Ted Thornton
History of the Middle East Database
Civil War in Lebanon, 1975-1989

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General History of Lebanon and Syria Benchmarks in History of Israel     Benchmarks in History of Palestine

1975  In April, 1975, civil war erupted again in Lebanon (see also1958) when Maronite Christian members of the "Phalange" (Arabic:  Kata' ib) militia in Lebanon ambushed a bus carrying Palestinians from the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla (see below) to the Tel al-Zataar refugee camp (see massacre at Tel al-Zataar) killing 30 people. The attack was in retaliation for an earlier attack in which Palestinians had fired upon Kata' ib leader Pierre Gemayel. The lethal ambush triggered a conflict between the Kata'ib and the PLO which soon widened into general warfare between various Lebanese militias. The Cabinet resigned as fighting between Christians on the one side, and the Palestinian-Muslim militia alliance on the other escalated. Thus began Lebanon's second civil war (go to the first one in 1958). Lebanon's Christians had grown steadily uneasy with challenges to their political supremacy (based on the 1943 National Pact) coming from Lebanon's Sunni, Shia, and Druze populations.  The presence of the PLO in Beirut since "Black September," 1970 added an additional destabilizing factor to the already volatile mix.  The war ended fifteen years later with a pact signed at Taif, Saudi Arabia.  However, the central problems that contributed to the war in the first place - Lebanon's constitutional structure based on confessionalism along with ambiguities in its relationship with Syria - while partially addressed at Taif remained essentially unsolved, and some saw them rearing their ugly heads once more in the war of the summer of 2006.


Syria enters the conflict (1976)

Tel el-Zattar (1976)

Druze attack (1977)

Israel invades (1978)

Israeli reprisals (spring, 1981)

Ceasefire (July, 1981)

End ceasefire (April, 1982)

Christian militia involvement in Hama, Syria (1982)

Israel invades (June, 1982)   (Planning for the invasion began in January, 1982)

Origins Hizbullah (1982)

Bashir Gemayel is assassinated and Israelis occupy Beirut (September, 1982)

Massacres at Sabra and Shatilla (Sept., 1982)

Seeds of Intifada (1983)

U.S. embassy bombed (April, 1983)

Israeli-Lebanese Armistice (May 17, 1983)

Shia-Christian fighting and U.S. intervention (summer, fall, 1983)

From Kerr assassination through Marine barracks bombing (1984)

Israeli pullback (1985)

Fighting (spring, 1985)

Shia-PLO conflict (1987)

General Aoun appointed (Sept., 1988)

Druze shelling of Beirut (1989)

Christian-Muslim fighting (August, 1989)

Ceasefire (September 22, 1989)

Taif Accord (October 1,1989).

1976   Elias Sarkis, a moderate Christian, was elected president in Lebanon succeeding President Franjiyah. In March, Lebanese Christian militia leader Major Saad Haddad formed his South Lebanese Army (SLA) which forged ties with Israel

In July, 1976, the Syrian army entered Lebanon and imposed a ceasefire. Syria got involved initially to protect Christians from defeat at the hands of the Muslims. President Asad of Syria had been duped by Henry Kissinger and the Israelis into believing that if he, Asad, did not enter the war to rein in the PLO and the Muslims, then Israel would have to go in and do the job itself, a prospect Asad found terrifying. Kissinger played skillfully on Asad's fears and succeeded in dividing the Arabs further to the benefit of Israel (Patrick Seale, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East (Berkeley: U. Cal. Press, 1988), chps. 13-17).

In August of 1976, Lebanese Christian Phalangist forces, using Israeli arms and equipment still bearing Israeli insignias,  massacred thousands of Palestinian refugees living in the Tel al-Zataar camp.

1977  In March, 1977, Druze forces in Lebanon overran Christian villages after the assassination of Druze leader Kamal Jumblat.

1978   In March, Israel attacked PLO positions in south Lebanon in retaliation for the killing of more than thirty bus passengers in a raid by PLO guerillas who had come ashore in boats near Tel Aviv. On March 15, 1978, Israel moved in as far as the Litani River and occupied a ten kilometer (six mile) wide corridor north of its border with Lebanon. About 1,500 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians were killed in the operation. Some Israeli forces were withdrawn, but not before the area was handed over to Israeli allied Christian militiamen opposed to the Palestinians and to other Arab Muslim Lebanese. The Christian militiamen were commanded by Major Saad Haddad. The United Nations issued Resolution 425 ordering Israel out of south Lebanon. Israel refused (and would stay there until the spring of 2000). The U.N. set up UNIFIL, a 5,000 man peacekeeping force which was designed to help restore Lebanese government control over its lands all the way to the Israeli border. Israel refused to allow it to reach the border. Meanwhile, Syrian-Christian fighting broke out in Beirut.

1981  On May 9, Israel bombed and strafed villages along the Lebanese coast. The PLO fired 100 rounds of artillery and rockets into northern Israel in retaliation.  In July, U.S. envoy, Philip Habib, arranged a ceasefire between Israel and the PLO.

1982  On April 21, 1982, in south Lebanon, an Israeli soldier was killed by a land mine in the buffer zone. Israel retaliated with artillery shelling breaking the ceasefire.

After the Hama uprising, President Hafez al-Asad produced proof (in the form of confiscated equipment and weapons) of American, Israeli, Jordanian, and Lebanese Christian armed support to the militants. Only Jordan would later acknowledge its role in this attempt to undermine Syria.

On May 9, 1982, Israel bombed and strafed villages along the coast of Lebanon. The PLO fired 100 rounds of artillery and rockets into northern Israel in retaliation. On June 3, 1982, Israel's ambassador to the United Kingdom, Shlomo Argov, was shot and seriously wounded by assailants suspected by some outside the Israeli government to be either Iraqi agents or members of the Abu Nidal organization (Patrick Seale argues in his 1992 book on Abu Nidal that Abu Nidal's group had been penetrated and, at least in part, turned by the Israeli Secret Service, Mossad, and that the shooting was orchestrated to give Israel an excuse to go into Lebanon). The PLO denied involvement, a claim Israel rejected. In spite of the fact that the ceasefire between the PLO and the Israelis, organized by President Reagan's envoy, Philip Habib had been adhered to completely by the PLO, Israel used the shooting as the pretext on June 6 for a massive invasion of Lebanon ("Operation Peace for Galilee") by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Israel announced  its intention to oust the PLO from Lebanon, and to create a 25 mile "sanitary cordon" to protect its northern settlements. By mid July, more than 100,000 IDF troops were in Lebanon and Beirut was under siege. In the south, the Israelis dug in.

A few days later, Iran, with the blessings of Syria, dispatched one thousand revolutionary guards, or Pasdaran, to the town of Zebdani in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. They joined forces with Hussein Musawi, a breakaway commander from Nabih Berri's Shiite Amal forces. Within a few months, Musawi's group along with others, including the amorphous Islamic Jihad ("holy war") based in the Baalbek region formed a loose merger within an umbrella party with pro-Iranian leanings called Hizbullah ("Party of God"). Another pro-Iranian  Shiite cleric providing spiritual guidance within Hizbullah was Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.

Coordinating Iranian support for these groups was the Iranian diplomat Hossein Sheikholeslam, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley who first gained prominence for engineering the takeover of the United States embassy in Tehran holding 63 American diplomats and other personnel hostage for 444 days.

The invasion of Lebanon had, in fact, long been planned by Israeli Prime Minister Begin as a way of neutralizing Syrian and PLO opposition to Israel's plans to annex the Golan Heights and "Samaria and Judea", as well as Israel's hope to gain control of water rights to the Litani River (more on the struggle for water in the Middle East), and her aim to set up a pliant Christian government in Lebanon.  The Israelis had begun actively planning the 1982 invasion with Lebanese Christian leader Bashir Gemayel, son of Pierre Gemayel, in January of that year. Bashir's ambitions for his country matched Israel's aims: ridding Lebanon of both the Syrians and the PLO.

On August 21, as a result of the diplomatic mediation of U.S. envoy, Philip Habib, the PLO began the evacuation of its troops from Beirut and headed for Tunis.

On September 1, as the last PLO guerrillas were shipping out of Beirut, American President Reagan announced his "Reagan Plan" for solving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

On September 14, 1982, Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel was killed in a bomb explosion just one week before he was due to be sworn in. His brother, Amin, was elected president in his place (both were sons of Phalange founder Pierre Gemayel). The Israeli Defense Forces under the command of Ariel Sharon moved into Beirut and occupied the city.  On Thursday, September 16, 1982, Lebanese Christian Phalangist troops, with the IDF looking on from surrounding rooftops, entered the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla in Beirut and, bent on avenging Bashir Gemayel's killing, began massacring the residents. The killing continued until Saturday morning. At least 700 - 800 were killed, with some estimates ranging up to 2,000. Years later (in 2001), there was pressure to charge Ariel Sharon as a war criminal for doing nothing to try to stop the massacres (see also Kahan Commission report below).

1983  On February 10, Israeli "Peace Now" activist Emil Grunzweig, 33, was killed by a grenade thrown by a fanatical supporter of Menachem Begin during a demonstration against the war in Lebanon. Six years later, Israeli political observers would look back on this incident as a turning point: the time when Israel came to the brink, looked hard at its internal divisiveness, and chose to retreat into a haze of psychological denial, i.e. "We have no problems in this country, everything is fine, we're okay, everything's "all right," beseder ).

Many saw the roots of the first (1987) Palestinian Intifada ("uprising") in the events of  February 10, 1983: in Begin's failure to impose his terms on Lebanon. Two days prior to Grunzweig's death, the Kahan Commission, an investigative body appointed by the Israeli government, had issued its report indicating there was no evidence of a conspiracy on the part of Ariel Sharon or the IDF in connection with the massacres at Sabra and Shatilla. However, the commission found Sharon indirectly responsible for the massacres for failing to foresee their likelihood. 

On April 18, 1983, a suicide bomber blew up a van killing 63 people at the United States embassy in Beirut. By the fall, Israeli troops had pulled back to the Awali River.

On May 17, 1983, Israel and Lebanon signed an armistice that fell short of a full peace treaty.  In March, 1984, with the approval of Syria's President Asad, Lebanon pulled out of the pact. 

At the end of August, 1983, fierce fighting broke out between the Lebanese Shiite Amal ("Hope") militia and the Christian militia in West Beirut after Shia, while putting up posters of their "vanished Imam," Musa al-Sadr (see also), were fired upon by gunmen assumed to be Christian militiamen passing by in a car. The Lebanese army gained control of the heart of West Beirut after four days, but not over the seventeen square mile Shia district in the southern suburbs.

On September 4, 1983, the Israelis pulled back from positions in the Chouf Mountains. Without the Israeli presence there as a buffer, fighting broke out between Druze and Christian militia members.

On September 19, 1983, U.S. warships began shelling Druze positions in the Chouf  Mountains outside Beirut, and Syrian and Palestinian positions elsewhere in the vicinity in support of the Christian Phalangists. The battleship New Jersey with its 2,700 pound shells ("flying Volkswagens") participated in the action.

Initially, support for the American military presence in Lebanon had been strong among Shiite and other Muslim militias who had hope that the United States would bring stability back to their troubled country. That support went up in smoke after August 28. The United States was no longer viewed as a neutral force, but, one allied with Lebanese Christian forces.

On October 16, 1983, during the Shiite Ashura festival in Nabitiyeh, Lebanon (marking the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein at Karbala thirteen centuries earlier) an Israeli convoy provoked a violent reaction by insisting on traveling through the middle of a crowd of 50,000 Shiite worshippers. Two Shiites were killed and fifteen wounded in the fracas.

On October 23, 1983, the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon was blown up by a suicide bomber driving a truck loaded with explosives. 241 Marines died. Twenty seconds after the barracks bombing and four miles away another bomb exploded in a building housing French Multi-National Force paratroopers. 58 soldiers were killed. Talks among Lebanese factions began in Geneva but adjourned without resolution. (see also embassy bombings 1983, 1984)

Ten days later, another truck bomb blew up the headquarters in Tyre, Lebanon of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) killing 29 Israeli troops and more than thirty Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners. Many observers believed this bombing was in retaliation for the Ashura incident in Nabitiyeh nineteen days earlier.

1984  On January 18, Malcolm Kerr, president of the American University of Beirut was assassinated by individuals claiming to belong to Islamic Jihad. On February 7, President Reagan ordered the withdrawal of Marine forces from Lebanon.

Druze and Shiite militiamen seized control of West Beirut from army units loyal to President Gemayel. By the end of the month, U.S., French, and Italian peacekeeping troops had departed West Beirut.

Kidnappings of American and European citizens living in Lebanon filled the following months. Posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini went up all over West Beirut.

On September 20, 1984, the U.S. embassy in Beirut, Lebanon suffered another suicide car bomb attack (first one April 18, 1983, Marine barracks bombing, Oct. 1983). Fourteen were killed including two Americans. Ambassador Bartholomew was buried in the rubble of his office and had to be dug out. He was hospitalized with minor injuries. Islamic Jihad took credit for the bombing. With the American presidential elections only six weeks away, the Reagan administration, fearing the political fallout, closed the embassy. The ambassador was evacuated to Paris. Only six U.S. diplomats remained behind in Lebanon. The American withdrawal from Lebanon was interpreted by some as showing that the suicide bomber could render dramatic dividends in resistance movements pitting poorly staffed and armed guerilla groups against a big power.  (more, more, more.  See also interview with a suicide bomber.  See also Op-Ed piece by Robert A. Pape, "Blowing Up an Assumption," New York Times, May 18, 2005, A29.)

1985  In February, Israel, stung by hostile world reaction to its policies in Lebanon, pulled out of most of southern Lebanon setting up a 15 km (nine mile) wide occupation zone in an effort to stop attacks across its border. The continuing Israeli presence created the opposite effect: attacks increased,  carried out now, not by PLO guerillas but, by Shiite members of the Iranian backed group Hizbullah (Party of God). Israeli raids on Shiite villages failed to stem counter-attacks.

Based on their experience in Lebanon, Israelis began to face the painful fact that Arab terrorism and guerilla warfare could be waged successfully against them, a fact that was not lost on Palestinians resisting Israeli occupation on the West Bank and in Gaza.

On March 8, 1985, a Lebanese intelligence unit trained and supported by the CIA exploded a car bomb in West Beirut in front of the apartment building where Shiite cleric Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah was living  killing 80 and wounding 200. Hundreds more died in Shiite-Palestinian fighting in Beirut camps and in shelling and car-bomb attacks in the spring and summer.

Also during the summer of 1985, militant Shiites hijacked a TWA airliner as it climbed out of Athens, and held 39 hostages in Beirut, Lebanon.

In mid July, Israel bombed and strafed Palestinian camps near Tripoli, Lebanon killing 20.

Hundreds more died in Shiite Palestinian fighting in Beirut camps and in shelling and car bomb attacks in the spring and summer.

1987  Fighting raged between Shiite militiamen and Palestinians in refugee camps in Lebanon. Shiites succeeded in blockading some of the camps preventing food, medicine, and U.N. relief trucks from entering. Reports of starvation and widespread disease began to circulate. At one point, Muslims in the camps obtained from their sheikhs (clergy) an Islamic fatwa ("ruling") granting permission to consume dog and cat flesh.

1988  In September, 1988, Lebanese Christian president Amin Gemayel appointed Christian General Michel Aoun caretaker chief of state until elections could be held. But, a rival faction led by Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss emerged. Aoun commanded the Lebanese army and had resolved to expel Syrian forces from Lebanon.  

1989  In Lebanon on March 14, 1989, following severe shelling of East Beirut by Druze and Muslim forces backed up by the Syrians, Christian General Aoun declared, "The battle for liberating the land from the Syrians has begun." Syria had 40,000 troops stationed in Lebanon. On March 24, General Michel Aoun rejected a truce with Syrian and Druze fighters saying he would settle for nothing less than a complete Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. On April 15, he went one step further and called on all Lebanese to attack Syrian interests throughout the world.

In August, 1989, Beirut exploded in another round of violent shelling between Christian Maronites under General Michel Aoun and Muslim militia. General Aoun was supplied and armed by Iraq, which, since the end of its eight year war with Iran in 1988, had sought to punish Syria for supporting Iran and for refusing the Iraqis right of way for an oil pipeline through Syrian territory to the Mediterranean Sea after the Persian Gulf had been blockaded. Iraq and Syria had long been rivals in the quest to control regional affairs. Lebanese Muslims, on the other hand were being supplied by Syria, and the  Shiite Hizbullah faction ("Party of God") was being sponsored by Iran. Iraq had been joined by Jordan and Egypt (in lower levels of support) on the side of the Christians. Iraq and Syria, then, were in a sense using the militias to fight a proxy war. In August, Beirut began to look like a ghost town as thousands finally gave up and fled the country by sea to Cyprus.

On September 22, 1989, fighting stopped in Lebanon after General Aoun accepted an Arab League ceasefire plan (which Muslims and Syrians had agreed to previously). Under the conditions of the plan, the Lebanese Parliament was to meet and draw up a plan for national reconciliation. This was to be followed by presidential elections. Since the previous March when General Aoun declared "war" on Syria, 835 had been killed, more than 4,000 had been wounded, and more than two thirds of Beirut's population of 1.5 million had fled the city.

On October 1, 1989, the 62 deputies in the Lebanese parliament began deliberations in Taif, Saudi Arabia with the aim of agreeing upon a new charter to replace the unwritten "constitution" of 1943. Thirty-one of the deputies were Christians representing the four main sects in Lebanon: Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and Armenian. Thirty-one other deputies were Muslim: Sunni, Shiite, and Druze. By October 15, they were close to an agreement which mandated a shift in the balance of power away from Christian domination and toward increased Muslim power, along with recognition of Syria's right to maintain influence in Lebanon. The biggest losers were Christian Gen. Aoun and the Maronites. Specifically, power was transferred away from the President (Maronite Christian) to the Prime Minister (Sunni Muslim) and the Chairman of the National Assembly (Shia Muslim).   Executive power was to be wielded by the Council of Ministers and their portfolios were to be divided equally between Christians and Muslims.  The number of seats in the National Assembly was to increase from 99 to 128 and be divided equally among Christian and Muslim deputies.  The Taif Agreement was officially incorporated into the Constitution of Lebanon in August of 1990. While sporadic fighting continued until October, 1990 as Christian General Michel Aoun tried in vain to expel Syrian forces from the country, Taif marked the real end of the fifteen year civil war in Lebanon that had begun in 1975. (See excerpts from the "National Reconciliation Accord" (the official name for the Taif Accords) and the "Treaty of Cooperation," which permitted Syrian troops to remain in Lebanon (both at MidEast Web).

One lingering problem that Taif did not resolve was precisely what role Syria would play in the future affairs of Lebanon. Syrian nationalists had always considered Lebanon to be part of "Greater Syria": they had opposed the French decision to create Lebanon by carving it away from what Arabs since Muhammad's time at least had regarded as a sector within a greater entity, a "divide-and-conquer" tactic on the part of the French (Arabs called "Greater Syria" bilad al-Sham - "country of the north" or "...left" - an area comprising Syria, Lebanon, geographical Palestine (i.e. including Israel), Jordan, Hatay Province in Turkey, Kuwait, and parts of Iraq). The civil war and Syria's military role in it only reinforced Syria's sense that it had high stakes in Lebanon and needed to stay involved in a concrete way. The final clause of the Taif Agreement, therefore, emphasized the "special relationship that derives its strength from the roots of blood relationships, history, and joint fraternal interests" making it clear to everyone that Syria was in Lebanon for the long term. This would become an issue for the United States in 2005. Another problem with Taif was that it left Israel occupying a portion of southern Lebanon and Hizbullah still armed. These stresses, along with the failure of Taif to resolve completely the problems created by Lebanon's confessional constitutional makeup contributed to the summer 2006 war.

On November 5, 1989, Maronite Christian Rene Mouwad was elected president of Lebanon by the parliament. Acting president General Michel Aoun, a Christian, rejected the election as illegal. On November 22, Mouwad was assassinated in a car bomb attack in Beirut. A few days later, parliament elected Elias Hrawi, also a Christian, president. He delivered an ultimatum to Aoun to surrender the presidential palace where he had been holed up in a bunker throughout most of the fall. Aoun refused, setting the stage for further fighting between Syrian forces and Aoun's own militia. In early December, Syrian tanks and troops began taking up new positions in Beirut near the presidential palace. France sent warships which remain poised off the coast ready to "rescue French civilians" but mostly as a warning to Syria not to move against Christian positions.  Aoun was given aid by Iraq's Saddam Hussein who sought ways to weaken his rival Hafez al-Asad of Syria.  The fighting dragged on until October, 1990 when Aoun was driven into exile in France. In 2005, following the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, Aoun returned home to Lebanon. 

General History of Lebanon and Syria Benchmarks in History of Israel     Benchmarks in History of Palestine


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Last Revised: April 29, 2008