A Lebanese family scrambles across the border into Syria. The tragic lesson of Lebanon’s past is that history does repeat itself. The present war between Israel and Hezbollah is a replay of the 1982 Israeli invasion, and once again Lebanon will be the loser. Much has been written about the bloodletting in this tiny Middle East nation, but nearly always through the prism of superpower politics. With few exceptions, the media have explained the crisis mainly as a conflict between Israel and Hezbollah guerillas. But journalists gloss over the sad fact that Lebanon’s neighbours have chosen to fight in Lebanon’s back yard.

When the dust has settled, what will happen to Lebanon? Who is going to rebuild its bombed-out infrastructure? What will happen to the delicate demographic balance between Christians and Muslims? Will another vicious civil war break out? Israel is not the only nation whose existence is in the balance.

Beyond the tragedy of civilians caught in the cross-fire between Israel and Hezbollah lies the fundamental issue of national sovereignty. Lebanon is no stranger to foreign occupation. Its strategic location and commercial potential have lured surrounding giants from as far back as Xerxes and Alexander the Great. Over the last 2000 years Lebanon has been ruled by Romans, Byzantines, Muslim Arabs, Crusaders, Mameluks, Mongols, and Ottoman Turks. After the First World War Lebanon became part of the French mandate under the tutelage of the League of Nations. World War II saw it in the clutches of the Vichy regime, until it was liberated by Allied forces and obtained political independence on January 1, 1944.

The last three decades have been particularly turbulent. The civil war that broke out in April 1975 was closely linked to the Israeli-Arab conflict. Multitudes of Palestinians expelled from Jordan in 1970 fled to Lebanon, sharply augmenting the number of refugees who had earlier poured into the country during the previous Israeli-Arab wars. It became the new base of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), converting the country into a frequent target of Israeli gunfire.

The influx of Palestinians could hardly be absorbed by Lebanon’s fragile economy; it had no natural resources and relied largely on finance, trade and tourism. Moreover, there was a rapid demographic tilt away from the Christians and towards the Muslims. The growing Muslim community, reinforced by the Palestinian refugees, were poised to take control of the leadership and establish a confessional state. This, together with other factors, polarised Lebanon between Phalangists and other Christians and the leftists – a motley collection of Marxists, Arab nationalists, young Shiites, lay reformists and left-wing Christians — who joined forces with the Palestinians.

Until then, Lebanon had a model of harmony among its diverse religious, cultural and ethnic groups. It was famed as the Switzerland of the Middle East. Its diversity was – and still is — reflected in a unique system of government power sharing. Traditionally the president has been a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shi’ite Muslim. Christians and Muslims also have the same number of seats in the National Assembly.

But the conflict which began in 1975 opened up deep rifts. Peace was elusive, largely because Syria sent 40,000 troops to support the PLO cause and to counterbalance the presence of Israeli forces in Lebanon. Israel had formed the Southern Lebanese Army (SLA) as early as 1975. The crisis reached its climax when Israeli troops, after having occupied southern Lebanon briefly in 1978, launched an all-out invasion in 1982. It bombarded Beirut to deliver a knock-out blow to the Syrian-backed Feyadeen fighters and dismantle the PLO’s military infrastructure. It took another 18 years before Israel finally pulled its troops out of southern Lebanon after a 22-year occupation. Syria held on for five more years, until February 2005.

The erosion of Lebanese identity

The current unrest bodes ill for the socio-religious and cultural configuration of Lebanon. Today the country is roughly 70 per cent Muslim and 30 per cent Christian. This represents a steep decline for the Christians, who were in the majority the last time an official census was taken – in 1932. Each side is subdivided into multiple sects, among them the Druze. Christian political groups, mainly Maronites, want independence and closer ties with the West. But the Muslims see meaningful collaboration only with the surrounding Arab states.

At the moment, the future looks bleak for the Christians. Some 900,000 people fled the country during the civil war, most of them Christians. Few Christians returned when the conflict died down. The exodus of Christians has been compounded by increasing number of Muslims, thanks not just to Muslim births but also to the naturalisation en masse of Syrians and Palestinians (in 1994 the Lebanese Parliament naturalised some 300,000 people, mostly Syrian Muslims). When the Saudi-backed Rafik Hariri became Prime Minister in 2000, he acquired vast real-estate properties from Christians and filled up government posts with Muslims. Meanwhile, the Iran-sponsored Hezbollah openly declared their intent to create an Islamic state in Lebanon. The declining presence of Christians in Lebanon is hardly good news for Israel, for the ultimate result will be a hostile Muslim state on its northern border.

Challenges and prospects

The most urgent task for the international community is to impose a total ceasefire in the war zone with the help of a neutral multinational force. An integral part of the peace process is the withdrawal of all troops implicated in the war and the setting up of a mechanism to prevent further Hezbollah attacks. Even then much will remain to be done. Vast amounts of assistance will be needed to help the Lebanese clear up the debris and rebuild their infrastructure and economy.

Just as important is the need to rebuild the shredded fabric of Lebanese sovereignty and to restore its delicate social and political cohesion. Lebanon’s religious and ethnic pluralism is a treasure that has to be preserved and strengthened. It has always been regarded as a European bridge to the Arab world. If its 1,900-year-old Christian communities fail to weather the consequences of Israeli aggression and are submerged by a rising tide of Islam, the world will lose something far more precious than a resort for sun-baking European tourists. It will lose the the only example of a successful democratic society in which Christians and Muslims have managed to work together in fraternal harmony.

In 1989 Pope John Paul II convoked a special synod on the situation in Lebanon, in the midst of its tragic civil war. He said:

Greater mutual knowledge and engaging in a mutual dialogue for the greater service of man are indispensable conditions for freedom, peace and respect for the dignity of the pesron. This living and consented pluralism is a fundamental value which has presided over the history of Lebanon. This is the reason why the disappearance of Lebanon would be a dramatic loss for the cause of freedom itself… The disappearance of Lebanon, without any doubt, would be one of the great tragedies of the world. Safeguarding it is one of the most urgent and noble tasks which the world today must undertake.

Was anyone listening then? Is anyone listening now?

Dr Henry Bocala writes from Manila. His PhD thesis at
the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome dealt with diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel.