed the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 50 people. On Oct. 23, 260 U.S. Marines and 60 French soldiers were killed by a truck bomb.
The multinational force left Lebanon in 1984. Israel completed its withdrawal in mid-1985 but left soldiers to work in conjunction with the Christian South Lebanese Army (SLA) to maintain a security (
buffer) zone. Palestinian action gradually resumed as PLO members and units returned to S Lebanon. Beirut remained a major battle area, and in Feb., 1987, Syrian troops moved into the city to suppress the warring factions. By this time, Iranian-supported Lebanese Shiite groups had become notorious for their holding of Western hostages. When Gemayel's term ended in 1988, it proved impossible to hold national elections and find a successor. A transitional military government was led by Gen. Michel Aoun, whose aim of ousting Syrian forces from Lebanon sparked new rounds of battles and bloodshed.
A tentative peace accord was reached between Christian and Muslim representatives, but Aoun complained that the peace accord failed to pressure the Syrians to withdraw. On Nov. 22, 1989, the newly elected Syrian-backed president, René Moawad, was assassinated; he was succeeded by Elias Hrawi. Revolts by Aoun in late 1989 and 1990 were put down with the help of Syrian forces, and Aoun was ousted from the country. In Nov., 1990, major rival Shiite Muslim groups signed an agreement to end their fighting.
In early 1991, Lebanese troops organized to regain control of the south from PLO guerrillas and Israelis who controlled a 6-mi (10-km) deep security zone. There were repeated and largely successful attempts to disband rival militias. A treaty (1991) of friendship and cooperation with Syria, which continued to have significant forces in Lebanon, essentially guaranteed Syrian domination of Lebanon's foreign relations. Meanwhile, beginning in the same year, Lebanon participated in peace talks with Israel, Syria, and a joint Palestinian–Jordanian delegation. International pressures on Lebanon eased with the release of the last U.S. and Western hostages in 1992.
By the mid-1990s, neither the Israeli nor the Syrian forces had quit the country, and clashes between Palestinian units and Israeli troops, as well as among the existing Lebanese militias, continued. Intense fighting erupted between Shiite Hezbollah (Party of God) guerrillas and Israel in S Lebanon in early 1996, as the guerrillas fired rockets into Israel and Israel retaliated with shelling and bombing. A tentative cease-fire was reached in late April; the episode generated a heavy flow of refugees from areas of S Lebanon. The many years of heavy fighting in Lebanon crippled the nation's infrastructure and economy, and devastated tourism, but a major rebuilding effort was undertaken in the 1990s.
In 1995, President Hrawi's term in office was extended by three years by a constitutional amendment. Gen. Emile Lahoud was elected president in 1998. Fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas erupted again in June, 1999, following an announcement by Israel's new prime minister, Ehud Barak, that he would withdraw Israeli troops stationed in S Lebanon within a year. In May, 2000, Israeli troops engaged in a gradual withdrawal from S Lebanon, turning over its position to its Lebanese Christian ally, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), but the SLA collapsed, leading Israel to accelerate its withdrawal, which was completed by late May.
The 2000 parliamentary elections brought the opposition back into power, and Rafik Hariri became prime minister; he had previously held the office from 1992 to 1998. President Lahoud's term was extended for three years by constitutional amendment in 2004 at the behest of Syria, which still had some 18,000 troops in Lebanon. The blatant meddling in Lebanese affairs caused a governmental crisis in Lebanon, eventually resulting in the resignation of Hariri's government and the appointment of Omar Karami as prime minister; Karami had served as prime minister from 1990 to 1992. The UN Security Council denounced foreign interference in Lebanese politics and demanded that all foreign forces leave Lebanon. Some Syrian forces were withdrawn or redeployed in the following months.
In Feb., 2005, Hariri was assassinated in a Beirut car bombing, provoking a rash of anti-Syrian demonstrations and leading to increased international pressure on Syria to withdraw, although Hezbollah rallied its supporters in defense of Syria. Syria subsequently agreed to withdraw all its troops, and did so by the end of April. The crisis also led Karami's government to resign (February), but the president subsequently asked Karami to form a new government, which he proved unable to do. In April, however, Najib Mikati, a pro-Syrian politician who was also responsive to some opposition demands, became prime minister and formed a new government.
Parliamentary elections in May–June resulted in a majority for the anti-Syrian coalition; Fouad Siniora, a former finance minister and an ally of Hariri, became prime minister. The new government moved, albeit cautiously, to reduce Syrian influence in the Lebanese security forces, and arrested several high-ranking security officials associated with the president as suspects in the assassination of Hariri. A UN investigation into the killing meanwhile implicated senior Lebanese and Syrian officials. By the end of 2005, however, a cabinet vote in favor of an international trial of the suspects in Hariri's murder provoked a split in the government, with Shiite ministers refusing to attend cabinet sessions; the boycott lasted until Feb., 2006.
The disarming of the Shiite Hezbollah militia, as demanded by the United Nations, slowed the resolution of the boycott, and the prime minister ultimately acknowledged the group as a
national resistance movement, but many in the government continued to support disarming Hezbollah. In July, 2006, Hezbollah forces captured two Israeli soldiers in fighting along the Israeli border, leading Israel to launch air attacks against targets in Beirut, Sidon, Tyre, and many other locales, place a blockade on Lebanon, and send troops into S Lebanon. Hezbollah respond largely by mounting rocket attacks against N Israel, including Haifa and Tiberias, but the its forces also offered resistance to Israeli troops, slowing their advance.
A UN-mediated cease-fire took effect in mid-August, and by the beginning of October Israel had essentially withdrawn from Lebanon and ended its blockade. As much as a fifth of the Lebanese population was displaced by the conflict, and Israeli attacks destroyed much of the country's infrastructure, a setback for the rebuilding that had occurred since the end of the civil war. Tourism and agriculture were among the sectors of the Lebanese economy most severely hurt by the fighting. Amnesty International accused both sides of war crimes in the fighting, mainly because of their attacks on civilians.
The Israeli pullout left Hezbollah in position to proclaim its resistance and survival a victory, and emboldened it to insist on a re-formation of the Lebanese government that would give it and its allies a much stronger political position. Hezbollah also continued to resist disarming, as called for by the UN Security Council, and neither were the captured Israeli soldiers released. At the same time, however, the Lebanese army was deployed, albeit not forcefully, throughout S Lebanon for the first time since the civil war; UN peacekeepers were also deployed there. Israel, for its part, continued its military overflights of Lebanon, also despite the UN Security Council.
The political stalemate over the role of Hezbollah and its allies in the government led it and Amal, the other Shiite party in the cabinet, to leave the government, giving the government an interim standing under the Ta'if accord (because Shiites were no longer represented in the cabinet). The move also stalled the government's approval of an international tribunal to prosecute Hariri's suspected killers. Hezbollah subsequently mounted demonstrations and strikes calling for the government's resignation, and their clashes between government and antigovernment partisans at times.
The situation continued unsettled and unresolved into 2007, despite talks in March. Assassinations of members of parliament, mainly those opposed to Syria, also continued, and in Dec., 2007, an army general was killed. In May–Sept., 2007, there was fierce fighting in a refugee camp near Tripoli between the Lebanese army and Palestinian guerrillas aligned with Syria; a bank robbery by the group provoked the clash. More than 200 people died in the fighting before the government took control of the camp. Also in May the United Nations approved an international tribunal to try suspects in the Hariri assassination; the tribunal first convened in Mar., 2009, but in April the four Lebanese officers who had been held since 2005 in connection with the case were released for lack of evidence. In Aug., 2010, Hezbollah asserted that it had evidence implicating Israel in the assassination; the accusation was apparently prompted by information that the tribunal had found indications that some Hezbollah members had been involved.
The political stalemate delayed the election of a successor to President Lahoud, who left office in Nov., 2007. Although the parties agreed on army chief Michel Suleiman as a presidential candidate by early 2008, disputes over the makeup of the government postponed his election by parliament until May, 2008. The May agreement that led to a new president and cabinet was negotiated in Doha, Qatar, and was finalized only after the government's attempt to ban Hezbollah's private telephone network led Hezbollah to attack its Lebanese opponents in Beirut and elsewhere. After a week of bloody fighting, the government rescinded its ban.
A new government, with Siniora as prime minister, was finally established in July, 2008; Hezbollah and its allies received enough cabinet seats to give them veto power over government decisions. In September, an agreement was signed to end sectarian fighting in Tripoli, which had sporadically continued there between Sunnis and Alawites since May. The following month, Syria formally established diplomatic relations with Lebanon for the first time; Syria's previous failure to do so had been seen as a rejection of Lebanese independence. Parliamentarly elections held in June, 2009, resulted in a victory for the pro-Western Sunni, Druze, and Maronite coalition, led by Hariri's son, Saad. Attempts to form a coalition government proved difficult. In September Saad Hariri stepped down as prime minister designate, but he was renamed to the post, and a national unity government that included Hezbollah and its allies was formed in November.
Syria's influence in the country was again evident in 2010, as Hariri traveled several times to Damascus and, in September, said that he had been wrong to blame Syria for his father's assassination. In Jan., 2011, as an indictment from the Hariri assassination tribunal prosecutors neared, Hezbollah called on Prime Minister Hariri to repudiate the tribunal, which was expected to accuse members of Hezbollah of involvement in the crime. When the prime minister refused, Hezbollah and its allies withdrew from the government, forcing negotiations to establish a new government; they supported former prime minister Mikati, who as prime minister designate sought to establish a unity government, but Hariri's coalition announced it would not join the government, which was finally formed in July. Later than month, the Hariri tribunal delivered confidential arrest warrants to the Lebanese state prosecutor; its indictment of four Hezbollah members was made public the following month, and that of a fifth member was revealed in Mar., 2012.
Lebanon was increasingly affected by the civil war in Syria as 2012 progressed. The conflict sparked sporadic violence between Lebanese Sunnis on the one hand and Alawites and Shiites on the other. Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees also fled to Lebanon, with some 340,000 there by Mar., 2013. In Oct., 2012, a senior intelligence official who had led the investigation into Hariri's assassination was himself killed by a car bomb; his death provoked antigovernment protests and violence between Sunnis and Shiites. In Mar., 2013, Mikati resigned as prime minister as a result of disagreements within the coalition over a number issues. In April, Tammam Salam was asked by the president to form a new government, but Mikati's caretaker government remained in office for almost a year as Salam was not able to form a national unity cabinet until Feb., 2014.
In May, 2013, the June parliamentary elections were postponed until late 2014 due to deadlock over electoral law changes and to the effects of the Syrian civil war. By mid-2013 Hezbollah was playing an open military role in Syria in support of its government; the spillover from the Syrian civil war led to increasing sectarian violence in Lebanon. In Aug., 2014, the Lebanese army fought with Islamist militants for control of a town on the Syrian border; militants also seized control of significant territory in the mountainous region bordering Syria. Subsequently, Lebanese forces have gradually regained control of much of the region. Lebanon also experienced an enormous influx of Syrian refugees, whose numbers exceeded 1 million by Oct., 2014, when the country began restricting entry from neighboring nations.
President Suleiman's term in office ended in May, 2014, without agreement among the political parties on a successor, a situation that continued into 2016. In Nov., 2014, the parliament voted to extend its members' terms until 2017. Former general Michel Aoun was elected president in Oct., 2016, in a deal that led to Hariri's appointment as prime minister in November and the establishment of a new unity government in December. In Apr., 2017, as the parliament moved to extend its term once again, the president suspended parliament for a month and opposed the further extension of members' terms.
In Nov., 2017, Hariri was detained in Saudi Arabia and resigned as prime minister under Saudi pressure; Hariri blamed a supposed Hezbollah plot against him for his move. Hariri rescinded his resignation when he finally returned to Lebanon. Long-delayed parliamentary elections were finally held in May, 2018, and Hezbollah and parties allied with it won a majority of the seats. Talks on forming a government continued into Jan., 2019, when a new unity government, again headed by Hariri, was formed.
Poor economic conditions and proposed new taxes to help reduce Lebanon's high debt level led in Oct., 2019, to widespread, ongoing antigovernment demonstrations, with clashes between rival political groups and violence between demonstrators and security forces at time. Hariri's government resigned, and talks to form a new government, and protests, continued into 2020. In January, a new government led by Hassan Diab, a political independent and former education minister, and consisting of technocrats took office; the cabinet was regarded as dominated by Hezbollah. The new government clashed with the central bank, and as the economic crisis worsened, Lebanon defaulted on its Eurobond debt in March and protests, often violent, recurred.
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